Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Working (or not) on a minus budget, and the imminent book of 'Organic Acoustic Modular Synthesisers'

Readers of this blog (if any) will be familiar with its theme of sound-making on a zero budget.  Electronic synthesisers are expensive... Conveniently, physical objects that can mechanically simulate synthesiser processes are not expensive - they're freely discoverable in urban/suburban environments.  Coming to terms with poverty guides all post-electronic music initiative, so it seems gratuitous when a post-electronic aesthetic is adopted by a well-off 'entrepreneur' (urgh), a funded PhD'er', or basically anybody with employment.  Of course, I'm jealous, as I've been angling to earn a living or obtain PhD funding from this idea - which I ascertained to be substantially original - since the dawn of the 21st century, yet others with non-zero budgets are surely better suited to doing stuff with swish electronic gubbins rather than adopting post-electronic contortions?  It seems unnecessary.  I always preface every post-electronic workshop with a warning that post-electronic systems go hand-in-hand with impoverishment, but it's surprising (and teeth-gritting) when some participants go on to later disprove this without me.

Back when I had a working camera and means to upload video, I used to get nice comments on my YouTube channel such as "This is great, may have to try something similar myself!" (that one was from 14 years ago).  More recently, the Oscillatorial Binnage post-electronic 'WokTones' performance video from last year attracted the comment "Amazing and inspiring work! I might pick up a technique or two for my own performances from this clip".  This sort of thing is quite encouraging, but it's rather galling if your meagre income is derived from this stuff; if people keep copying it (albeit divorcing it from the theory and melodrama that spawned it) it diminishes the chances of getting gigs.  This is all part of what I glibly call the Ghazala/Collins paradox: Reed Ghazala, a completely independent figure, pioneered circuit-bending's intuitive rewiring of electronics to produce strange new instruments, whereas Nicolas Collins is academically-rooted, with a methodical approach to hardware hacking, and whose instructional book 'Handmade Electronic Music', published by Routledge explodes the mystique surrounding circuit bending, rigorously surveys the collectives and artists working in this field (including Oscillatorial Binnage!), and heralded Collins' hardware hacking workshops around the world.  Both fascinating and well-established artists.  Apologies to both for this gross oversimplification of their work, but, theoretically, these could be viewed as two distinct approaches that cannot comfortably co-exist - Ghazala almost being a Davenport brother to Collins' J. N. Maskelyne (to use a Victorian magic analogy).  (Discuss[?]).

I never fully appreciated, until now, the possibility of a 'minus budget': a budget of debt.  In the last year or so it's become apparent that there comes a point of resourcelessness where productivity itself is scuppered.  I wrote an article for The Invisible Worker during the first lockdown last year when everyone seemingly went digital: "I was semi-prepared for a post-electronic situation, but completely unprepared for an ultra-electronic one".  The dreaded 'minus budget' eats far beyond a project's boundaries, ultimately jeopardising your living accommodation.  Minus budgets force the discarding of instruments and tools for want of space.

Recently I was forced to jettison many of my more cumbersome creations - over a decade's worth of electromagnetic or hand-cranked acoustic soundmakers once regularly trotted out for gigs or lectures.  With an inkling of their potential awkwardness, in 2005 I'd called these instruments "albatross machines" due to them being so difficult to transport.  Most of these hadn't even been documented properly due to my lack of up-to-date technology, and I relied on people filming my instruments on their phones during live demonstrations, naively assuming that that media would have some permanence (there's an important lesson there).  This reminded me of a poignant project by Imogen Heap and Leafcutter John...

In 2014 musicians Heap and Leafcutter launched a homemade instrument amnesty, requesting submissions of homemade "Musical Creatures" - semi-autonomous soundmaking constructions on the cusp of controllability - whose owners couldn't care for them any more: experiments "gathering dust, sitting on that shelf".  They cited my post-electronic instrument-building work "just to give you an idea of the kind of thing we're after", and provided a link to my blog.  Their project collected all kinds of these "creatures" to perform together.  If only the amnesty was ongoing, my creations would still be alive, AHGHHrg384uvgerjioel!!1

At the time, I wondered about the backstories of the devices that their project sought to rescue.  I couldn't imagine letting my own instruments fall into neglect.  Even my failed apparatuses were kept and tinkered with regularly.  Of course, I didn't reckon with the prospect of a minus budget.

My early stabs at post-electronics saw infusions of air and liquid, or rather syrup, footpumped into vortices between perforated membranes with adjustable tautness.  Wishing for less messy systems, I soon began crowbarring electromagnetism into post-electronic practice.  One abandoned instrument in this direction was too power-hungry to be classed as post-electronic: the electromagnetically levitated xylophone, inspired by the techniques of Eric Laithwaite, whose visionary book 'Propulsion without Wheels' I'd come across many years ago.  Ambitiously, xylophone keys would hover in the air, with theoretically near-infinite sustain.  The space-age ideal was, in practice, a shambolic hotchpotch, as the magnetic levitation field muffled the tones of the keys even when nodally aligned, and the buzz of the greedy coil drivers overwhelmed the xylophone tones.  Any refinements were beyond my budget, and besides, I sensed the instrument would be too gimmicky to offer anything exploratory.  But this led to lamppost resonation and, finally, a passively 'electric' post-electronic solution to completing a real-world analogy of the Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release envelope, so crucial to electronic music.

