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–Magz Hall
This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith
The power of hearing Chicana voices on the air is loud and clear. Indeed, when I heard Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa discussing her theory of hybridity and borderlands on the program The Mexican American Experience (1977) I was not only moved by the sound of Anzaldúa’s voice, but also by my intimate interaction with this influential feminista made possible through analog radio and digital technologies. Such experiences made me want to trace my own genealogy and find other Chicanas involved in radio production. I began to listen for Chicana radio activism on the airwaves, and document when, where and how Chicanas utilize radio not just as a tool for the transmission of sound, but also as a feminist community-building platform.
My entry into radio came about when I joined Soul Rebel Radio—a radio collective composed of college students, environmentalists, musicians, comics, poets, and community activists in the Los Angeles area. A youth-centered radio program, Soul Rebel Radio airs monthly on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles and focuses on themes—such as the environment, war, and young women’s issues—and current events through comedy, youth voices, opinion pieces, editorials and interviews. With no prior radio or production experience, I joined the collective in October of 2007 hoping to fulfill my life long ambition of being on the radio. This experience of collective collaboration, which is both inspiring and challenging, became a cornerstone in my thinking about the empowering nature of media making, especially community radio. I cultivated the power of my voice through my participation in Soul Rebel Radio by learning how to write, edit and produce radio segments.
Now, as a Chicana feminist scholar and community radio practitioner, I am interested in collective, community-centered research projects that help transform the neoliberal, corporate institutionalization of media production and higher education. Although the content of my research is rooted in analog technologies, I work to ground the analysis of Chicana/o radio production through a digital Chicana feminista praxis, which includes the use of digital tools such as radio, digital film and open source software. This digital Chicana feminista theory and method may help uncover the ways in which community radio production constitutes an epistemological soundtrack to Chicana feminist activism, asking what are the sounds Chicana feminisms? Who are the Chicana activists of the 1970s and 1980s that utilized radio to build community, while incorporating an important aural element to their activism?
In answering these questions, I explore the ways in which digital tools can be utilized to uncover and reclaim subjugated knowledges. However, I am in no way suggesting that digital technologies should supersede or replace face-to-face community building. In fact, my current project—from which this blog post is drawn—documents and creates an archive of Chicana radio activists, including radio station managers, producers, news directors and on-air hosts. I discuss how community radio production provides Chicanas and other marginalized groups the space to harness digital technologies and engage in the process of producing traveling sounds that speak back to discriminatory and oppressive practices. While my methods include digital film production, online archive building and curation, my writing here focuses on oral history collection, particularly my documentation of Radio KDNA.
On December 19, 1979, Radio KDNA (pronounced cadena, meaning chain) transformed the airwaves becoming the first full-time Spanish-language, non-commercial radio station in the United States (Radio Bilingüe KBBF 89.1 FM, in Santa Rosa, founded by farmworkers and Sonoma State undergraduates, was the first bilingual radio station, going on air in 1973). Located in Granger, WA, Radio KDNA’s goal was to utilize the accessibility of radio to build community while serving as a resource for the mostly Mexican and tejano migrant farm workers in the Yakima Valley. The founders of Radio KDNA believed radio was an accessible tool for Mexican and Latino farm worker communities who had little access to other media. Beginning in 1942, Mexican workers entered the United States under the Bracero Program whereby mostly agribusinesses contracted Mexican workers in response to labor shortages of World War II, which in turn caused the lowering of wages. Thus, many Mexican American and tejano farmworkers migrated to places such as Idaho, Oregon and Washington. With a growing population of a Mexican Spanish-speaking community, Radio KDNA used its Spanish-language radio platform to reflect the sociopolitical needs of this shifting demographic.
The oral history I conducted with Rosa Ramón—the only female co-founder of Radio KDNA who served as the station manager from 1979 to 1984—uncovers the radio station’s historical significance within community radio production, specifically as a site of Chicana feminist activism. Rosa’s testimonio reveals the process by which many Mexican-American, and specifically tejano families migrated from the Southwest to the Northwest in search jobs, many ending up in Washington’s Yakima Valley, an area in need of labor to harvest its crops. The migration of Mexican and tejano families served not only as a vital labor force in Yakima’s fields, it also created a community that needed and greatly benefitted from a radio station that addressed the needs of this community, both in content and language. Although Rosa was born in Arizona, her Mexican mother and tejano father decided to migrate north, stopping in Arizona and California before settling down in Eastern Washington where her family purchased a small farm. As Erasmo Gamboa illustrates in his monograph Mexican Labor and World War II, “After 1948, northwestern farms used fewer braceros as they stepped up the recruitment of Mexican Americans from the Southwest” (123). Rosa’s family is one of many families that migrated to the Northwest, a region that needed and greatly benefited from their labor.
