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Radio Art in Waves Author(s): Frances Dyson Reviewed work(s): Source: Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 4

Radio Art in Waves Author(s): Frances Dyson Reviewed work(s):

Source: Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 4 (1994), pp. 9-11 Published by: The MIT Press

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STRATEGIES Whateverthe form,be it mixingor collage,myradioartworks are attemptsto sound through (or mean throughor touch through) the immensebarriersthat havebeen constructed and construedby layersand layersof noise-noise built of the chatter of contemporaryexistence and the persistent shriekof radioitself. I havedevelopedtwomainstrategiesfor doing this.First I have taken existing radio forms, including documentary, dramaand sound composition,and blended them together so thatthe listeneris presentedwitha varietyof perspectives (personal,seemingly"objective,"parodicandfictional)that, whencombined forma mosaic,the contentof whichis more a styleof listeningor thinkingthan actualinformation.For instance,the mainlisteningactivitymaybe one of interpreta- tion and making connections-that is, the listener is ex- pected to synthesizeratherthananalyseor deduce. Secondly,I havetriedto createsoundscapes,soundclusters andsoundcompositionsthatworksimultaneouslyon atleast twolevels.On one level the soundhassemanticmeaning:it commentson and supportsthe text. It maybe literalor aS stract,but in eithercaseit is meantto be interpretedasaural content, the equivalent of linguistic content. On another level the soundattemptsto provokein the listenera kindof feeling of abandon,a voluntarysubmissionto the sound it- self which then clearsthe wayfor a more reflectiveform of listening an openness that can only be provokedthrough the forgettingor "losing"of oneself. Becominglost or forgettingoneself is an integralpartof the act of listening;the radiomix merelyenhancesthis oth- erwisenaturalprocess.Beinglostin soundis alsobeing open to different waysof thinking, to making connections one wouldnot normallymakebecauseone hasentereda stateof repose:the kindof quietnessor silencethatis createdonlyby an attentivelisteningto sound.Withinthissilence one is, as philosopherMartinHeidegger describedin Beingand Time [1], awareof the uncanninessof being, its coincidenceand flux,itseternalpermutationsand at the sametime,of oures- sentialinabilityto graspand controlit. Likesounditself,it is verydifficultto saywhatit is thatwe hearandfeel whentruly engagedin the actof listening.The experienceis a littlelike dejavu in thatit happensand has meaning,but it is a mean- ing beyond words a meaning that penetrates the body as sound reverberateswithin the body; it is felt rather than thought.In these momentsof listening we become awareof ourselvesas resonatingbeingsimmersedin the world,unre- strictedbyoursingularskinsandidentities.Wemovebeyond soundto reacha kindof hearing-touch,an inwardresonance throughwhich we are able to breakdown the barriersim- posedbyrational,dogmaticthinking.In thatspace,we come face to facewithourselves.

If thissilence and spaceis con- tinually invaded or blocked by

noise then it is impossiblefor us to hear the depths of our be-



to near our consclences,


our ethics the grindingmachin- ery of our outwornthought-pat- terns, our prejudices and blind spots. In short this music pre- vents from hearing what we try to repress what we literallydo not wantto hear.

TheLogzcof Waste

Throughdescriptionsof three of hersoundpieces-The Logic of Waste(1989), VoicesLost andCalling(1990) andHighways to Virtuality(1991)-theauthor outlinessome of the theoretical


derlieherwork,andthe waythey relateto bothhercompositional practiseandherchoiceof aural


tion,centralconcernsof her work-such as the impactof technology,the Westernworld- viewandthe statusof soundin Westernculture,ecologyand militarism-areexemplified,and the importanceof audioartas an


ingthese issues is highlighted.

The earlypiece TheLogzcof Waste (1989) [2] is a good example of the conceptualruminationscoursingthroughmywork. The Logzcof Wastequestionsthe constitutionof literaland meta- phorical"waste" howwasteis designated,how the concept of wasteoperateswithinconsumersociety,how the military- industrial complexes of the United States and the USSR control(ed)andprofit(ed)bythe mostpowerfulmechanisms for "makingwaste":nuclear weapons and how people are perceivedaswastewithina particularculture. The culturalandmetaphysicallogicor mechanismsof waste are exemplifiedby the notion of "refuse"the multiplemean- ings of which are used in the piece as a structuraldevice. Refuseis interpretedfirstas denial,as the possibilityof nega- tion (a/not a) andthe oppositionalthinkingthatit engenders. It is only within this dualisticstructurethat the concept of wastemakessense. Secondly,refuse is interpretedto mean "garbage"thatwhichsocietyabhorsandthereforeshouldbe hiddenfromview,or thatwhichis considereddispensableand thereforecanbe thrownaway.In the former,thereis the mis- conceptionthatbeinghiddenfromviewis equivalentto being nonexistent;in thelatter,the dispensabilityof materialobjects in whatis oftenreferredto as "throw-awayculture"impliesun- limitednaturalresources.Thisrefusalto acknowledgethe con- sequences of refuse and makingrefuse operateswithin the worldsof both objectsandpeople. Thirdly,refuse can be interpreted as "re-fusing"in the sense of bringing together dichotomieswithin a more eco- logicalworldview.This idea is the basisof the sound compo- sitionsand mixesin the piece, and constitutesanothernon- linguistic strategyfor raising the issue of waste. With the

