Part 3 of 3, this text is taken from a series of program notes prepared by Donald Swearingen to accompany his compositions We Elect To and Salvation at 1am, two 30-minute works commissioned for public radio’s New American Radio series, which aired on NPR in 1989 and 1991.
Idon’t own a radio anymore, though once it was most important. Radio played no small part in the shaping of my early life as a musician and composer. My connection to radio has been and remains one of musical concerns.
In my youth, radio was something out there, yet very personal. TV was a family activity, but radio was a more individual thing. You listened to radio in your room, on your portable, or in the car, and the message always seemed to be addressed to you personally. WLS Chicago, caught live on a late summer night in Arkansas, seemed much more exotic than the NBC peacock. Our parents didn’t have TV, and their memories of radio’s great drama days seemed sort of quaint. For us, radio was the songs, coming from out there, evoking strange emotions whose dissonance could only be resolved by something out there. Finally, I went. Quit school and ran off to Memphis to make it big in music, loud music.
At some point I became bored with ringing ears the futility of beating one’s head on a wall. Returning to my studies, I once again embraced serious music, abandoning the songs and habits of my teenage years, and with them, the radio, which by this time had come to represent for me an intrusion, annoying and omnipresent. (I was also pissed that I had been unable to produce a hit record… access to the radio airwaves is a pretty exclusive country club.) I was more than ever involved with sound and music, and, in proportion, less able to listen as a background mental activity. But this is exactly what radio, as it is usually construed, requires. I am truly amazed that someone can listen to the radio for the entire day while working or whatever, and see nothing at all unusual about this. As for me, I am compelled to listen actively, inevitably interfering with whatever task I have set about performing. This introduces a certain tension that I prefer to avoid.
Besides, years of ignorantly or carelessly performing loud music left my hearing in something less than stellar shape (though I nevertheless retain a discerning ear). I therefore choose to limit my exposure to sound to those instances I deem worthy of the expenditure of my diminishing resources. Continuous auditioning of a broadcast medium does not generally meet this criterion.
(Now don’t start getting all bristly about this, you radio heads. Understand that , from here on, I’m not referring to radio of the good type. Don’t cancel your subscription to the monthly program guide.)
Addicted to Tunes
There is probably too much music anyway. Music is of the soul, and one shouldn’t be baring one’s soul on a 24-hour a day basis. Radio has a keen grasp of the sound/emotion connection, however, and uses music to sell stuff by associating stuff with the dear and strong emotions produced by music. (TV, of course, performs this task with exponentially greater efficiency, given its access to the additional dimension of the image). I agree with my interpretation of John Cage (I wondered if I would be able to work in a reference to John Cage) that there is quite by accident a lot of great sound out there and we can call it music if we want to. Radio and TV would seem redundant, if not irrelevant.
“The worst, the absolute bottom of the pit in broadcasting, is silence.”
The worst, the absolute bottom of the pit in broadcasting, is silence… dead air space. It is the thing most assiduously to be avoided in broadcasting. Station managers have had their careers stopped dead in their tracks by allowing transmitters to remain silent for a mere few seconds. But music and sound require silence in ample portions. If we are going to have salt, then we must also have pepper. The pie must have a crust. What is a nut without a bolt? Do you see what I am getting at? The chief rule of commercial broadcasting seems to be “talk loud and never shut up” (see compression below).
As with cigarettes, most people who become addicted to popular radio do so in their youth (hormones?). Once they become hooked, the songs they crave can be used get their attention for the rest of their natural lives. Many survive these perilous early years, going on to become adventurous and creative listeners in their adult lives. But, for most, the adult years will be lived out in increasingly feeble attempts to recapture the rapture of those early radio binges. Finally, their pocketbooks and spirits depleted, they will turn their hearing-aids down and mutter quietly to themselves in monosyllables not unlike the sound of background vocals.
After years of therapy, I now understand why those emotional songs of my youth, my radio days, if you will, are so strongly imprinted on my consciousness. But I’m not sure I can express it in words. I am working on that. What I have learned is to take each challenge separately and on its own terms. So, when I hear one of those songs, I have now trained myself to resist the urge to pick up the phone and dial 1-800 to order the product that goes with the song. Though I don’t always succeed (I still sometimes can’t resist buying the song CD that goes with the song), I will continue to try. That’s the best I can give. Who can ask any more?
