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tag: gadget

The Radio as Musical Instrument

An article I wrote for a special 2021 issue of The Wire


The OP-1 from Teenage Engineering

In 2011, six decades to the year after John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 instructed two dozen performers at Columbia University to use radios as instruments, a small Swedish company named Teenage Engineering released a portable music-making device. With the OP-1, radio went from being used as an instrument to being part of an instrument. An FM receiver was among the OP-1’s feature set, alongside a keyboard, synthesizer engines, sequencers and a digital record mode that borrowed its user interface from old-school cassette tapes. (Which wasn’t entirely unprecedented. In the 1980s, Casio released a piece of Frankengear called the CK-500, which combined two cassette decks and a radio with a four-octave keyboard. It went precisely nowhere.)

The design of the tidily integrated OP-1 earned a spot in the permanent holdings of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, meaning it’s in the same collection as various Cage drawings, including the graphic notation Score Without Parts (40 Drawings By Thoreau). “It felt natural,” says Teenage Engineering co-founder Jens Rudberg via Zoom. “Because to make music it helps to have inspiration, so you can sample from the OP-1’s microphone, or what you’re playing, or you can tune into whatever radio stations are around you.”


The ADDAC102

Something must have been in the air in 2011. Two other notable instruments with radios debuted that same year. San Francisco Bay Area synth legend Don Buchla debuted the 272e Polyphonic Tuner in 2011 at NAMM, the massive Southern California trade fair. The 272e module, released commercially the following year, includes four separately tunable FM receivers. Also in 2011, ADDAC Systems, based in Lisbon, Portugal, launched the ADDAC102 module, which, like Buchla’s, provided the ability to alter FM tuning via control voltage, the electrical impulses by which synthesizers send and receive instructions for things like volume, pitch and pace.

Joel Davel, who worked on the 272e with Buchla, says the device took half a decade to complete: “In particular, Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 was motivation to have at least a quad radio module.” Davel himself uses the module: “It was while playing with Don in 2011 in Mexico City that I learned of Steve Jobs’s death over Mexican radio through the 272e.”

Among 272e enthusiasts is San Francisco electronic musician Thomas Dimuzio, who tells a funny story about radio’s adoption by synthesizer designers. In spring 2007, two years after Bob Moog’s death, his namesake company announced the MoogerFooger MF/FM. Its advertising read: “Actually captures radio signals, routes them through electronic wizardry.” Dimuzio and a friend excitedly called the Moog offices, only for the receptionist to reminded them it was April Fool’s Day.


The radio function on the Tracker from Polyend

Four years later, come 2011, a radio instrument was no longer a joke. And a decade on, there are still more gadgets purpose-built for adding radio to musicians’ kits. Even as conventional broadcast radio is on the decline with the rise of streaming services, it is experiencing unprecedented utility as a tool for making music, rekindling a legacy of radio experimentation that runs through Cage, Keith Rowe, Holger Czukay, Christina Kubisch, John Duncan and many others. Polyend’s Tracker instrument, a grid device with a generous screen, includes an FM radio, which company founder Piotr Raczyński used in late 2019 on vacation: “I went to Egypt with my preproduction unit, and I grabbed samples from religious radio. I love those samples. They opened a totally new window for my music.”


A view of the Tracker from Polyend

Teenage Engineering’s co-founder Rudberg agrees: “When you’re somewhere else, it’s easy to find something to sample because it’s different. It’s easier to do something new.”

Several recent radio devices are, like ADDAC’s, in the Eurorack format. These include the ST Modular Radio and the Tesseract Modular’s Low Coast, the latter of which looks like it was yanked from a car dashboard. Another, the KOMA Field Kit – Electro Acoustic Workstation, was initially funded on Kickstarter by nearly a third of a million euros in 2017, and includes not just FM but AM and the enduringly popular zone of shortwave, too. KOMA was founded in 2011 (there’s that year again) by Christian Zollner and Wouter Jaspers. Speaking from its Berlin office, Zollner talks about the personal influence of the annual event Klangwolke, which translates as Sound Cloud, in his native Linz, Austria: “Ever since I was a kid, every civilian is supposed to put their radio in their window. Pieces play, and as you go around the city, you go through this sound cloud.”

Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner is synonymous with radio music thanks to his sampling efforts in the early 1990s, and credits the tool with maintaining tension in his performances. As part of a lengthy email correspondence, he writes: “I enjoy letting these sources take me in a direction I might never expect, using indiscriminate signals that I just pull down in real time and improvise around.” Rimbaud’s sense of chance aligns with the indeterminacy Cage sought in composition, much as the employment of control voltages connects with the role of process in his work.