Although the small community where Rosa grew up was mostly comprised of Mexican and tejano families, she experienced and witnessed racism and discrimination, especially at school where she was reprimanded for speaking Spanish and mocked for eating tacos instead of bologna sandwiches. Rosa was only one of four Latinos that graduated from Grandview High School. These early experiences of marginalization and her family history served as an impetus for Rosa to work in non-profits that benefitted her community, including Northwest Rural Opportunities, a community based organization set up in 1968 to provide services to seasonal and migrant farm workers in Washington state. Here she met Ricardo Garcia, another co-founder of Radio KDNA.
In an effort to bring Spanish language radio programming to the Pacific Northwest, in particular for the migrant farm workers in Eastern Washington, Rosa and Ricardo, along with Daniel Roble, and Julio Cesar Guerrero, worked tirelessly for five years to obtain a broadcasting license for a community radio station in the Yakima Valley. However, Radio Cadena was producing radio content even before opening the doors of their Granger, Washington studio in 1979. In 1975, Northwest Rural Opportunities began a training program for farm worker youth to learn radio production skills in Linden, Washington. They also began an educational training program for Spanish-speaking individuals who were learning English. In May of 1976, Radio Cadena began broadcasting on a subcarrier signal provided by Seattle-based community radio station KRAB FM, with the assistance of its station manager Chuck Reinsch. The use of this signal meant that listeners could only tune in through a special home receiver, which limited the number of people who could actually tune-in to Radio Cadena’s programming.
Ramón’s oral history reveals the importance and central role women played in the founding and development of this station, particularly in its focus on programming for, by, and about women. Her family’s migratory trajectory is an example of how Mexican and tejano communities who moved to the Yakima valley to work in the fields established a community that needed and benefited from community radio. Radio Cadena is an example of the ways in which the migration of people created the conditions for the founding of a community radio station that traversed sonic borders and infused its airwaves with stories of resistance.
As part of its community building activities, Radio KDNA trained women, especially farmworker women, to produce radio content. As Rosa shared with me during her oral history, Radio KDNA and the show Mujer (woman) were instrumental in centering women within the radio production process, by playing music by women like Mercedes Sosa and Lydia Mendoza, interviewing local women, creating news content, and training women to actually produce radio programs. Indeed, this model of Chicana radio production was instrumental in the founding and day-to-day activity of Radio KDNA, and it represents a vital technological component of the Chicano Movement era. Chicanas such as station manager Ramón, producer Estella del Villar, and news director Berenice Zuniga, not only held positions of power at KDNA, but they also produced Mujer, which aired weekly and whose goal was to provided farm worker women with news stories, music and other informative pieces addressing their distinct subjectivities. These female producers and their audience demonstrate the transformative power of community radio production and the role of women in a movement that often downplays their contributions.
By deploying Chicana historian Emma Pérez’s concept of the decolonial imaginary within Radio and Sound Studies to uncover the hidden voices of Chicanas within radio production, I document stories that compel scholars to conceive of a new framework that listens to the sound migrations of Chicana media activism, the third spaces and technological tools of the Chicano Movement not just in the Pacific Northwest, but throughout the country. The historical significance of Radio KDNA as the first full-time, Spanish language non-commercial radio station in the United States recasts Chicana/os as technologically adept and as active participants in the development of community radio. Moreover, Rosa Ramón’s oral history provides another example of the ways in which Chicana feminist activism emerged in conjunction with other social justice movements, further challenging the idea that Chicanas came to feminism after their white or African American counterparts. My historical analysis of Chicana radio production contextualizes current participation in media making, as radio can provide women of color and other marginalized groups the space to harness digital technologies to speak back and broadcast their concerns. When remixed with other components of Chicana feminisms, the sounds of Chicana radio activism constitute yet another track of resistance to the narratives that seek to silence these movements..
Featured Image by Angelica Macklin: Monica De La Torre interviews J. Kehaulani Kauanui at the radio kiosk, No. 2, Women Who Rock 2011 conference, Seattle University Pigott Building, February 18, 2011, From the Women Who Rock Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, University of Washington Digital Libraries.
Monica De La Torre is a doctoral student in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Her scholarship bridges New Media and Sound Studies by analyzing the development of Chicana feminist epistemologies in radio and digital media production. A member of Soul Rebel Radio, a community radio collective based in Los Angeles, Monica is specifically interested in the ways in which radio and digital media production function as tools for community engagement. She is an active member of the UW Women of Color Collective and the Women Who Rock Collective. Monica earned a B.A. in Psychology and Chicana/o Studies from University of California, Davis and an M.A.in Chicana/o Studies from California State University, Northridge; her master’s thesis was entitled “Emerging Feminisms: El Teatro de las Chicanas and Chicana Feminist Identity Development.” Monica received a 2012 Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, which recognizes superior academic achievement, sustained engagement with communities that are underrepresented in the academy, and the potential to enhance the educational opportunities for diverse students.
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