THE BROADCAST WORKS: PUBLIC SUPPLY
Looking back to 1966, it seems as though I began these broadcast pieces almost by accident. I was asked by a woman who was the music director at radio station WBAI in New York if she could interview me. At a certain moment while thinking about it I had this idea - instead of talking, why not try to make a work for the radio itself?
I was a performer at that time, but I was interested in trying to move beyond that and beyond being a composer, into the idea of being a catalyser of sound activity.
I realized I could open a large door into the radio studio with the telephone; if I installed telephone lines in the studio, anybody could sonically walk in from any telephone. At that time there were no live call-in shows. The idea of putting phone calls directly on the air rather than prerecording them was not greeted with open arms. The engineer insisted the station would lose its license and refused to have anything to do with it; his solution was to put a mike in the studio and pretend it was a strange kind of interview show.
I got the telephone company to install ten telephones in the studio by telling them they were for taking the responses for a fund-raising campaign. The engineer laughed and asked me how I was going to answer them all. I also had to find a way to get them on the air; he would only give me an hour of studio time just before the broadcast.
With a friend, I built this wonderful pre-answering-machine ten-line answering machine. Each phone sat on a small platform and had a solenoid-controlled lever which fit under its receiver. A plastic cup with a microphone inside was fitted over the ear piece. The mikes and solenoids were connected to a box with switches controlling the solenoids, and with pots for the mike gains. The output went to an amp and a speaker. The studio engineer looked in a few minutes before air time expecting hopeless chaos. It was a bit strange but not chaos - ten telephones on the floor with their handsets popping up and down and voices coming out of a speaker in front of his microphone. There wasn't much he could do; he flipped the switch and put us on the air.
The results were wonderfully unexpected. I had done a mailing which told people about the time and phone number, so there was no shortage of calls. In fact, because there were so many, entering into the work became a game of chance. To get in, your call had to coincide with that of another person just hanging up.
I had told people they could phone in any sounds they wanted and asked them to leave their radio on while calling so that I would have some different feedbacks to work with. I saw myself as a sort of moderator; I tried to form interesting combinations of callers on the air and counterbalance the extroverted with the introverted.
I think I was a little in shock after it was over. It wasn't an idea that I had constructed; it just came to me, whole. I realized the scale of this thing. On the screen the map at the bottom of the drawing shows Manhattan Island; to the right we have Brooklyn, Queens and above the Bronx. I had made a virtual space which any one of the ten million people living there could enter into by dialing a telephone number. It gave me a lot to think about.
I realize now that the reason I did it had to do with some of my ideas about music.
We don't know much about the history of the sound activities in societies of the past. We have some of the artifacts but none of the sounds; we only have recordings of the last sixty years. Our histories talk about other things; we have writings and drawings that go back thousands of years.
Therefore we don't know very much about the music of the past either; what it really sounded like, who played it, and its role in society are all debatable questions when we step back only a short time in history.
Anthropologists in looking at societies which have not yet had contact with modern man have often found whole communities making music together - not one small group making music for the others to listen to, but music as a sound dialogue among all the members of the community.
Although I was not able to articulate it in 1966, now, after having worked with this idea for a long time and talked about it and thought about it, it seems that what these works are really about is proposing to reinstate a kind of music which we have forgotten about and which is perhaps the original impulse for music in man: not making a musical product to be listened to, but forming a dialogue, a dialogue without language, a sound dialogue.
These pieces then are about building the circumstances where ordinary people can begin this nonverbal dialogue. We all have highly developed skills in hearing and vocalization - these innate skills demonstrated by our ability with language. The telephone and radio themselves provide a good foundation as they focus the mind on sound and their visual anonymity helps overcome selfconsciousness. The real problem then is finding ways to escape from our present conceptions of what music is.
The first thing I realized after "Public Supply I" was that with a conventional hand mixer it was impossible to control ten lines at the same time. I felt I had to find a way to use the skill that I had in my hands from being a musician to make it a more fluid situation. I built what I called a finger mixer; it was a flat plate with four photocells for each finger arranged in the shape of my hand. Each caller was assigned two of these photocells with which I could control his gain and stereo position; this meant that just by moving my hand very slightly and letting more or less light fall on different photocells I could shape gain and position of all ten callers simultaneously. I had a very fine control, and it allowed me to move the mixing and grouping into something which was fast-moving and dynamic. I first used it in Toronto in 1968.
By 1973 in Chicago at WFMT there was no guerrilla warfare anymore; after seven years they were beginning to get the idea. Here I started exploring the concept of giving people special instruments to play with their voice over the telephone. In this work I built a synthesis circuit for each caller. Rather simple: oscillators where the pitch was determined by the energy of each call. The signals were integrated over a long period of time, so that the result was a bank of slowly shifting pitches forming a cluster which was constantly reforming according to what people were doing. The sounds that they were making rode along on top of this.
In that same year I proposed to National Public Radio that we try to do not just one station but their whole network of two hundred stations spread across the country with five cities where people could call: New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.