Frances Dyson (teacher, media artist), Faculty of Creative Arts, University of



Manuscript solicited byJudy Malloy.

Received 1 May 1994.

Northfields Avenue, Wollongong,

NSW 2522, Australia. E-mail:

t 1995 ISAST

LEONARI)O MUSIC JOURNAL, Vol. 4, pp. 9-11,



mixing of soundsliterallycomprisedof the sounds of garbage(garbagetrucks, garbagebeing collected,garbagefalling into large containers, etc.) and the "musemes"of Westernart music (like "semes,"the musemecan be thoughtof

as the smallest unit that has musical meaning, perhaps only two or three notes), the distinctionbetweenthe mu- sicalandnoisycomponentsof the sound

is problematized.This happensas a re-

sultof the sonic,ratherthanthe seman- tic, propertiesof the mix-while listen- ing to the mix it is hard to deElnethe soundaseithermusicor noise,sinceit is

a bit of both. This blurring of sound propertiesnot only raisesthe question of whatconstitutesmusicandwhatcon- stitutes noise, but at a deeper level questions the culturalprocess that val- ues organizedsound over unorganized sound, pattern over randomness and structureover chaos. In the auralmix, sound is constituted as undifferenti- ated-neither music nor noise, art nor garbage and thus refuses the bound- aries necessaryfor oppositional think- ing. Byacceptingthe garbagesounds-


metaphorfor the noise in hearingand in life the listenerapproachesa space in the piece that is also a space for re- thinkingacceptedstructuresof thought viaa differentformof listening. AurallyTheLogicofWasteis a complex mlxot tragmentsot muslc,envlronmen- tal sound noises such as metal being crushedandpaperbeing crumpled,and voices in both narratedtext and docu- mentaryforms. The musical elements consist of no more than two or three notesthat,asin the Westernmusicaltra- dition often indicate musicalopening or closure. These elements are mixed with noises that have similar acoustic characteristics.Atvarioustimes one can hear a vocalchorusin the background mixedwith environmentalsoundssuch as footsteps walking on leaves or cars passlngon a treeway.









Votces Lost and


VoicesLostandCalling(1990) [3] is struc- turedaround the concepts of callsand calling, such as the call of the con- science the spiritual calling and the telephone call. It poses the questionof who calls,whatthe statusof theircall is within Western culture and what it meansto answerthatcall.In doing so, it focuseson the statusof the disembodied voiceasit travelsthe symboliccircuitsof spiritualism, the psyche and the tele- phone and is transmittedvia spiritual and electronicmeans.



Radio Art in Waves

Aurally,the piece combines spoken


ing an interview with a medium from the TheosophicalSociety,which,for un- known reasons,wasriddled with static interference), ambientsound and mu- sic-all of which is interrupted and structured by telephonic chattering. With a "bed"of drones made up of chants, animal sounds and overtone choral works, the mixes draw the lis- tener into a space that is almost sopo- rific,yet the meditativestate associated withmuchof the soundis puncturedby the sharpcrackles,beepsandringingas- sociatedwith the telephone and by the imminent interruption the telephone representsto manypeople. As the phone callsinterruptthe flows of sound, electrifyingthe spoken text, the disembodiedvoiceentersthe sphere of masscommunications,whereits "call- ing"has the additionalmeaningof "vo- cation"or "duty,"andwherethe listener in hearing or responding to that call, must embrace a criticalyet wholly ab- sorbedmode of listening.The space of listening that is opened is thus a space that can be heard only within a social, politicalor culturalcontext.Yetit is also a spacethatthreatensthose institutions by problematizingthe actualand meta- phoric transmissionof the voice and by

continuallyaskingthe question:"Whois

it that is calling, and for whom is the call?"