The Field Kit – Electro Acoustic Workstation from KOMA

American musician King Britt in turn credits Scanner with having opened his ears to the textural qualities of radio. Britt identifies the KOMA as his instrument of choice. Speaking after teaching a UC San Diego course, he tells me about recording his 2005 album Sister Gertrude Morgan. “Tim Motzer and I were in the studio. His guitar was super loud and his amp started picking up radio signals, including this organ part that was in the same key we were playing in. I immediately hit record, and we worked it into the song.”

The lesson being: you don’t even need a radio in your instrument for radio to get in your instrument.


The 272e from Buchla


The fictional MoogerFooger MF/FM

There are widely available videos of most if not all of these devices in action, including the Arradio, ST Modular, OP-1, Buchla 272e, and ADDAC102. When this article first came out, I wrote a bit about a Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) performance using radio.

This article I wrote originally appeared in the July 2021 issue (number 449) of The Wire. It was titled “Received Wisdom” and had the subhead “The mercurial sound of the radio dial has led a new generation of instrument makers to tap into the airwaves.”

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Caprices of the Atmosphere

My June 2021 review for The Wire of Jennifer Lucy Allan's book on foghorns

The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast
Jennifer Lucy Allan
White Rabbit 304pp

It seems appropriate that the daughter of the man who is said to have invented the foghorn was christened Euphemia, and that her mother died shortly after giving birth. The name means “well-spoken” (or “well-spoken of”) in a dead language, and the story is tinged with grief right from the start.

That combination pretty much sums up the foghorn: a device both famed for its emotionally resonant seaside dirges and synonymous with a certain breed of foreboding moodiness. Jennifer Lucy Allan shines light into the mist, and the mist of history alike, in a new book that traces the roughly 170 year arc of the foghorn’s existence: from innovative safety measure to ambivalently received coastal sentinel to what it is today, a fading cultural heirloom.

We learn about the tragic and frequent shipwrecks that led to the device’s invention, about the modern conservationists battling in recent years to save the foghorns themselves from destruction, and about the numerous inventors who contributed to its varied forms. Singular as the foghorn’s sound may appear to be, there is no single foghorn. There are sirens, and reed horns, and diaphones, the latter distinguished by, as Allan puts it (her always fine descriptions benefiting from years of experience writing about popular and esoteric music), the “meaty grunt” with which it “ends its honk.” We learn, as well, of the guns, bells, and explosions that played similar roles as coastal alarms — rivals that, quite obviously, never plucked at the same film noir heartstrings as the deep, bellowing moan of a voluminous, unseen horn.

As for those inventors, there is Michael Faraday, who in his seventies participated in a solution following a sea disaster near Newfoundland (he is better remembered for enclosed spaces: the cage that bears his name), and his more determined protégé, John Tyndall, who brought precision and a poetic ear to the effort. Allan writes admiringly of the latter’s descriptive prose, phrases like “acoustic clouds,” “undulating sea,” and “caprices of the atmosphere.” And, among others, there is Euphemia’s father, Robert Foulis, who may or may not in the mid-1800s have been inspired by hearing the lower notes of his daughter’s piano pierce the Nova Scotia fog.

The book draws from work Allan did toward her recent PhD on the foghorn at CRiSAP, University of the Arts London. One main difference, no doubt, is that in this book we also learn a lot about Allan herself. This is very much a first-person story. The title is The Foghorn’s Lament, but it is demonstratively Jennifer Lucy Allan’s The Foghorn’s Lament. Barely a page goes by without her own participation present. We travel the British coast with her, and fly to San Francisco, which she singles out for its association with her subject. We spend nights with her in hostels, and share her disappointment when a lengthy quest ends at a generic computer on a table in a windowless room.

This first-person material might seem a distraction. Do we need to know that Allan travels with bread and Marmite, or spent her 30th birthday in Tokyo doing karaoke, or fell for the Delta blues as a teenager? The answer is yes. Because the point of this book is that sound, even a sound as otherworldly as the foghorn’s — beloved by such fantasists as Bram Stoker, Nigel Kneale, and John Carpenter, and transformed by such composers as Bill Fontana, Ingram Marshall, and Hildegard Westerkamp — is best understood in real-world context, real-life context. Its sound means more when it maps the location in which it occurs, when it has “picked up those contours of the landscape that soften and shape its resonances.” Research into its fragile and, yes, cloudy history becomes tangible when we recognize the remnant documents exist “only because someone in a previous century also had an interest, or maybe an obsession, with ephemera like this.” The foghorn has been Allan’s obsession for nearly a decade, and the mist from which it truly emerges in this book is that of her own powerful curiosity.

