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The Firesign Theatre’s Wax Poetics: Overdub, Dissonance, and Narrative in the Age of Nixon

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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.

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The Firesign Theatre (wall of cables): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

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.

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Firesign Theatre (pickup truck): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

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.

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The Firesign Theatre (mixing board): Bob & Robin Preston,  Image courtesy of  author

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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“Radio’s “Oblong Blur”: Notes on the Corwinesque”–Neil Verma

The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

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The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK

Magnavox_AM2In 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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

Magz Hall Spiritual Radio (2014) Whitechapel Gallery London

Magz Hall Spiritual Radio (2014) Whitechapel Gallery London

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.

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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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A Brief Review of Australian Radio Art

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Welcome to the second part of Radio Art Reflections, a series on radio art that brings together the thoughts of three practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the UK.

In the first part Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz  discussed how transmission art has shaped her practice and how it has become an important current within the expanded territory of radio art. Following this, musician and sound artist Colin Black reflects on the particularities of Australia’s radio art history, analyzing the effects of ongoing cutbacks at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Black fears a distinctive Australian soundscape-based radio art is in danger of being lost, while identifying a current renaissance in narrative based radio features which currently shape ABC radio output, and considers the potential of ABC’s new Creative Audio Unit. ​

– Guest Editor Magz Hall

As an artist growing up in rural Australia, I was hugely influenced by how state-owned radio engaged with sound-based practitioners. For decades, radio not only gave voice to some of the more exploratory artists and their works, it allowed artists and audiences from all over this vast continent to find a space in which experimental works could, with financial support, gestate, be realized and propelled onto a world stage, often receiving international acclaim for their distinctive perspective.

In recent years I have come back to those works as a PhD researcher, interviewing thirty five international practitioners, theorists and producers on Australian radio art thereby gaining a new appreciation of its particular aesthetic practices and approaches. This article draws on some of these interviews to highlight national and international perceptions about where Australian radio art has been, while also demonstrating its potential to influence a new generation of artists to explore beyond mainstream media formats.

Figure One - Murray Higgins, ABC Adelaide Drama

Murray Higgins, ABC Adelaide Drama supervising engineer recording various armaments on the deck of a Royal Australian Navy ship. This actuality was used for a live broadcast of a radio play scheduled for broadcast on the same day of recording. (Photo taken April 8, 1945 by an unknown photographer)

THE LISTENING ROOM

While there are a few early examples of Australian radio art, consistant programming and commissioning of radio art effectively commenced in the 1980s with the formation of the ABC Arts Unit during 1984-85 and the acoustic arts programme The Listening Room, which aired from 1988 to 2003. Although long-decommissioned, The Listening Room was still one of a very few signposts that my interviewees cited when trying to understand the properties of Australian radio art. The Listening Room’s founding executive producer Andrew McLennan, who expanded the boundaries of ABC radio from 1976 onwards, had a clear take on the aesthetic framework of the show, stating in one internal ABC report (c1990) that the programme was a:

… venue for the exploration, the cross-pollination of radio forms. … you can hear new radio plays, audio essays, acoustic features, sound documentaries, new music, sound-scapes and sculptures, audio installations, acoustic art forms …

This approach was broader than that of other international radio art programs. Here is a quote from the formative executive producer of Deutschlandradio Kultur, Götz Naleppa, who took a much more “aesthetic” approach for his well-known Klangkunst programmes in Germany:

The difference to other radio-art-forms like radio-play is simple: sound-composition [a term Naleppa prefers to radio art] shares with them the same elements: sound, text (voice) and music. But in radio-play text (dialogue) is in the foreground and the other elements SERVE it (often in an illustrative way). And in (radio)sound-composition we have the same elements – but they are EQUAL, they are simply MATERIAL in the hands of the composer [Götz Naleppa, e-mail message to author July 28, 2005].

Of the two, The Listening Room clearly had a wider scope. Thus a number of ABC works, like On the Raft, All at Sea (by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton), placed the text in the foreground as the narrative is primarily driven by the use of spoken dialogue and the other elements are used to serve the text in a chiefly illustrative fashion. By definition Naleppa would call this a “radio-play” and not necessarily neues hörspiel or radio art, and definitely not a radio “sound-composition.”

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Extract from On the Raft, All at Sea (2002) by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton (courtesy Robyn Ravlich and ABC Radio)

Figure Two: The Listening Room, program logo postcard designed by Antart (c 1990).

Figure Two: The Listening Room, program logo postcard designed by Antart (c 1990).

“AUSTRALIAN” RADIO ART

Alongside this inclusiveness of a wide scope of work, my research uncovered a range of other ideas about the identifiable properties of Australian radio art. Austrian Elisabeth Zimmerman claims that with Australian work there is “a certain tradition” that favours the “use of environmental sounds … but in a very composed way.” Andrew McLennan supports Zimmerman’s viewpoint and states: “it’s always hard to say and it is probably a bit of a cliché … [however he] often think[s] of it as quite environmentally driven.” Douglas Kahn, an American, is more skeptical, observing that “The Australian stuff was much broader range … I don’t think you can say that there was an Australian aesthetic because there were so many different artists that were brought in to do things.” Although later Kahn does state that a common thread heard in Australian work was its “really high quality production values … really nice complex mixes … people playing the mixing board like it was a piano in a really sophisticated way.” Kaye Mortley from her Australian French background describes Australian work as “radiophonic art, of various sorts, more experimental in nature, some produced by composers.” While not a composer, Australian Virginia Madsen supports Mortley’s viewpoint when she describes her own work as “experimental … it combines music, theatre performance, and documentary really.” The common theme that emerges from my research is the openness and commitment to experimentation that exists alongside a highly professional approach to the art form within Australian radio art culture.