Highways to Virhzality

Virtualityis the productof an increasing dissociationfromimmediateexperience that now promises to overrideour un- derstandingsof whatis andis not reality. The rhetoric of virtualityhas much in common with the utopian promisesof early radio, notions of the electronic ether, contemporarydesires to escape the rigiditiesof Westernthoughtandfu- turisticdreamsof total disembodiment

within a techno-sublime. However, virtuality'spublic "debut"during the PersianGulfWar to one of the largest audiences in television history pro- videsthe mostominouswarningsignsof what it means to be "virtual"in post- modernculture.The hyper-presentima- ges of the "smartbombs"werethe mate- rial with which television portrayed virtuality,substitutinghigh-tech weap- onryfor the woundedbodiesit waspro- hibitedfromshowing.The conspicuous absence of corporealitywithin this vir- tualfield wasa sourceof greatconcern for television, and it is not surprising that the cries of anguish,sounds of ex-

plosionsand general"ambience"of war thatwerepresentin the soundtrackac- companying the reports assumed the role of presentingthatwhichcould not be presentedthroughvisiblemeans. Highwaysto Virtuality(1991) [4] is

composedof these soundsof warin or- derto emphasizetheviolenceassociated with virtuality:not just the pervasive militarismthatassuresus therecanbe a warwithoutbodies or the realm of vir- tual reality,where bodies disappearin an onslaughtof data,but a more exten- sive violence-one underpinning glo- bal, ecological ruinationand deep psy- chic malaise. In addition to using spoken narrative,television excerpts, found sound/speech and interviews withmediatheorists(AllucquereStone,


I composed a varietyof sound clusters and mixes during the months of the

GulfWarusing digital technology.Sur- rounded by the warbeyond the sound studio and the technology within it, I developed a compositionalprocessout of the dread I felt in producing the piece the dread of living in the elec- tronic fortressof a postmodern, high- tech virtual culture where, with each new invention a portion of the body,


seemsto be whittledaway.This dreadis expressedby the violence scissionand dismemberment inscribed within and impliedbetweenthe soundsthemselves

andproducedbya processof "de-gener-


sionsviadifferentmediatechnologies. Whilethe role of sound in mediahas traditionallybeen to recuperate,bysimu- lation, the "presence"that media and masscommunications(and,in a general

sense,moderntechnologyitselfl has de-

stroyed the sound in Highwaysis highly fragmentedand refragmented,sharply cutting between elements of music, found and synthesized sound and snatchesof warcoverage.In particular, the eerie sound of video transmission that accompaniedimages of the smart bomb'simpact andthatwasrepeatedas

a kind of televisual"logo"for the war- becamean auralmotiffor the piece. De-

spiteits lowfidelity,thissoundwasiden-


video-gameimage, its muffled and dis- tortedvoicesconjuredmemoriesof early ham-radio transmissions rather than high-techmanoeuvres.However,relative to the meaningof the transmittedvoice, the sound wasalso profoundlydisturb- ing, and it is this aspectthat the overall tone of Highwaysattemptsto evoke.The

speech wasbarelydiscernable,and the

becomemoreinterestedin workingwith

(Berkeley, CA:Univ. of California Press, 1989).

timbre of the voices was obviously

installation,in whichI feel soundisspa-

Derrida,Jacques, MarginsofPhilosophy(Chicago, IL:

mauled by electronic transmission,

tialityand full acousticdimensionscan

Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982).

riddledwiththehigh-pitchedscreamof a

be quite effectiveand throughwhich I

Derrida,Jacques, Of Grammatology(Baltimore, MD:


have the opportunityof collaborating

Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974).

Infact,the "presence"of thesevoiceswas

withartistsusingother media.

Derrida, Jacques,

Cinders (Lincoln,

NE: Univ. of

obliteratedin a waythatrevealedthe ter-


Nebraska Press, 1987) .

rorof technics:the humanvoice,so pre- cious to notionsof individualauthentic-

References andNotes


Heidegger, Martin, TheQuestionConcerningTechnol- ogy(New York,NY:Harper & Row, 1977).


Martin Heidegger, Beingand Time(New York,NY:


ity,wasmutilatedbythe overridingwillof the technology,screamingnot from the

Harper & Row, 1962).


Heidegger, Martin, EarlyGreekThinking(New York, NY:Harper & Row, 1975).


TheLogzcof Waste,30 min, 1989. Commissioned


pain of warbut fromthe eviscerationof electronictransfer.

by The Listening Room, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC); broadcast on ABC Radio, Sep-

Heidegger, Martin, Poetry,Language, Thought(New York,NY:Harper & Row, 1975).