Anticipating the loss of these 'albatross' instruments in 2020, I decided to attempt a documentation of post-electronics' evolution, and a large body of text was rapidly accumulated which has been deemed publishable.  If all goes to plan, this will shortly be purchasable in book form.  The book 'Post-Electronics: The History, Design & Philosophy of Organic Acoustic Modular Synthesisers' memorialises many of the now-discarded instruments, or rather, modules, since the interconnectability of acoustic constructions is a key point.  But the main function of the book is to serve as a detailed guide to electronic-simulating acoustic soundmaking operations.  It also draws parallels with pre-electronics, giving an airing to the dynamics that condemned to obscurity the 19th century electro-musical innovator J. B. Schalkenbach (whose work I've surveyed, being custodian of the Johann Baptist Schalkenbach archive, yet bizarrely no publisher wants to touch), as well as countless old inventions that, undeveloped during their day, now become plausible as post-electronic music mechanisms in the wake of a widened musical consciousness that can reasonably accommodate them.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Parallel Worlds - Pre- and Post-Electronic Music Technology in Electronic Sound #68

Electronic Sound issue 68
To coincide with the release of Oscillatorial Binnage's album 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds', this month's Electronic Sound magazine (with Devo on the cover) contains my six-page article on pre-electronic soundmaking and its technological parallels with post-electronic music.  This blogpost provides some further perspectives.  A common thread linking pre- and post-electronic approaches is the acoustic manipulation of musical tone and rhythm, necessarily through physical mechanisms.  The study of pre-electronic music reveals parallel histories in electronic music... 'Parallel Worlds' is the title of the Electronic Sound feature.

J. B. Schalkenbach's Piano Orchestre Electro Moteur
It's rather historic to see neglected innovations of the past that I've long been excavating at last being assimilated into such a mainstream electronic music publication as Electronic Sound magazine: the electronic feedback instrument of Alfred Graham (which has no presence in electronic music history whatsoever, beyond my own publications), and Johann Baptist Schalkenbach's Orchestre Militaire Electro-Moteur are touched upon in the article (Schalkenbach's instrument gets a whole page to itself!).  The stories behind both are more thoroughly documented in my book 'Magnetic Music of the Spiritual World', for which I'm *still* seeking a proper publisher in the wake of my tiny self-published edition of 2015.  This project is, in fact, now expanded to encompass further examples of what I call 'failed histories' beyond the pre-electronic era... There's an enduring irony that failed histories seem to beget failure, inasmuch as they seem impervious to wider publisher interest - my project deemed by one outlet as "too eccentric".

Many of these hitherto undocumented histories were discovered through my activities on the fringes of the antiquarian book world.  Ephemera and self-published material is of particular interest - items seldom found catalogued anywhere else.  Such items represent lone voices calling out from the abyss.  At a second-hand bookshop, I once found a volume of acoustical patents, each with their original blue wrappers, and replete with fold-out diagrams, all bound into a hardcover for some unknown private library or collector some hundred years ago.  One particular patent in this book sheds some light on the 'failed history' dynamic...

In 1879, a patent was deposited by one Eugene Ernest Bornand for a rudimentary "musical instrument" called 'Le Vibrateur'.  This pre-electronic sound-effects device is briefly mentioned in the Electronic Sound article, as well as the Oscillatorial Binnage 'Agitations' CD booklet.  Le Vibrateur was designed by Bornand to alter the sound of a voice or a musical instrument.  The passage of sound through a flexible tube would cause two convex plates attached at the end to vibrate.

Eugene Ernest Bornand's 'Le Vibrateur'

Le Vibrateur was similar to the classic Punch and Judy 'swazzle' in that it distorted sound.  The obvious difference was that the swazzle - a reeded diaphragm - was inserted directly into the roof of the performer's mouth to create the buzzy voice, whilst Bornand's instrument had a tube enabling more varied uses.  The swazzle was considered a trade secret to Punch and Judy performers, yet boasted an international presence as widespread as the Punch tradition itself: in France the swazzle is called the sifflet–pratique, and in Italy the pivetta, etc.  It would've been considered perverse (in Punch and Judy circles) for some monopolist to attempt to patent the swazzle.  Despite the aforementioned differences, Bornand's Vibrateur is eyebrow-raisingly close to the swazzle, but Bornand widened the commercial scope of his innovation, encouraging a more practical use for it in fog signalling.  Bornand also saw the Vibrateur's potential in recreating orchestral sounds: "by varying the size, shape, and material used, I can produce imitations of every musical instrument, so that I can create the same effect as a full orchestra".  With post-electronic sound in mind, an aspect of interest for modern ears was Bornand's suggestion of new sonic possibilities - the Vibrateur player could adjust the buzz of the plates by pressing them together "causing the evolution of modified sound, weird, grotesque, or euphonious".

Little is known about the Vibrateur's patentee: a mysterious figure who declared his profession as "artist lyrique".  The term artiste lyrique was unusual in Victorian Britain, but was sometimes deployed as a pretence to elevate the art of the 'characteristic vocalist' into Frenchified bohemian realms (although it was generally reserved for female vocalists).  No trace of Eugene Ernest Bornand can be found in censuses, and his (or her, or their) patent appears to be communicated to the Patent Office directly, rather than through an international agent, making it likely the inventor was based in the UK.  There's a genealogical record of a Swiss national named Eugene Bornand arriving in Britain in August 1851, but there the trail goes cold.  It's possible that there was no such person as Eugene Ernest Bornand - it may be a pseudonym.  British performers often adopted more exotic-sounding names, and it wasn't unknown for patentees, especially music hall performers, to use nom-de-plumes, but there's no record of Eugene Bornand on the entertainment circuit either.

