The only electronic music available to many in the first half of the 20th century was to be found on the shortwave band. To some the modulating, phasing, pulsing and distorted sound of shortwave was simply unwanted noise, but a few recognised that the ‘noise’ was in itself a kind of music. The exotic otherness of such interference was added to by the voices in foreign tongues, together with music that even the most intrepid of collectors would never find. Then there were the unidentified utterances, lists of numbers, calls to prayer or declamations by preachers spirited into the air for who knows what if any intended audience. A listener could dial through the same band over and over and each time find something different, even fractions of an inch of rotation of a dial around a busy node could bring several different mixes in and out of play. A shortwave radio provided invaluable hand ear training for any future sound artist.
Given the sonic possibilities of shortwave radio it was taken up by both the heroic figures of the avant-garde such as Stockhausen, Cage and bands including the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk and Can. In avant-garde or experimental contexts shortwave sounds were treated as an instrument in its own right whilst for more popular music contexts it is nearly always an addition to the mix.
In Can it was Holger Czukay who was the shortwave man, recording hours of it late into the night onto Dictaphone tapes. There is a certain circularity here as Czukay in the 1960s was a student of Stockhausen and it was supposedly hearing “I am the Walrus by the Beatles” with its AM dial surfing towards the end of the song (itself a nod towards Stockhausen) that inspired an interest in Czukay for the possibilities of popular music with him becoming a founder member of Can a year later.
Czukay’s shortwave tour de force was Movies released in 1979 with its loose structure built around steady percussive patterns provided by Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit over which are collaged painstakingly edited shortwave recordings. Persian harmonies and snatches of trumpets drift in an out colliding with voices and unexplained crashes and bangs. Woven around this Czukay adds a further layer of instrumentation including keyboards and double speed guitar (which then sounds positively Highlife). It is a tour de force and the template of a rhythm groove over which radio or other ‘found sound’ samples are overlaid would be employed not only for Eno and Byrne’s My Life in The bush of Ghosts which followed a couple of years later in 1981, but the use of sampling in general in popular music.
In this context it may be useful to distinguish three distinct sources:
1. Sounds recorded directly from the radio and/or live radio broadcasts.
2. Found sound usually from tape or record – this may include spoken word such as say an instruction or information record, and non-mainstream musical recordings. This latter category could encompass music by folk or indigenous artists, or simply artists that are out of fashion and/or from a different era.
3. Voices and instruments treated in a way that to some degree emulates what happens through the broadcasting process.
Though distinct in their origins and sociocultural what have you the first two categories have often been used interchangeably or combined. Think "nineteen" by Paul Hardcastle, or M|A|R|R|S’s "Pump Up The Volume", and possibly the epitome Eric B. & Rakim’s "Paid in Full" We are talking here of the Coldcut remix of "Paid In Full". British duo Coldcut would have known all about Czukay, and their remix owes so much to spirit of Movies that royalties should have been paid to Czukay along with all of the other snippets that no doubt had to eventually be reimbursed. "Paid In Full" uses little if anything recorded from the radio but the samples share the same audio quality and sense of displacement. So whereas Czukay takes snippets of Persian singing from the shortwave Coldcut use a recording of Israeli singer Ofra Haza treated to sound as if broadcast. Where Movies contains what sound like extracts from a radio or TV drama Coldcut take lines from Humphrey and The Big Sleep. The opening line “This is a journey into sound!" is the voice of British actor Geoffrey Sumner from a stereo demonstration record, and so on.
The essential difference between Czukay and Coldcut is less the source of the samples but that whereas Czukay weaves his radio samples in and around the (hand played) beat, and then adds instrumentation to further intertwine with the samples, in contrast Coldcut are bang on the drum machine beat. Everything becomes sublimated and slave to the drum track even Eric B. & Rakim become samples on their own records - something which perhaps encouraged their initial dislike of the remix. In this context the samples state and self declare their otherness, there is an element of “heh listen to this weird shit I found” – how quaint and old fashioned Geoffrey Sumner “This is a journey into sound!" sounds, how exotic Ofra Haza is, and heh Bogey’s still got it. This the beginning of sampling less as celebration and more as cultural appropriation, reaching a bastardised popularity in the work of artists such as Moby. But lets not be too damming it is an easy line to crossover.