This article I wrote originally appeared in the June 2021 issue (number 448) of The Wire. It had the following header: “A historical exploration of foghorns sounding warnings to ships approaching the shore in a storm reflects on their sonic and cultural legacy.”

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Saturday Night

With the Expression Knob

This little Expression Knob from the company El Garatge (elgaratge.com), based in Barcelona, Spain, lets you adjust a guitar pedal by hand. Last night I tried it out for the first time. It stands in, so to speak, for an expression pedal. And it’s pretty great.

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Soundbites: Deaf Bell, Social Sound, Venue-less Gigs

Recent reads (etc.) on sound

A lightly annotated sound-studies clipping service, collected in advance of the next issue of my This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet):

The mother of the father of the telephone was deaf. Alexander Graham Bell’s own father developed a system called Visible Speech to facilitate communication. Bell eventually himself married a woman who had lost her hearing in childhood. And now, Katie Booth, in her new book, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness, traces this throughline in Bell’s life and work: “his creative genius and his misguided efforts to eradicate Deaf culture,” as Valerie Thompson puts it in a review. Here’s a particularly damning statement from Bell’s wife: “You are tender and gentle to deaf children, but their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not in their humanity.”
https://blogs.sciencemag.org/books/2021/04/06/the-invention-of-miracles/

LinkedIn is reportedly looking to add an audio chatroom feature, which makes sense, given how much of Clubhouse, the “audio social network,” has been professional conversations. This feature expansion would be part of a broader range of changes LinkedIn is making to flesh out its social capabilities.
https://www.firstpost.com/tech/news-analysis/linkedin-confirms-that-it-is-working-on-a-clubhouse-like-audio-chatroom-feature-9483741.html

Miss live music? Then I recommend this Gabriele de Seta essay on Hong Kong’s “no-venue underground” (a term credited to Rob Hayler), drawing from personal experience (2012-2016) playing in a city with few places to perform experimental music in the first place: “It is somehow ironically appropriate that, in this city without ground, experimental musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious underground actively carved out of fleeting spaces strewn across the upper floors of post-industrial peripheries. These precarious venues appear and disappear following the inexorable inflation of property prices and the investment decisions of landlords, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment.” It’s a timely, applicable piece during our moment of place-less livestreams. The essay is from the new book Fractured Scenes: Underground Music-Making in Hong Kong and East Asia, edited by Damien Charrieras and François Mouillot, both professors at universities in Hong Kong.
https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-15-5913-6_7

Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis and a friend of mine since college, writes about taking guitar lessons for the first time since high school. I myself started taking weekly lessons a few years ago, and can relate to this distinction he draws: “Rather than playing guitar, I am practicing with it. I don’t mean rote exercises — though I do some of those — but something more like meditation practice: a daily commitment to disciplined method and unpredictable encounter, to emotional exploration and deconstruction, to attention and listening as much as to performance or ‘doing.’” Likewise, he talks about trying to reconsider the role of recording in his efforts: “I want the recording device to become part of practice rather than ambition, no longer a staff sergeant of the Productivity Regime but a challenging feedback friend, breaking the spell to deepen it.”
https://www.burningshore.com/p/open-tunings

News of Google’s Project Wolverine goes back a month, but I don’t want to lose track of it. It’s reportedly a supercharged earbud. According to a summary by Ashley Carman, “[T]hey’re currently trying to figure out how to isolate people’s voices in a crowded room or make it easier to focus on one person when overlapping conversations are happening around you.” Carman compares this with Whisper (whisper.ai), and others to the lamented, defunct Doppler Labs. As David Pierce put it in his overview of Doppler’s fall back in 2017, it “had the bad luck of being a hardware company at a time when the biggest players in tech — Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook — are all pouring billions into developing their own gadgets.” Now Google appears to be pursuing the endeavor.
https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/4/22313421/alphabet-project-x-wolverine-hearing-aid-project
https://www.businessinsider.com/google-x-alphabet-hearing-project-wolverine-codename-augmented-reality-2021-3

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Gallery: Grid Refinement

Brian Crabtree's iterations

This gorgeous, shimmering image is a photo by Brian Crabtree (aka tehn) of work being done for a revised version of the Grid, a musical instrument synonymous with his company, Monome. It’s reproduced here from his blog, nnnnnnnn.co, with his permission. More on the Grid itself at monome.org.

He explained in correspondence: “it’s fundamentally a manufacturing optimization though that means it’s also 100% (literally every part) redesigned,” and “it’ll allow us to build them easier, have them be more robust and efficient, and pass on some price savings.”

Originally published in the February 1, 2021, edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet).

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