As part of the legal process, Bornand's patent had a witness signatory, a London-based "Wm. H. Le Troir" of 26 Budge Row.  This *was* a pseudonym (or could it be the printer's failed attempt to decipher an illegible signature?) - this was actually William Henry Le Fevre, a patent agent, engineer and president of The Balloon Society of Great Britain.

In the Vibrateur patent, Eugene Ernest Bornand gives his own address as "8 Howland Street" in Fitzrovia, London; a residential street in London's West End - a suitable dwelling for an artiste lyrique, in the entertainment district.  Howland Street was an interesting neighbourhood at this time...  At 7 Howland Street lived Adam Weiler, an activist cabinet-maker and friend of Karl Marx.  Meanwhile, 9 Howland Street hosted Swiss artist Frank Feller, lodging with older German painter Anthony Rosenbaum (painter of 'Chess Players', held by the National Portrait Gallery).  At 6 Howland Street lived the Pitman family who were all musicians going back for many generations, with the youngest daughter, 22-year-old Elizabeth Catherine Pitman being a teacher, and later, professor of music.  But who lived at 8 Howland Street?

Beyond what's stated in the Vibrateur patent, there's no record of a Eugene Bornand living at 8 Howland Street.  The 1881 census, however, does show one likely individual boarding there: a 22-year-old "vocalist" named Tom Ross.  Could this be the artiste lyrique, Eugene Bornand?  Stated as being born in Cheshire, Tom Ross is similarly elusive, with no further positive matches found in any genealogical databases.  Two of Tom Ross' fellow 8 Howland Street lodgers are in the same age bracket and likewise have theatrical professions - Charles Scott, also 22, was a "characteristic dancer" from Sheffield, and a John Preston: a 19-year-old "dress designer / milliner" from Devon.  These fellow travellers are also difficult to trace definitively.

Eugene Bornand's identity cannot yet be proven, but his sole patent, Le Vibrateur, is a significant example of a forgotten invention, overlooked or deemed unprofitable at the time, that may now be reappraised - in a manner only possible after the advent of electronic sound - through the lens of modernity, as a proto-effects-unit; an attempt to mechanically engage with musical tone, and a useful component for any post-electronic apparatus (indeed, Oscillatorial Binnage use similar methods on 'Agitations').

Whether or not Eugene Bornand was Tom Ross is a moot point.  The obliteration of both these identities from historical records illustrates the 'failed history' dynamic.  In the entertainment world, there's a tendency to pile pseudonym upon pseudonym, and when you factor in the constantly shifting whereabouts of a travelling performer, it makes cobbling together a biography of such an individual via official documents near-impossible.  Poverty was also a key factor: in a cautionary exposé of the perils of performer life, the 1885 edition of 'The Truth about the Stage' by the pseudonymous 'Corin'* warns prospective entertainers against "the meretricious glare of life behind the curtain," and its "halo of romance, which is rarely dispelled until the fatal step is taken and when it is too late to turn back".  (And maybe there's a lesson here for modern electronic and experimental performers... as I sense increasingly sharply through experience.)

* (Bizarrely, Corin - the author of 'The Truth about the Stage' (1885) was apparently the pseudonym of William Lynd, the great-grandfather of writer and The Wire contributor Clive Bell.)

Oscillatorial Binnage's 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds' is out now on Sub Rosa records.  Read more in this month's Electronic Sound #68.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Oscillatorial Binnage's new post-electronic music album: 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds'

Finally.  After countless struggles finding an outlet for this uncategorisable work, Oscillatorial Binnage's long-delayed album is out at last: 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds'.  It's on the Brussels-based Sub Rosa label - physical CD copies are accompanied by a colour illustrated booklet, 'A Primer on Post-Electronic Technique'.  The album is entirely post-electronic, arbitrarily microtonal music created using mechanical assemblies of found objects, resonated with electromagnetic force fields.  Distribution has been slowed by the pandemic, but it's available on Bandcamp (and also directly from me via the main Miraculous Agitations site).  Mirroring the current situation, the album envisions an apocalyptic paradigm shift scenario, necessitating adaptation in the face of adverse conditions (in this case, an imagined post-electronic situation: how might musicians create exploratory electronic music, with its emphasis on waveshaping, filters and modulation processes, without any synthesisers?  This album provides the answer).

Oscillatorial Binnage: (l to r) Chris Weaver, Fari Bradley, Dan Wilson, and Toby Clarkson.

Acoustic hacking workshop, 2009.
Oscillatorial Binnage is Fari Bradley, Chris Weaver, Toby Clarkson, and myself.  We've been performing together for fifteen years, during which time we've introduced many unusual new electroacoustic instruments, along with the concept of acoustic hacking.  'Agitations' features the electromagnetic resonators that I've been developing since 2004.  We've given many workshops around the world, teaching participants how to access the hidden frequencies of scrap objects using coils and force fields, and how, by acoustically combining workshoppers' apparatuses all together, even more complex sounds can be produced: communal apparatuses are fertile instruments for 'miraculous agitations'.