Moving on to the third category - voices and instruments treated in a way that to some degree emulates what happens when broadcast. There is some crossover here with existing recordings manipulated to make them sound shortwave, but there is a whole further class which is the production of sounds from scratch that emulate shortwave radio. 1970s Hawkwind come to mind with Dik Mik and Del Dettmar using a combination of VCS3 and tone generators to generate a wash of bleeps and bloops combined with rising and falling frequencies that sounded like (barely) controlled shortwave as one was transported to the further reaches of inner and outer consciousness (see Space Ritual).
A more specialist form of shortwave generation is to be found with Kraftwerk. A cursory listen to their 1975 album Radio-Activity suggests that it combines classic and characteristic shortwave static and noises with vocals and simple melodies that could be radio station idents or call signals. Except that unlike Czukay’s Dictaphone recordings it is entirely manufactured, with the shortwave sounds being created in the Kling Klang studio using synthesizers, and the ethereal voices and strings coming from the newly acquired Vako Orchestron (a form of optical disk Mellotron), and the vocals being processed through a vocoder. On close examination it seems there is possibly no radioactivity on Radio-Activity.
As always Kraftwerk are tight lipped about their compositional choices, but there is a continuity of logic from the synthesized cars on Autobhan, the synthetic ‘natural’ sounds on Morgenspaziergang, and then the artifice of Radio-Activity. It is as if Kraftwerk listened to shortwave, analysed the atoms of musicality before re-imagining them in the studio. Conceptually it is a very clear statement, and eliminates chance and replaces it with determination.
So where does my own practice fit into all this? Not surprisingly I was drawn to the sounds of the radio and in the mid 1970s mixed it into a few nascent experimental tape pieces, subsequently snatches of phone-in programmes, and various ring modulated voices are to be found on the 1980 release Table Matters EP. This mirrored the way that shortwave and samples were often used in the post-punk DIY industrial context which is to add a dystopian je ne sais quoi. Throbbing Gristle were the masters of this combination of noise and found sound, but by the early 1980s when combined with photocopied sleeve art depicting bondage, mutilation or some other horror art is soon became gratuitous. The Storm Bugs track "Hodge" recorded in 1979 employs a different approach. On one of the radio bands at the time was a particularly thick and ominous drone. Legend had it (and I don’t recall where this information came from) that it was a blocking or jamming signal coming from somewhere behind the iron curtain designed to obliterate or make unlistenable stations such as Radio Free Europe. It may have been something else entirely as I recorded the drone on a little cassette radio in Deptford in the halls of residence, which was a short distance away from Deptford power station. So it may have been some kind of electrical generator signal.
Whatever the truth it was a ferocious roaring wave which was given shape in "Hodge" not by placing it over a beat but by feeding it through a VCS3 and using a combination of the self triggering envelope, and ring modulator to chop up the drone into various overlaid rhythmical pulses. It is a very simple method but one that would be difficult to achieve on another synth, and which I have had trouble replicating. As was so often the case with the VCS3 you would find a certain sweet spot and everything would fall into place and one would then commit the piece to tape as quickly as possible knowing that even if you painstakingly wrote down all the knob positions it would never sound quite the same again.
So "Hodge" did something different from the shortwave over a groove paradigm instead it foregrounded elements that were inherent in the sound teasing out a certain musicality from and inherent in the material, and using only that to create a track. In this sense Hodge has more in common with the avant-garde approach to shortwave however in its self-consciously pedestrian and straightforward parodying of a rock beat and/or Tony Visconti T.Rex string arrangement it would have found little favour with the more academic experimental practitioners of the day.
From 1981 onwards my use of shortwave began to echo certain elements of the Kraftwerk approach. I too shared a fondness for the simple radio ident melodies played on vibraphone or marimba and these began to appear on many tracks both instrumentals and songs, and do so until the present day. The other Dusseldorf related element is the creation from scratch of broadcast type sounds, specifically radio voices.
