The Firesign Theatre’s Wax Poetics: Overdub, Dissonance, and Narrative in the Age of Nixon
The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.
Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.
The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.
The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.
The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.
The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).
While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.
The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.
The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.
This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.
To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.
It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).
Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.
Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.
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The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK
In the UK there has never been much scope for radio art within the realm of public service broadcasting, leading artists to seek funding for their own independent projects, predominantly from the Arts Council of England (ACE) and other state funding bodies and charitable trusts. In this article, the final in Sounding Out!‘s series Radio Art Reflections, I will consider this recent avenue of practice, because its results – in terms of audience composition, artistic output and the wider cultural context of the form – shed light on both the particular context of radio art practice in the UK, and also have implications for the wider struggle for sustainable independent media networks against the diminished imaginative horizons of a public broadcast culture endlessly inured to ‘unavoidable’ cuts and the free market enclosure of the digital commons.
In the name of ‘austerity’ such cuts have been inflicted upon broadcasters worldwide. The loss of key radio arts programmes like Australia’s Listening Room, as discussed in the last post by Colin Black, is by no means the exception, even in an age of expansion in digital spaces. As De Lys stated way back in 2006 it may be considered “[i]ronic that the ‘rationalization’ of radio arts by public broadcasters occurs at the same time that audio arts activity and the creative use of sound are expanding exponentially in community spaces, in galleries, games, and online.” (De Lys, S and Foley, M; 2006, “The Exchange: A Radio-Web Project for Creative Practitioners and Researchers” Convergence; The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 12; 129, Sage)
Elsewhere, institutional affirmation through public broadcasting connects local, national and international art radio broadcasters, as it also empowers two long running international radio art competitions that continue today: the Prix Italia set up by RAI, in 1948, to engage creatives to work with radio and create new works for the medium; and the The Karl Sczuka Prize for Radio Art, established by SWR in Germany in 1955, notable (sadly) for how so few women artists have ever won the awards. For Kersten Glandien, contributing to the Reinventing The Dial symposium back in 2009, the availability of public radio funding in the 80s and 90s enabled a heyday of commissions and festivals, events and prizes (Glandien, K; 2009. Keynote Paper given at Reinventing the Dial Symposium. Canterbury Christ Church University).
No such radio art competition or open call for new radio art work has ever been run by the BBC, highlighting its resistance to the form. At present the BBC runs just one experimental programme that has been on air for 20 years: Between The Ears on BBC Radio 3, which leans towards more narrative-centered features reflecting Black’s issues with ABC’s Soundproof discussed in the last article.
ART STATIONS AND COMMUNITY RADIO IN THE UK
The first experimental art radio station in the UK went on air in Liverpool for a week in 1995, Hearing is Believing on 105.8FM. As Scanner wrote at the time it offered the chance for listeners to hear “sound works, performance and innovative documentaries that would never receive airplay on even the most ‘progressive’ FM bands. Remember, BBC Radio still has problems playing certain works of Stockhausen because they contain randomly-culled shortwave radio signals.”(The Wire, 1995). That inspired the London Musicians Collective to run its own month long arts station in Resonance 107.3FM in 1998. I was part of its action group and then its steering group as the station went full time in 2002.
Tight regulation across public and commercial radio in the UK also meant that artists were late to explore the medium. Trevor Wishart reminisced with me at Radio Without Boundaries about a radio piece he made with the BBC in mind that took over 28 years to be played on the radio in the UK, being not sufficiently ‘musical’ for a music station and not ‘dramatic’ enough to fulfill the conventions of drama.
In this context, community radio has been an important if limited platform and nurturing site for new radio art. There are now over 200 such stations in the U.K. but only two dedicated to the arts community: Resonance FM and Soundart Radio at 102.5 FM, the latter based in Devon since 2006. Soundart Radio exists on a hand-to-mouth basis via small grants to provide training for disadvantaged groups. Resonance FM, by contrast, has achieved regular funding by walking a line between its community status and its avant garde roots. Its success is due largely to its location and the exceptional work of volunteer artists and musicians who have developed innovative programming without budgets.
Arts Council England increased Resonance’s funding as it became a ‘national portfolio organisation’ in 2012. The station may tower over other most community stations, but its yearly funding is still only comparable with that of many regional arts festivals. Moreover, radio art is only a small part of what Resonance broadcasts, and is mostly scheduled as discrete programmes such as Radia, and as less frequent one-off programming such as Remote Performances a collaboration between London Fieldworks, the Live Art Development Agency and ACE, broadcasting 20 live mostly music based performances for a week from Glen Nevis, Lochaber, Scotland.
FUNDING RADIO ARTISTS
Open funding for artists directly from community radio stations is very limited and ad hoc. The Community Media Association was able to offer small commissions for Modulate, an open call to encourage artists to team up with community stations to encourage more arts diversity and address the fact that around “70 per cent of the community radio sector’s programming is music-based” (CapeUK, 2008, p.08). Meanwhile, Art Transmission was a welcome one-off project early this year run by Francis Knight who commissioned three sound artists including Jane Pitt and Xentos Jones to work with young boxers and steam railway enthusiasts to make radio works for the small community station BRFM on the Isle of Sheppey. A recent CapeUK report concluded that Community radio “offers creative and artistic freedom to their contributors unmediated by the editorial control exercised in commercial or public service broadcasting.” (CapeUK, 2008, p.20).