Miraculous agitations are instances of complex sonic progressions, usually emerging from clustered vibrating objects (see previous blogposts for more explanations).  Obtaining these emergent states requires patience, but the probability of such states occurring increases with the size of the apparatus.  In 2013, Oscillatorial Binnage spent a week at Maggie Thomas and Bob Drake's Borde Basse studio in the south of France, loaded up with as many salvaged/adapted objects as we could haul.  Over the course of our stay, we gradually coaxed elusive 'miraculous' states to emerge from our vibrating apparatuses, not without some grind (Bob, engineering the proceedings, notably had a box of headache tablets on standby).

Oscillatorial Binnage recording 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds'

Bob and Maggie's array of microphones captured many moments when our apparatuses would become locked into resonating grooves.  The album collects all these instances, recorded entirely acoustically without any electronic processing.  These moments - technically known as 'emergence' - are one of the principal advantages post-electronic apparatuses have over electronic synthesiser-based equivalents: the possibility of unexpected sonic events arising from an infinity of real-world physical variables.  Another benefit is the economical, recycling aspect: all soundmaking and filtering modules can be found for free.

We're grateful for the recent kind reviews of 'Agitations': "a panorama of hypnotic and metamorphic alterity"... "a sorely needed reminder of the miraculous in the mundane"... "bizarre titillating soundscapes" ... to quote a few.  The sonic alchemy was picked up on in Julian Cowley's review in last month's The Wire magazine: "an alchemical transmutation of the routine world".

      

Since live performances are unlikely under the present conditions, we hope to aerate some special material over the next few months.

'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds' is out now on Sub Rosa.

The supplementary booklet with the CD of Oscillatorial Binnage's 'Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds'

Saturday, 20 June 2020

I Found a... Scale

Back in September 2018 I posted the "I Found a... Pipe" blogpost - an attempt to initiate a series of found object accounts; exploring the dynamics of curiosity, the chance encounters, the chains of association, the pratfalls and prat-uplifts that may accompany such discoveries.  One of the persistent themes of this blog is the idea that electronic-equivalents of soundmaking processes can be found for free in the physical world - an ideal driven by poverty and its resultant anti-capitalism, and accompanying scepticism towards commercial electronic hardware flavours-of-the-months.  Whereas the pipe of 2018 had limited soundmaking value, this new blogpost examines the musical scales obtainable from multi-holed hollow flints, found during pandemic walkabouts.
The current situation places bin-diving off-limits, so instead, I've been traipsing around fields.  The flint-rich geology of the locale boasts rocks with hollow cavities - channels left by decayed ancient sea sponges.  These hollow flints are difficult to spot, as their holes are usually clogged with mud.  After some cleaning with water and bell-wire, the cavities can be cleared, creating almost ocarina-like 'instruments'.  So far, a number of different flints have been found with interlinked channels, each offering unique microtonal musical scales.

These stones, each with their own in-built set of pitches formed 500 million years ago, are good grist for the arbitrary tuning mill.  Why is arbitrary tuning important?  I consider it a topic all-too-frequently dismissed.  For those who enjoy the divergent aspects of differently-tuned music, or wish to escape the ubiquity of the equal tempered musical scale, it may be surprising that microtonal/xenharmonic music offers very little refuge - it is here that just intonation and "pure" harmonic mathematical dogmatism supplants one tyranny with another.  I exaggerate here a bit, but it's fair to say that random/arbitrary musical scales are generally viewed as unsophisticated in microtonal music circles.

A few years ago I tried to establish a historical basis for 'intuitively selected tuning systems' in my Radionics Radio project (on Sub Rosa records), but drawing upon a fringe science - no matter how artistically groundbreaking those acoustic-radionic activities were in the late 1940s - didn't convince many (radionics involves 'psychically' selecting frequencies that correspond to thoughts).  Random tunings offer complete freedom, and reveal the idiosyncrasies of the instruments used, as well as the identities of soundmakers.  I would go as far to politicise it: arbitrary tuning is perhaps the ultimate musical 'decolonisation' whilst also being a practical and philosophical ideal for microtonal music's LGBTQ+ lineage that embraces such varied personalities as Kathleen Schlesinger, Elsie Hamilton, to Harry Partch and Wendy Carlos - a lineage rarely-discussed, but deeply rooted, I believe, in the opposition to the norms of western equal temperament (and the contra-norms of just intonation and equal divisions of the octave).

The hollow flint... containing a scale.
Hollow flints found in fields speak of the primacy of arbitrary tunings: random, fully individuated tunings literally set in stone.  My favourite is a handheld flint with five channels.  Unlike the specially-lipped ocarina, hollow flints cannot produce pure tones when blown into, unless a sharp 'labium tip' is expertly chiselled into it somehow (a feature of all fipple flutes).  This isn't necessarily a problem - for instance, sound artist Akio Suzuki has been playing upon unrefined natural stones for decades, eliciting exploratory pitched noise: half-tonal, half-percussive, and sensitively done.  Covering the holes on the flint while blowing does produce vague pitches, but too broad to measure precisely.