For the soundtrack of the 1988 short film Green on the Horizon (made with Steven Ball) snippets of shortwave radio are interspersed between the voices of a male and female announcer who provide opaque instructions on how to negotiate a landscape. The recordings were inspired both by the prosaic and yet poetic sound of the BBC shipping forecast, and of the radio broadcasts in Cocteau’s film Orphée. Jean Marais as Orphée spends an increasing amount of time in the Rolls Royce parked in the garage listening to the car radio from which comes enigmatic phrases. Cocteau took the idea for these phrases from the coded messages broadcast during WW2 from the British military intelligence intended for French resistance fighters. There is another (pleasing) circularity here as the voices (especially the voice of energy) on Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity owe a debt to the Alpha 60 computer in Godard’s Allpahaville which itself draws heavily on Cocteau’s Orphée. For Green on the Horizon two English language teachers (TEFL) provided the voices with a few takes needed to get just the right deadpan delivery. The introductory section of the film was included on the On One of These Bends LPs, and has received a modest amount of airplay. Interestingly a few comments have suggested that the voices are sampled old BBC archive recordings or similar.
There was very little if any shortwave in my installation work of the 1990s but the return to music making in the early 2000s produced "Lay-by Lullaby" and "Crystal Set" both nods to Kraftwerk, and radio land. Shortwave was reinvestigated on the short film Pebble Dot Dash (2018) whose soundtrack is comprised almost entirely from radio recordings. In Pebble Dot Dash the camera takes a series of elliptical walks on and off the beaten track around my hometown of Hastings. The moving images are married with shortwave transmissions from across the globe including China, Pakistan, Russia, the USA, and elsewhere. Though long since superseded by other forms of electronic communication shortwave still has a place and many of the transmissions reflect contemporary concerns and anxieties; deals and scams, the financing of the second coming, aspiration and desire. The idea was to offset the local as caught by the hand held camera with a global shortwave audio, which was ‘in the air’ at the time of the filming.
This rather long (but hopefully interesting) preamble brings us to the use of shortwave in Colour Buffer. The first three tracks employ shortwave but all in different ways. The title track as noted in the last blog entry was recorded with an emulation of the VCS3 and indeed uses a variation/development of the "Hodge" patch. I was keen to see if there are ways to develop the paradigm of extracting the musical essence from the shortwave, and/or leading with it as opposed to working over a beat. The VCS3’s self-triggering envelope and ring modulator are once again at the heart of the sound shaping, but this time contouring a shortwave recording together with the synth’s white noise/oscillators. The shortwave loop is more minimal than that of "Hodge" and acts something like a background constant or drone that colours, and interplays with the synthesized components. An external sequencer imposes its own notational pattern, further modified in real time using the joystick and the individual knobs to create a series of crescendo moments or events. As is nearly always the case with a VCS3 or this case an emulation a ‘sweet spot’ was reached where the different element began to interact and to a degree play themselves.
"Over the Horizon" used what to me was a new piece of equipment the Moog DFAM. I was drawn to the DFAM as its combination of sequencer and oscillators and white noise echoes the way one can make percussion sounds with a VCS3. It also has an external input and though lacking the possibilities of a self triggering envelope there is a lot of scope for cross modulation between a radio input and the onboard sound sources. I found that classical music stations worked well and added colour and melody to a simple 8-step pattern. The melody is not that of the original classical piece as one is in effect sampling small slices of it, but something in-between that and the sequencer pattern. One plays with the DFAM’s setting to reach some optimum combination. In this instance a lolloping Krautrock sound began to emerge somewhere between Can and Ralf & Florian. I decided to go with a small element of homage, after all we are well past the point of cutting edge. Subsequently a bass and drum pattern were added but kept low in the mix so as to avoid the track falling into the sample over a beat formula.
Lastly "Velvet Coordinates in the Park". I found a Yamaha CS-15 in a local music shop in Hastings over ten years ago. A rather polite synth for my tastes it does however feature an external input which can be used to trigger the envelope. In this instance shortwave radio sounds were used to do just that thereby reshaping and colouring them. I long since sold the Yamaha to a collector, and the recordings were left on the hard drive. Recently with my renewed enthusiasm for shortwave I began to experiment with time and pitch shifting the sounds, and this seemed to pull the audio in two directions – with certain aspects of the original shortwave being brought to the surface whilst simultaneously whole new sonic characteristics began to emerge. Ah the old alchemical promise of musique concrète.
All three colour Buffer shortwave pieces whilst different from one another seek to extend the paradigm a little - extracting the musicality from within the shortwave, avoiding the sample over the beat trap, or the gratuitous dystopian, not to mention the sometimes too pompously academic.