These shriekscommunicatedthe fear

tember 1989; New American Radio, March 1990;


Martin, WhatIs Called Thinking (New

and aggressionof techno-war,piercing

and CFW-FM, Toronto, 1990.

York,NY:Harper & Row, 1968).

the smooth surfaceof virtualpresence


VoicesIJostand Calling, 26 min, 1990. Commis-


that the rhetoric of the warhad been tirelesslyconstructing.In Highways,the intentionwasto abandonthe projectof

sioned by Writers in Recital and The Listening Room, Australian Broadcasting Corporation; per- formed at the Eighth Biennale of Sydney and broad- cast on ABC Radio, April 1990; New American Ra-

Ihde, Don, ConsequencesofPhenomenology(New York, NY:State Univ. of New YorkPress, 1986) .

Ihde, Don, Existential Technics(Albany, NY: State Univ. of New YorkPress, 1983) .

restoring "presence"through aurality

dio, August 1990; and CFW-FM Canada, 1990.

Ihde, Don, Listening and Voice:A Phenomenologyof

and instead to jar and pierce the lis- tener,to provokethe apprehensiveand beleaguered state of living in virtuality throughthe use of sound.Whilethe text


sioned by The Listening Room, Australian Broad- casting Corporation; broadcast on ABC Radio, May 1991; KPFASan Francisco, September 1991; and community stations in Canada during 1991. Later adapted as the sound component of Telesthesia, an

Hzghways to Virtuality, 60 min, 1991. Commis-

Sound (Athens, OH: Ohio

Kahn, Douglas, "Vibration, Inscription, Mostly Transmission," WEST,Univ. of Western Sydney (De- cember 1992).

Univ. Press, 1976).

provides a critique of virtuality, the

audio installation produced in collaboration with


From personal interviews, sections of which can

Kahn, Douglas,




sound evokesthe high-pitchedscream,

Douglas Kahn, exhibited at the WalterMcBean Gal- lery, San Francisco Art Institute,June/July 1991.

Voices," NMA 8 (1990).

the "call"of thevirtualworld,beckoning to a socialityalreadyprimed by televi-

Kahn, Douglas, "Track Organology," October55


sion, planetary breakdown and the

be found in the artist's booklet that accompanied

Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute, 1991.

Kittler, Friedrich, DiscourseNetworks(Stanford, CA:

threatof nuclearannihilation.

the Telesthesia installation at the Walter McBean

Stanford Univ Press, 1990).


Manyof the themes expressed above continueto permeatemywork.Mymost recent piece, WindowPaan(1993), ex- ploresthe senseof disembodimentasso- ciatedwith high-techmedicalinterven- tion and,throughit, I havebeen ableto rethinkpreviousideasaboutthe linkbe- tweenthe bodyanditsvariousprotheses andmodesof representation.SinceWin- dowPaanwasproducedusinga systemof three-dimensional(3D) spatialization,I havealsobegun to explorethe possibili- ties and ramiElcationsof 3D sound, or "virtualaudio,"asit is known.I havealso


Bailble, Claude,

Cinema,No. 297 (February 1979).

Cage, John, Silence (Middletown, Univ. Press, 1961).

Cage, John, A YearfromMonday (Middletown, CT:

Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1967).

"Programming the Ear,"Cahiersdu

CT: Wesleyan

Charles, Daniel, and Cage,John, FortheBirds(Lon- don: Marion Boyars, 1981).

Berger, Rene, and Eby, Lloyd, eds., Art and TechnoX- ogy(New York,NY:Paragon House, 1986) .

Crissell, Andrew, UnderstandingRsdio (New York, NY:Methuen, 1986).

Dahlhaus, Carl, TheIdeaofAbsoluteMusic (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989).

Dahlhaus, Carl, BetweenRomanticismand Modernism

Kittler, Friedrich,

writer," October41(1987).

Levin, Tom, The No. 3 (1984).

Marvin, Carolyn, When Old TechnologiesWereNew (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988).

Metz, Christian, "AuralObjects," YaleFrerzchStudies, No. 60 (1980).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, TheVisibleand theInvisible,

Claude Lefort, ed. (Evanston, Univ. Press, 1968).


Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1989).


Film, Type-

Acoustic Dimension," Screen25,

IL: Northwestern


Avital, The TelephoneBook (Lincoln,

Wheelwright, Philip, Heraclitus(New York,NY:Ath- eneum, 1964).

Woodward, Kathleen, ed., TheMythsof Information (WI:Coda Press, 1980).


Radio Art in Waves