Kathleen Schlesinger, in her 1939 deep-study of ancient greek auloi (reeded wind instruments dug up from historical sites) and their possible scales remarked that "it is impossible to determine the pitch, scale, or modality of any pipe that lacks a mouthpiece which will play it".  These rocks are not instruments, and it is indeed tricky treating them as such: even if a fipple mouthpiece (from a wind recorder, for instance) is introduced to the rock (which I did), the pitch of the notes varies due to its player's breath pressure: the more open holes there are, the more breath pressure is required to produce a tone - and the natural reflex action is to supply more breath pressure, an action so unconscious that it almost feels as if the rock becomes an extension of the body.  Try it yourself.

It is possible to connect a small lapel microphone to a loudspeaker amplifier, and place the microphone inside the flint to hear feedback.  The feedback pitch is relative to the cavity, and alters according to the fingering of the cavities.  I did a brief experiment with this on camera, and posted it to Facebook to advertise the upcoming episode of Wavelength on Resonance FM where I describe these experiments.

On the internet, there's always either a miserable don't-know-who, or a know-it-all nonsenseclown poised to blurt.  If they're remotely connected to creative doings, it tends to spur on the mission to legitimise arbitrary scales.  On this occasion, one such character (I can't discern which) emerged from the woodwork to advertise their obliviousness to these experiments' contexts: "eh, this is like sticking a piezo transducer in anything. Ok; weird, somewhat regulated noise. 'Man farting in field' has been Lucier'd to death."

Alfred Graham's feedback flute, 1894.
Maybe this person is rightfully irate to some extent: the volume required to obtain the pitches of the flint cavity is horrendous on the ear.  To record it, one rainy afternoon I walked to the field where the flint originated, specifically to avoid remonstrations.  Alvin Lucier used compressors to limit the volume of his object-based feedback.  This feedback technique actually pre-dates Lucier's work by eight decades - the feedback flute was proposed by Alfred Graham, patented in 1894 - a failed history I've excavated and written about in 'Magnetic Music...' and 'Failed Histories of Electronic Music', and recreated as a working model.  Graham recognised the many variables affecting the flute's pitch, such as battery power, the shape and construct of the loudspeaker and microphone, and their relative positions.  Nevertheless, the feedback flint, if held stable enough, is a fairly accurate approximation of the pitch intervals obtainable.  By comparing the feedback-generated intervals with the intervals obtained with an attached fipple, and also with the vague windy tones created when blowing, mean averages can be obtained.

With the lowest note registering as 669Hz, the ratios are calculable as 1/1, 737/669, 775/669, 263/223, 269/223 and 828/669 (giving an ascending 167.590, 254.628, 285.622, 324.674, 369.149 in cents).

What can be done with these notes?  Well, the scale of this handheld flint encompasses less than four semitones (3.69, to be exact), which is a restrictive set of notes, but frequent exposure to the notes acclimatises the ear to soundmaking/melodic possibilities.  This is something noted by the composer Susan Alexjander who derived scales from DNA bases.  DNA bases' tunings might as well be arbitrary, such is the inharmonic chaos - they seemed "so strange and alien that one at first despairs of ever creating a beautiful work of art, or making any coherent 'sense' out of them", according to Alexjander.  By constant exposure to the new scales "played over and over on the synthesiser, some arrestingly beautiful combinations began to appear"...  so when dealing with such disorientating scales, perseverance is key!

More can be heard on Wavelength, broadcast on Resonance 104.4FM on 19th June 2020. "A programme of multiple agendas presented by William English. This week: a tape sync with Oscillatorial Binnage member Daniel Wilson who, prevented from bin-diving during the Covid-19 epidemic, instead turns to "ground-diving" to dig out unusual stones from the earth. The potential for producing 'rock music' is showcased after a lengthy preliminary chat with William on the current state of the second-hand book trade."

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Wireless on the Brain in 1922 (with Ernie Mayne) - Radio versus the Music-Hall

Within the expanse of the electromagnetic spectrum is a small band of colour - the human visible light range.  This narrow strip could be viewed as a sort of firewall: above the visible light range lurks dangerous ionising radiations that can mutate organic matter, and below it are the more benign non-ionising radiations facilitating our radio communications amidst thronging natural atmospherics, from the low Schumann resonances of the earth's magnetic field, to the fizz of the sun.

Many radio waves are of natural origin, but since the development of radio technology the possible biological and environmental effects of lower-range non-ionising electromagnetic radio waves have been a source of enduring speculation.  There's still much research to be done to establish the safety of the upper microwave range occupied by radar signals.  5G signals will operate near this range, and the ongoing debates surrounding 5G have reminded me of a song written in 1922 and recorded around 1923, called 'Wireless on the Brain', thus:


Now I'm in my 30s, and my unemployability seems to be fairly well-cemented (at least locally, where I live), I can do things that, when younger, I would've been too shy to do for fear of ridicule.  During the current lockdown I've been exercising, but my belief is that exercise of the voice must accompany that of the body.  So I modulate song onto my breathing.  I run, hop, backtrack, vocalise randomness, gallop sideways, and indulge in all kinds of physical whims, especially around industrial estates, in what I call 'undisciplined exercise'.  If anyone sees me or tells me to vacate the area, I carry on regardless - I simply don't care anymore.  Yesterday I saw some telecom engineers in the distance, which compelled me to start singing 'Wireless on the Brain' (as sung by music-hall comic Ernie Mayne), whilst sprinting sideways, in a circular dance, to the rhythm.  Please, reader, do not think that I'm trivialising a serious matter - I'm just drawing attention to a contested area of thought.  Rather than letting this recalled song nugget go to waste, I thought a blog post on it might be worthwhile.