My interviews also indicated that radio art plays a role in the perceived amorphous and multi-faceted notion of national identity, while confirming Kahn and Nicholas Zurbrugg’s earlier observations that radio art has critically contributed to the overall arts ecology in Australia. As a practitioner, I would also describe my own work as having an experimental approach that is influenced by the high quality production levels of programs like The Listening Room. While much of my work is environmentally driven, my artistic focus is to create multi-faceted, intimate aural geographies in which human imprint is present.

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Extract from Alien In The Landscape (2007) by Colin Black (courtesy DeutschlandRadio Kultur). This extract features synchronous field recordings made by a Rodes NT4, X-Y configured stereo microphone and Fender Stratocaster with additional strings attached as pictured below.

Figure Three: The author conducting field recordings at the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Australia, 2006.

Figure Three: The author conducting field recordings at the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Australia, 2006.

THE CREATIVE AUDIO UNIT AND AUSTRALIAN RADIO TODAY

When The Listening Room was decommissioned in 2003, explorative radio was forced in two directions: ABC Radio National programmed some word-based works, while ABC Classic FM aired another set of works that Kate Dundas (Director of ABC Radio) has called “Shorter-form pieces, maybe perhaps down the sound-based acoustic end or radiophonic end of the spectrum.”Budgets were dramatically reduced and diverted, resulting in the effective abandonment of regular commissions and airtime for long-form sound-based works. In 2012 ABC management decommissioned book readings and Creative Instinct (a “feature program that reflects and explores the creative world”) and The Night Air (described as “aural equivalents of the avant-garde cut-up: a montage of interviews, location sound, music and found audio”). Moreover management oversaw the dismantling of the Airplay programme, which included “hour-long dramatic fictions [sic] experiment with formeffectively ending an 80-year tradition of Australian radio drama. In replacing these programmes, the Creative Audio Unit (CAU) was planned and American-style low budget radio production techniques for dramatic short stories (as championed at the 2012 ABC run Radio Beyond Radio conference) were put on the table as the future of radio.

In 2013 the ABC recruited a whole new team (who collectively had very little direct engagement with prior radio drama and The Listening Room production budgets and procedures), to setup, oversee and run the CAU. This transition was so atypical of past ABC changes that it raises questions as to whether this was an orchestrated act of cultural amnesia. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the major challenges this new team faces is the lack of resources, which impedes the magnitude of new works commissioned. This also raises questions as to how the previous budgets from Airplay, The Night Air and Creative Instinct have been reassigned. Another challenge is this unit’s extremely wide area of responsibility (that was previously spread across a number of ABC Units) ranging from radio drama and essays on the Radiotonic programme (effectively replacing the entire radio drama department) to what it claims to be a “portal into radio art, performance, soundscapes and composed audio features” on its Soundproof programme.

While Soundproof makes gestures to re-stimulate radio art activities in Australia, in sampling its first twenty episodes it becomes apparent that a very large percentage of airtime is heavily driven by the spoken dialogue narrative, more in line with radio drama or documentary. Furthermore, the episodes that contain the more interesting sound works seem to be frequently interrupted by extended contextual dialogue and therefore, for the most part, present only extracts or shorter form radio art works. Therefore, as a practitioner who runs the risk of being excluded from future CAU activities, I would nevertheless argue that for the most part, the CAU is doubling up on its focus on radio drama and documentary style productions and has not to date reached its goal of fully exploring and presenting sound rich radio art features, as it claims (please see Soundproof episode mp3 downloads dated between 11 May to 21 September 2014). Moreover, Soundproof is much more constrained, even backward-looking, when compared to its predecessors and is therefore aiming to attract a much less adventurous radio audience. More glaringly, the first twenty episodes lack a strong presence for new Australian works when compared to The Listening Room that broadcast sixty-four Australian works with a total duration of fifty hours in its first year of operation. As an inquisitive listener it seems that, to date, Soundproof has forgotten its own lineage without offering anything new or innovative and in doing so, has also forgotten audience members like myself in Australia and throughout the world.

I sometimes wonder what the conclusions from my research study would be if it were only focused on current practice. Would today’s Australian radio art still play a role in the perceived multi-faceted notion of Australian national identity? Would it still be perceived to have an experimental approach with high quality production levels that favour the use of environmental sounds? Is it still a critical contributor to the overall arts ecology in Australia? Audience members who have little prior knowledge of Australian radio art, may think so or may not conceive of its potential to do so. However, given sustained support, the space for experimentation and a clear inventive vision for the future, building on the legacy of past achievements, Australian radio art clearly has the potential to regain its status on a world stage.

Featured Image: Beastman mural on Brisbane Radio by Flickr User JAM Project

Dr Colin Black is an internationally acclaimed composer/sound artist having won the 2003 Prix Italia Award and achieving the final round selection in the 2010 and 2011 Prix Phonurgia Nova for his creative feature length works. As a result of this acclaim, Black has received multiple national and international commissions to create innovative long-form works for broadcast across major Australian and European networks. Black’s curator credits include, international festival/showcases of award winning Australian acoustic art and radio art at London’s Resonance104.4fm, Kunstradio (ÖRF, Austria) and Toronto’s New Adventures In Sound Art. In 2013 he also curated the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sound Fix: Your Weekly Dose of Transmitted Audible Art series. He is a PhD graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he was a recipient of the University of Sydney Postgraduate Awards Scholarship. More recently Black has been engaged as an academic lecturing at the University Technology, Sydney; moreover he has authored a number of conference papers and peer reviewed journal articles including “An Overview of Spatialised Broadcasting Experiments With a Focus on Radio Art Practices” in Organised Sound. Black is also the founding member of The International Radio Art (and Creative Audio for Trans-media) Research Group. For more information see: www.colinblack.com.au

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