“But wait”, you say. “You’re talking all about the market-oriented form of broadcasting. Don’t you realize that there are all kinds of formats being broadcast… tune in and see for yourself”. I know, I’m getting to that, but I am still working off some bad energy. Not all radio is bad. (I myself have participated in radio projects). When the format is designed to inform and enrich rather than to coerce and cajole, we can once again lend our ears without fear of such betrayals. We may in the end fail to be reassured, but we will probably not be thinking about running down to the 7-11 for a slurpee and a microburger.
Another really bad thing broadcasters do is to use compression on the sound. Compression is a process invented to overcome the limited bandwidth of broadcast radio (and TV). Compression squeezes the expressive range of sound into a very narrow band, and out the window goes subtlety. Now everything is in your face. My delicate ears don’t appreciate this. When I was working on my piece Salvation at 1am, I noticed that the meters on my mixer read the same, regardless of whether the TV evangelist I was recording was whispering or shouting. That’s compression. Have you ever been startled by the loudness of the announcer when that old movie you were dozing off into went to a station break? That’s compression. Wouldn’t the world be strange if we all went around conducting all our conversations, regardless of the content, at the top of our voices? (Come to think of it, that’s not all that far-fetched). That’s compression. Compression is a great metaphor for our lives. We try to cram three or four times more activities (another form of stuff) into the span of our lives than any two generations that ever walked the face of the earth. Archaeologists will read our histories from the overlapping entries in our appointment books.
Can’t Stop It
Of all our senses (in case the word semester is no longer part of your vocabulary, these include hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting) hearing is the one sense we have the least (natural) choice about experiencing. We can close our eyes, shut our mouths (you can’t force me to eat boiled okra, no way), withdraw our touch. We can even, for a short time, hold our breath to escape the miasmic pall of a fart set free by a fellow passenger on the underground. But we cannot close our ears. Let that sink in. Without some artificial muffler, we have no choice but to hear. This makes me angry. If someone went around forcing others to eat distasteful food, or to touch slimy things, they would be arrested immediately (if this were their third such offense, they would rightly be sequestered away in a dungeon for life). If someone pollutes the air (the EPA suggests then even bakeries must limit their emissions), this is thought to be a bad thing. They are thoughtless and selfish bastards. But, short of the neighbor who blasts the stereo at 4 am, not much attention is paid to the incredible amount of noise that is an accepted constant in our lives.
I think the psychological, emotional, and indeed, physical effects of a polluted sound environment are enormous. Who knows how many wacko mega-seri-killers were pushed over the edge by one too many errant car alarms going off in the middle of the night? In a large city, even in the middle of the night, the background noise level is still thunderous. Even when we sleep, we are still hearing and our bodies are still reacting to these sounds. But we don’t regard this as anything unusual. But what would you think about somebody feeling all over your body through the night while you slept (if you could sleep)?
The standards for adult hearing are still based on statistics compiled from factory workers in the 30s and 40s. Thus, steady and permanent hearing loss is considered the norm. Compression again. Aboriginal cultures do not seem to experience such hearing loss. But the ability to hear the soft crinkle of leaves under the foot of a predator at 200 paces is no longer an important survival skill, so why do we need china-shop ears in a corral of bulls? But this is about more than mere survival. It is about the loss of meaning. We live in a world of headlines. We have discarded the accompanying copy.
I finally found my way back to radio as an unexpected outlet for my sonic/musical creations. It seemed there were producers who were actually looking for unusual work to present on public radio! Though I had strayed afar, radio would ultimately offer me an outlet for my ideas and creations unlike any other. My work would be broadcast to the world! Well, I guess that pretty much changed my tune about radio. I came down off my perch in a hurry, dreaming of what I could do with 30 minutes or so of air time.
I am familiar with the cliche about how radio forces the listener to invoke the higher powers of imagination. But, as for my work, this is not really a factor. My radio works are not subtle, nor do they demand a total immersion on the part of the listener. Instead, they offer a continuous stream of concentrated, regurgitated, media chaff that the listener is invited to drop in or out of as he or she pleases, sort of like regular radio and TV. The difference here is in the selection and arrangement of the images… a time-lapse view of the media stream which can’t help but adopt an editorial viewpoint. But not an alien viewpoint, because it was there all along. We sensed it, but could not enjoy (!) it explicitly in its original context.
“Doesn’t this all sound promising? Does it make you excited about the future?“
I use computers and electronics as essential tools in my work. Writers and reviewers invariably feel that they must use the phrases computer whiz or electronics wiz (wiz and whiz being interchangeable) when writing about artists who work in this manner. I personally would prefer the simpler genius, but no one has picked up on this yet, at least not in print. Anyway, whiz makes me think of what you want to do when you have just consumed two beers, or a pot of strong tea. I do not find this to be terribly flattering.