I can't remember where I first heard 'Wireless on the Brain'.  It may have been taped off the radio.  It appears to be a rare song that hasn't received much attention.  "My wife Jane's got wireless on the brain" runs the chorus - and while it does have some now-un-PC passages that would've been innocent within 1920s vernacular, a malign swipe endures in its cocking-a-snook at Marconi's wireless technology.  Variety performers' livelihoods depended on people going out to music-halls, and so the prospect of audiences staying at home listening to wireless radios was a concern.  Ernie Mayne, aka 'The Simple One', was an effective 'everyman' character to give voice to this wireless cynicism.  (In the vaudeville tradition, Ernie also had an 'everywoman' alter-ego as a vehicle for other songs such as the wartime 'Tale of My Husband's Shirt').

'Wireless on the Brain' isn't actually about the biological effects of radio.  Having something 'on the brain' is likely an early Americanism, noted in Samuel Fallows 1835 'Progressive Dictionary of the English Language' as low slang denoting "an inordinate feeling or desire regarding anything".  Nevertheless, for 1922, 'Wireless on the Brain' is a strikingly visceral title.  The main concern in 'Wireless on the Brain' is that the protagonist husband's wife is too engrossed in listening to the radio to cook his food for him.  A rather antiquated situation.

The title of 'Wireless on the Brain' harks back to another song sung by Ernie Mayne a few years earlier during WWI, 'Farmyard on the Brain'.  Here again, his wife is the affected subject who's working on a farm, and has gone "farmyard barmy" (some extramusical animal imitations underscore this).  Sexist undertones are softened somewhat by the fact that the joke is really on Ernie Mayne, who becomes reduced to a subservient animal state: "if I want a bit of mutton for my supper now, I have to say 'baa baa'".  I can't tell whether the lyrics are all double-entendres - if they are, it conjures deeply unappetising images.  Returning to 'Wireless on the Brain' though... towards the end of the song Ernie is similarly enfeebled, "I tremble like a mouse... for everything is wireless in our house".  Food, incidentally, was a recurring theme for twenty-stone Mayne, whose other hits included 'My Meatless Day', 'There's No Toad in the Toad-in-the-Hole' (both addressing wartime rationing), and 'I've Never Wronged an Onion, Why Should it Make Me Cry?'.

The wife 'Jane' with 'wireless on the brain' hints at a historically obscured female radio listenership, habitually accessing a world of information beyond domestic confines and home literature of the day.  Ernie Mayne's wife wasn't called Jane in real life - she was in fact a performer too, adopting the stagename Alice Davidson (aka Alice Emma Holbrow).  'Wireless on the Brain' was written by one of Ernie's collaborators: a London songwriter called John Patrick Harrington whose wife was named Jane - Jane Eliza Harrington, from Birmingham.  Whether or not the song is a portrayal of their domestic happenings is not known, but happily, Harrington later wrote a gushing poem for his wife on their golden wedding anniversary in 1937.

'Video killed the radio star' sang The Buggles in 1979, but in 1922, radio was threatening to kill the music-hall star.  At the age of 58, Harrington was a veteran music-hall writer, and 'Wireless on the Brain' could be seen as a late jibe at the technology that endangered the livelihoods of those struggling to branch out and adapt their established craft to a brand new medium.  With the ongoing debate over 5G, it's worth considering the positions of those extolling its pros and its cons; the cultural tectonics at play.  Like music-hall songwriting in the 1920s, 5G looms over those whose knowledge bases are rooted in older systems.  Wherever there are livelihoods at stake, arguments often throw up unflattering imagery concerning the contested article.  On the other hand, the heavy investments surrounding 5G prompt counterarguments supporting the new wireless technology, yet the proposed wireless ranges are admitted to have a lack of test studies to back up these reassurances.  Video may have killed the radio star, but will radio itself return to kill everyone?  The public are caught between these arguments.  In the meantime, I will continue galloping in circles around industrial estates singing refrains from 'Wireless on the Brain'.

If I ever meet that son of a gun who first invented wireless
I'll kill him, I'll kill him, I'll have his bally gore.
At listening-in my dear old Dutch is absolutely tireless
And when I want to fall asleep and snore
She went and bought a wireless set, and "what a wreck," I feel;
We have a blooming opera now with every blinkin' meal.

My wife Jane, she's got wireless on the brain;
While she's taking messages I send S.O.S.-ages,
Even in my bye-bye, she cries "you lazy T*rk!"
"Can't you hear the wireless? It's time you started work!'

She gabbles about her wireless ways, her aerials and broadcasting.
No error: a terror, my old girl's going to be,
And when I sit down at breakfast time, I've had to sit there fasting
'Cos she, all smiles, is listening-in, you see.
She says "Lloyd George is speaking now,"
Then I shout good and strong:
"'Ere, ain't it nearly time some wireless kippers came along?"

[Chorus]

I jolly well wish that missis of mine had never met Marconi,
I'm worried, I'm flurried, I tremble like a mouse.
I'm pretty well near off my filbert, and I'm not so far from stoney,
For everything is wireless in our house.
Our wireless dog keeps barking outside on his wireless chain,
And upstairs in the attic they've had wireless twins again.