It would be naive to imagine editorial constraints do not exist in the community radio sector. This is perhaps why several British artists have gone it alone to retain autonomy by running their own short durational arts stations as Restricted Service Licenses for projects which run for up to 28 days and can broadcast up to 25 watts, such as Kaffe Matthews Radio Cycle (2003) and Tom McCarthy and INS Calling All Agents (2004), Celestial Radio (2008), Boat Radio (2012), Writtle Calling (2012), Radio Boredcast (2012) and The Dark Outside (2012-14) all funded by The Arts Council. This marks an increasing trend in the UK of artists-curated FM stations.
Grants for the Arts from ACE offers a way for artists to receive funding to make new work. My own group Radio Arts has, through funding from ACE and Kent County Council, been able to recently commission new radio art works for broadcast from Colin Black (AU), Arturas Bumsteinas (LITH), Iris Garelfs (GER), Anna Friz (CAN), Louise Harris (UK),Olivia Humphreys (UK),Langham Research Centre (UK), GX Jupitter- Larsen (US), Carlo Patrao (PORT), Mikey Weinkove (UK),Joaquim Cofreces (Argentina), Esther Johnson (UK), Michael McHugh (UK), Gregory Whitehead (USA), as well as Radio Arts members Genetic Moo, myself and James Backhouse (UK). Radio Arts ran a series of workshops, a radio art showcase exhibition and will be running a forthcoming live event and online gallery and further workshops next year alongside broadcasts of the new works to be heard on eight partner stations in four countries.
However, such work can only continue with further funding. For me it is important to move away from the current creative commons ethos, where no one is ever paid to participate. We should allow sound and radio artists to gain a fee to produce new radio work, particularly as the Artist Network in the UK is campaigning for artists to be paid in galleries.
MICROBROADCSTING AND ARTS SPACES
Another interesting area which has taken off from Japanese radio artist Tetsuo Kogowa is micro broadcasting, the use of small range transmitters allowing artists to broadcast in a localized space of up to one watt, without the need for a license, either by building the transmitters or buying them readymade. These work well for radio installation and have allowed me to continuously play works as discrete stations and produce surround works allowing a different voice or sound to emanate from each radio in the installation. For eight years, mostly unfunded, I worked on Switch Off a PhD radio art project documented on my blog creating eight different fictional stations as micro broadcast installations each imaging a future use for FM when it has been abandoned in the UK these works explored radio art practice from a post digital perspective.
Micro broadcasting these works proved to be a very liberating way of sharing radio art work in galleries and outside of conventional radio broadcasts and allowed me to really experiment without constraint, whilst the web has brought me closer with other international artists and communities to share practice and projects. Having used radios as a readymades for multiple and surround installations my experience has led me to new ways of thinking about installation work such as a bespoke transmitting book Spiritual Radio 2014, which broadcasts itself and awaits the listener to find its frequency.
Following this line, many online arts stations have been set up by galleries and arts spaces, often as temporary projects. Online arts station Basic FM started in 2011, and was a project of Newcastle independent cinema Pixel Palace having hosted Vicki Bennett’s Radio Boredcast at the AV Festival (2012). It “presented an audio gallery that exhibited the work of those making interesting noise: sound collage, found sound, spoken word, discourse, dialogue and discussion, musique concrète or original, remixed and detourned musics” (Basic FM, 2014, website). Run by one part-time member of staff and funded by the Arts Council to run for thirty months until 30th Sept 2014 Basic FM did not carry on due to lack of further funding, a real loss after it steadily building up its reputation as the third full time arts station in the UK.
It seems that in the UK the lack of artistic airspace on public and community radio has been sidestepped by radio artists who have forged their own stations to redefine public space in myriad forms. And there are possibilities in the future. The latest temporary UK arts station call comes from the well regarded CCA Gallery Glasgow Radiophrenia next year, while London’s Tate Britain is currently running a family programme Radiocity and its community programmes have commissioned myself and Jim Backhouse from Radio Arts to run a series of workshops called Reclaim the Waves from the end of February, working with the local Westminster community to document the changing city and produce a participatory radio installation for exhibition.
Magz Hall is a sound, radio artist and founder of Radio Arts an artist led group who promote radio art. Her work has been exhibited in the British Museum, the Sainsbury Centre, MACBA Barcelona, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Norway, Morocco, Canada and the USA and broadcast internationally. Her ambisonic soundtrack of Hong Kong Airport at the British Museum was described as “extraordinary and rich.” Radio Mind (2012) an “intriguing and beautiful work” was commissioned by the Lightworks Festival. Her most recent work Spiritual Radio (2014) “looks like a hardback on life support” (TLS) was commissioned for ‘Unbinding the Book’a touring exhibition. A senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University and a founder of London’s arts station Resonance FM, she has just completed a practice based PhD on radio art at CRISAP, LCC, University of the Arts London entitled Radio After Radio: Redefiningradioart in the light of new media technology through expanded practice.
Images courtesy of the artist.
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