Computers drive us crazy. They are so literal, even the best among them on their good days. One of the problems is expectations (see dysfunction: projection). We are accustomed to thinking of them, according to the media-inspired and research grant-fueled model, as a brain, an intelligence. In this regard, they are very unimpressive, though we often become their servants. But if we regard them simply as a tool, then they are quite remarkable, though they do not free us of the burden of learning to properly employ the tool. Compared to a shovel or a sledge-hammer, though, computers are definitely easier and more fun to use.
Super Highway, Bigger Cars!
I’m not sure what the future of broadcasting will be, given the changes that will accompany the age of the information superhighway. That term may have as many definitions as it does exponents, but one thing seems certain. More and more, we will become linked in high-capacity digital communications networks, far more extensive than our present phone system (which will become a subset of the new networks). These digital networks will be capable of carrying all types of “information”, including all combinations of sound, text, and image, across the types of individual two-way connections we are accustomed to with telephones. But that is only part of the picture… the potential to create very complex webs of interconnectivity (many-to-one; one-to-many; many-to-many) is inherent in digital networks. Will our current one-to-many model for broadcasting remain viable? Probably so, to some extent. Even if radio were to migrate entirely to the digital network, many listeners may still “tune in” to a favorite “real-time” station (network address) if they are aware of its presence on the network. This promotion of this awareness is key. One of the hallmarks of broadcasting to this point has been the idea that there was a demographic to be addressed. The validity, or at least the depth of applicability of this concept may be diminished. Maybe it will be more like direct (mail) marketing. We are already seeing an exponential increase in the incidence of junk e-mail and faxes.
Doesn’t this all sound promising? Does it make you excited about the future? Well, as has always been the case, the future is now. Personally, I am not convinced that all of this is bringing us any closer to a spiritual millennium, though a calendar one is just around the corner. Most days, it’s seems damned hard to see any connection between the trumpeted techno-utopia and the daily grind of famine, poverty, and despair that attend to most of the globe’s people. Our frenetic junket seems aimed mainly at creating more ways to sell/consume things (a fundamental dictate of international Capitalism, as distinct from free-enterprise). New products, new markets, endless supply, endless demand. The traditional pyramid scheme. Well, someone’s going to have to get off their ass soon and concoct some new sources of inputs to this giant black box or we’re all headed for three-strike oblivion for violations of the laws of thermodynamics: you can’t create something from nothing, and at the rate we’re going, nothing is what we’re going to have. A couple of years ago everybody thought they had found it when cold fusion was the big topic, even down to the level of People Magazine. Now we’d be able to make more of everything, with energy to spare. It would surely be getting freer and freer. Hmmm, well. But hope springs eternal. I myself have always liked to think I was an optimist, though I’ve impressed people differently.
A number of years back, I realized that I was simply starting to overload on media input. I was getting more than I could reasonably process: TV (late-nite surfer), magazines (especially the science and tech ones), newspapers (2-paper city, morn/eve; finally kicked morning paper), facts (everywhere apparent), figures (does anyone ever check them?), opinions (especially my own), lies (as distinguished from the truth)… noise. Now we’re about to create a thousandfold more opportunities for the propagation of this clatter. Well, it is very challenging. Are we simply stretched to our limits before the next giant step in some universal scheme of evolution, or just poised on the brink? For some reason, I instinctively am drawn to the idea that the increase in our potential for communication, though it will not guarantee better communication, can only be for the better. More connections and more pathways, less control, more anarchy… seems healthy. It is very difficult to get one’s bearings, but I am not sure this is all for the bad. Any critical examination of a previous era thought more sane (i.e. greater concentration of power, more agreement about what is right) usually reveals at its fringes the fallacy of that assumption.
Radio, TV. Modulated electromagnetic waves, most ephemeral. Just out there. Passing through us in all directions at all instants. How far does the signal go? How long does it last? The idea of radio waves traveling unconstrained, forever in all directions is very appealing. Electromagnetic waves, time, gravity, particles, how positively 20th century! And those waves would be the voice of the century, speaking both its grandeur and its barbarity.
“Finally, mercifully, he realized that this was getting pretty deep. These things can have repercussions”. I will have a glass of wine and go to bed and watch some TV. It’s tiring trying to be so smart about everything. Thank you and good night.