[Chorus]

My wife Jane she's got wireless on the brain
While she's taking messages, I send S.O.S.-ages
Even in my bye-bye, she's shouting out, "Police!"
"Who's upset the turkey? He's mopping up the grease."

Monday, 2 March 2020

Aki Onda's 'I Lost My Memory'

Aki Onda's Cassette Memories project is being digitally re-released in its three volumes by Lawrence English's Room40 label.  Cassette Memories' first two volumes were released in 2003, with a third appearing in 2012 - all originally on CD.  FACT magazine's recent feature gives an idea of the extent of Onda's ongoing project.  Cassette Memories draws upon his vast collection of dictaphone tape recordings, starting in 1988, documenting his travels around the world.  The best way I can describe Cassette Memories is as the closest thing to being able to listen to the raw data contents of a 'downloaded' human mind, in all its dream-like non-linearities.

Aki Onda's I Lost My Memory
To shed more light on the paradoxically personal yet impersonal project, a booklet has been published by Room40 to coincide with the digital release, to which I supplied an essay entitled 'Tape, Psyche, Montage and Magic: The Cassette Memories of Aki Onda'.  This text examines the numinous qualities of tape (psyphonics are touched upon).  Limited to 200 copies, the publication is entitled I Lost My Memory and contains Aki Onda's photography and an illuminating artist's statement.  The fact that Cassette Memories is a digital release rather emphasises its 'cassetteness': lively non-linear harmonic distortions, signal compression, random noise grain, all present in even the highest grade cassette tape... but these herald deeper psychological implications - parts of a depersonalisation process which is explored further in the booklet.  I Lost My Memory takes its name from an obscure, hitherto anonymous 1932 autobiography of the same name: I Lost My Memory: The Case as the Patient Saw It, published by Faber & Faber.

I Lost My Memory (1932)
The 1932 book is mentioned in my essay where, for the first time, its author's identity is revealed to be agricultural researcher Clement Heigham (1890-1979).  More details can be read in the booklet.  Ascertaining Clement Heigham's authorship was a peculiar process.  I'd written to Faber & Faber's archivist years ago, who unhelpfully refused to share any details or even say whether any documents survived.  I Lost My Memory: The Case as the Patient Saw It appears to be the first full-length first-person English-language account of psychogenic memory fugue, and it became a key title in my research where data repositories are trawled to find identities of anonymous old authors.  I therefore tried to unveil the authorship using only the data provided in the book.  As its author admits in his 1932 foreword: "every book is a public exposure of its author" giving "little peeps" when they least expect or intend it.  These "peeps" are the clues future researchers can use to triangulate the whereabouts of a writer within digital archival datasets, thereby bringing to life submerged and forgotten stories (stories even half-forgotten by their own authors in this case).  Whether the residue of memory resides in written or sonic form, the idea of this residue being tweaked, assailed, jostled or recollated to bring new revelations and an ever-deepening 'theatre of the mind' has some affinity, I think, to what Aki Onda engages in with his tapes.  Onda questions how we process reality, working with (and manipulating) the essence of memory to feed back upon his own compositional procedures.  Cassette tape is his medium for these enquiries.

When I interviewed Aki Onda last year, I forgot to ask what brand of audio cassette he prefers (a trivial question perhaps).  Memorex?  Onda has said that his tapes are like a surrogate memory to him.  The Memorex Corporation's branding similarly hints at data storage products as prostheses to remembering.  There's also a Memorex advert from the early 1980s unintentionally verging on the esoteric: enigmatic statements regarding Memorex's new High Bias tapes foreshadowed the 'hauntological' essences that would later be felt within the obsolete medium decades later: "you'll find that when you record on Memorex an extra dimension emerges.  Now you can capture that elusive quality that turns sound into music and then makes music come alive".  One such "extra dimension" is enterable via Aki Onda's Cassette Memories series.

The artist's book Aki Onda: I Lost My Memory is out now on Room40 and includes download codes for Cassette Memories I, II and III.

Aki Onda has also broadcast on Resonance 104.4FM, presenting his extensive research into Filipino composer José Maceda (1917-2004).  Also available is a two-part interview with Dr. Ed Baxter on Onda's own work, Space Studies.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Joris Van de Moortel's 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', The Wire magazine as a raw material, and a Victorian chemist

Joris Van de Moortel is a Belgian artist whose work is defined by deconstructing the definitions of music and musical instruments.  This deconstruction frequently involves literal wreckage - electric guitars and amps receive special attention.  In the hands of Van de Moortel, these despoliations not mere acts of gratuitousness, a la The Who, Hendrix, et al, but they are ritualised processes to create something afresh from the chaotic debris.  He once stated that after an event, he'd sometimes "bulldoze over the work to then recycle the rubble into new works" - the name Van de Moortel, incidentally, translates as 'cement'.  Whether bulldozers are available or not, physical and conceptual chunks of aggregate from old works often appear in the mortar and masonry of new installations, montage-like.  With his love of sonic frenzy, he was drawn to a recent issue of The Wire magazine themed around musical excess to which I'd contributed a short history of explosives in music.  Van de Moortel made contact with me in August 2019, and engaged me to write a special essay for him, which is now published: "Van de Moortel's Goception in the Mess: Byways in the History of Noise's Ongoing Transmutation into Music" appears in his new artists book 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', published by Hopper and Fuchs in association with Galerie Nathalie Obadia.  More on that shortly (particularly the word 'goception' - which is a made-up word)...

