SONNTAG, 30. Oktober 2005, 23:05. - 23:45, Ö1


Frequency Post curated by Andrew Garton

II. Radio Namings

by Warren Burt



“Frequency Post” is a project that deals with the materials of radio - frequency spectra, their uses, and their histories. My original intent was to research the bureaucracy of radio frequency management in Australia. I wanted to find out who had made what decisions when, and why we didn’t know their names. Along the way, though, in my research into the history of radio, I discovered something much more interesting and fascinating - the early history of radio in Australia, when there were amateur experimenters, early broadcasters, technicians, inventors, AND bureaucrats, all of whom were making contributions to the early development of radio. I discovered a number of parallels between the early days of radio and the current hysterical frenzy over the development of the internet. It was all there, utopian dreams, idiotic attempts at regulation, and crazed attempts at grabbing space for commercial development in a medium not known to exist before.

Most of my texts for this piece simply consist of lists of names - of scientists, technicians, amateurs, broadcasters, administrators, sound effects people, and the most heroic of all, the developers of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, which used radio to save lives in a way uniquely suited to Australia’s harsh and remote geography. The same names sometimes occur in several lists, because some people involved in radio filled different functions at different times, moving between the roles of amateur experimenter, technician, broadcaster, engineer, and regulator. Additionally, there are 3 short texts from the early 1920s which express some of the spirit of those early times: a utopian statement by J. W. Hambly-Clark; a description of one of his early experimental broadcasts, which may very well have included some of the earliest experimental music in Australia (!), and a 1924 government regulation, so ridiculous in its misunderstanding of technology, that it stands, in both English and German, as an ur-example of a continuous history of regulatory gaffes and mistakes that continues unabated up to the present day.

Frequency Post had a double brief - not only did the pieces have to deal with the history of radio, they had to be examples of generative music as well. Along these lines, each of the 10 sections of the piece uses at least 5 or 6 different generative processes for both music and texts. The original texts are processed through the text modifying programs Anagram Genius and Brekdown, producing fragmented or abstract processing of the texts. These are usually spoken or sung by computer voices, which are then further processed by various generative processes applied to the recorded computer voices. Additionally, generative processes were applied to the musical materials in each section. Each process uses the texts of that section as materials for many kinds of text-to-music conversions. One of these involves setting up maps of microtonal pitches (the entire piece is in the scale of 26 equally tempered pitches per octave - one pitch for each letter of the English alphabet) on the typewriter keyboard, and typing relevant texts to produce music that has the rhythm of typing. Another involves loading the ASCII characters of the text into a MIDI sequencer, and treating that material as sources for an automatic selection of pitches, durations, dynamics, octave choice and tempo choice for each section. Because these choices occur at different rates, the melodies generated have a kind of fractal self-similarity to them. Yet another technique involves having drones covering two octaves (a lower octave for upper case letters, a higher octave for lower case letters), with the pitches of the drones determined by names or initials of the texts. For example, the vibraphone-like chords in the first section are an orchestration of the name J W Hambly-Clark, while the wind chords of the last section are an orchestration of the name of Alfred Traeger, who was one of the protean inventors of Australian radio. Another interesting technique involved taking pictures of early radio pioneers and activities, and converting them into sound using the slow scan TV transmission techniques used by radio amateurs today. A number of different transmission standards are used, each of which converts a picture into different modulated signals, and these are usually broadcast on short wave at very low power to produce the picture at the receiving end. For my purposes, however, I used them as sound material, and transposed them, modulated them, fragmented them, and used them as textures to accompany the texts and their computer-sung fragmentations.

The piece is fairly thick in its textures, and is fairly unrelenting. It plays with the differences between narrative and abstract presentation of the material. I hope I have created a homage to these early pioneers of radio; have made my not-so-subtle critiques of government regulations in the realm of sound texture, and not primarily words; and have shared a child’s sense of delight at the world of radio sound effects as well.

Thanks to John Tranter, who introduced me to the text modification program Brekdown, Jon Rose for samples of his famous predecessor Jo “Doc” Rosenberg playing with Hambly-Clark in Adelaide, Stephen Gard for introducing me to the early history of radio in Australia, Andrew Garton for the commission to produce this piece, and Gudrun Markowsky and Catherine Schieve for their voices and translations. The piece was produced by me entirely on two Windows computers in my home studio in Wollongong, NSW, Australia.