Close-up detail
Joris Van de Moortel's 'Bomb Culture' (2019)
Interestingly, The Wire - a monthly experimental music-focused magazine - is utilised by Van de Moortel as "a note-gathering source, which also becomes a personal jotting pad to pool ideas together".  The Wire's issue #427 on 'excess' inspired Van de Moortel to produce a series of works based on its various essays.  With a nod to the seven sacraments in Catholicism, seven essays were selected from the issue (including my piece, 'Bomb Culture', Tim Rutherford-Johnson's 'High Emission Zone', Alexander Hawkins' 'Written in the Stars', Simon Reynolds' 'Flash of the Axe', Spenser Thomson's 'Crude Awakenings', Greg Tate's 'Clones of Dr. Funkenstein', and David Toop's 'The Sweet Science'), and large scale mixed-media artworks were produced, retaining the essays' original titles.  Closer inspection of these pieces reveals small distressed snippets from the Wire texts pasted within!  Writers, especially in music journalism, seldom consider what their copy might ultimately catalyse when in print form. This thought-provoking transformation of the magazine's texts made me wonder about any precedents where The Wire might've been creatively reworked and personalised in a similar way... Do you know of any, reader?  Rare as it seems, there's one other instance I'm aware of...

Collage featuring The Wire text from Allen Fisher's 'SPUTTOR' (2014)

In 2014, the poet Allen Fisher published an art-poetry book titled 'SPUTTOR', containing pasted-in and cut-up texts.  It began as a modified copy of a 1986 book called 'Space Shuttle Story' (all letters other than SP-UTT-OR excised from the cover) by Andrew Wilson (no relation to me).  Allen Fisher had included some lines from my Wire magazine feature on Daphne Oram - 'The Woman from New Atlantis' - from the August 2011 issue.  It's fascinating to find two texts I've supplied for the same magazine ending up as raw material in distinctly different works: Van de Moortel's and Fisher's.  I don't actually write for The Wire very often, so maybe The Wire is funnelled into artwork more often than we might expect?  This also summoned thoughts on whether this is indicative of a specific sensibility that The Wire attracts or fosters.

I've also cut-up a Wire issue or two.  Back in 2001 I was anonymously leaving cassettes of homemade, challenging music in public for random people to find.  MC Schmidt from the duo Matmos was interviewed in The Wire's April 2001 issue, and I'd cut out a quote that'd taken my juvenile mind's fancy: "We couldn't have been more pleased than to have gotten a job making music for gay fisting videos and then talking about it".  I cut out this memorable quote for a palimpsest of juxtaposed matter, photocopied for the cassette's paper sleeve.  In more recent years, the cassette diarist and improviser Adam Bohman sent me one of his personalised diary tapes bearing a collaged cover, and although he'd used a Biro-overlaid baked bean tin label(?) on that occasion, it wouldn't surprise me if Bohman used The Wire as collage material too.  I vaguely remember Bohman's Secluded Bronte bandmate, Richard Thomas (who now contributes to the magazine, on-off) once had some unidentified origami folded from Wire pages prettifying his desk at Resonance FM's old Denmark Street HQ... but it was difficult to tell whether it was a significant objet d'art or not - those were messier times.  I also suspect musical anarchist Xentos 'Fray' Bentos aka Jim Whelton has done something queasily irreverent with The Wire at some point (an artist fond of dressing up as Kaffe Matthews to confusing effect).

J. Carrington Sellars' 'Chemistianity' (1873)
To bring this digression to a close, I should return to the made-up word 'goception'.  The word is a clumsy hybrid of the old English "go" and the Latin 'praecipio' ('to command') and signifies a form of chemical reaction, much like the moment when, say, Van de Moortel scrutinises, annotates and cuts-up a physical copy of The Wire - something is catalysed - something is 'gocepted'.  Goception is a word used by an eccentric chemist named John Carrington Sellars in 1873.  Sellars invented it because he was apparently desperate to achieve poetic flow in his oratorial poem 'Chemistianity' published that year.  I found the obscure book in 2013 during my (ongoing) research into electro-musical performer Johann Baptist Schalkenbach, whom Sellars mentions in a key passage on chemistry's role in producing new sounds.  In 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', I examine Sellars' ideas in relation to Joris Van de Moortel's work at the boundary of music and noise, since Sellars, I believe, thoughtfully illustrates the music/noise relationship long before musical modernism.  This is even hinted at too in Sellars' poetic technique: in the preface, Sellars revealed that after contacting a language professor to enquire about the rules of verse, he received the reply: "it is more a matter of ear than of law", and thus Sellars wrote his verses "from sound", with "lines measured according to sound", leading to new words like "goception", and so utterances once dismissible as noise thereby become formalised (in theory).  More on this can be read in the new publication...  To give one final nugget of curiosity, Sellars was best-known at the time for his Patent Cement, synchronicitously tallying up with Van de Moortel's cementitious namesake.

"Van de Moortel's Goception in the Mess: Byways in the History of Noise's Ongoing Transmutation into Music", appears as a chapter in his new fully-illustrated artist's book 'A Dubious Pilgrimage', published by Hopper and Fuchs / Galerie Nathalie Obadia.