Toward a postmusic
Scherzophobia is an on-going project that explores works that are built on process-driven participant engagement. As such the works themselves are likely to evolve in future iterations of them, as well as this evolution sparking new works — there can be no finality to these works.
Project 1, entitled Scherzophobia, is a pun on “schizophonia”, a term coined by R. Murray Schafer. “Scherzo” (Italian for “to joke,” “to jest” or “to play”), when annexed with “phobia” expresses a tongue-in-cheek observation of the apparent absence of humour within much of the Sonic Arts.
An invitation from the New Zealand-based online audio archive Jam Radio to produce six Radiophonic compositions of approximately 30 minutes each resulted in an on-going exploration into the possibility of a Postmusic (Paik 1963). During the process of assembling a transmitter-based piece, I tried to locate a position within the frequency range of domestic FM transmission that had no broadcaster allocated to it. It was close to impossible! I was struck by how the entire spectrum of the FM radio frequency range in my local region was crowded cheek-by-jowl with what one could only describe as homogenised auditory pollution. What has changed in the half century since Aldous Huxley made his observations (sidebar) on the ubiquitous “pre-fabricated din” full of adverts that is the radio broadcast, an “assault against silence”?
It appears that nothing has changed content-wise, indeed he describes precisely what we would be on the receiving end of right now should we switch our radio knob on! The shift is in how we listen, the culture of listening and what we perceive to be noise these days. Noise is the new silence — if we hear absolutely nothing then we imagine something has gone wrong (Kahn 1999). The squawking speaker cone fills the space of something wrong. This is where I saw the division between the mediated world and the ambient physical world and another chance to enjoy creative outcomes from cultural collisions. Can I silence the “babel of distractions, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music” (Huxley 1946) by marrying it off to the environment? In other words, how might we shape the babel into a more meaningful environment than the one we are passively exposed to on a daily basis?
This is an exploration of how one might create an immersive participatory audio environment as a time-based, fixed-media broadcast (or more likely: narrowcast!). I consider my work to have more in common with visual artists than sonic and admire the work and ethos of British street artist, Banksy, and as I have familiarity with other forms of expression within associated subcultures, I felt the method of assemblage via détournement and bricolage most appropriate. The repurposing of materials to create new situations through their juxtaposition — regardless of the original meaning of these materials — is not only present within the audio materials being broadcast, it is also manifest within the ambient environment by allowing it become a participant in the montage — i.e. the environment itself has also had its original meaning re-contextualised.
On assembling the mediated audio material, as any Bricoleur would, I considered any sonic material to be fair game, including my own compositions thrown into the selection of montage. Also to have as wide a variety as possible of structural creation employed, including chance methods and randomizing processes favouring systems that randomly reorder the linear content in a form analogous to the Burroughs cut-up technique. An aspect of Radio Arts that I felt core to this situation is that each listener has their own unique experience as a result of the sum of the environmental parts (Grundmann 1997). For example, the sound reproduction technology (radio), the acoustic of the room it is situated within, the activity and location of the “listener” as they interact with their physical space, the drifting in and out of focus as attention shifts from the listener’s presence in that physical space, and the information from the transmission sounding device that aurally colonises the physical space with its content.
Following is an experience I had when listening to a composition by a sonic artist of interest to me that had been released as podcast. During this piece, vocal materials appear — the screaming and groaning of the insane placed at a distance within the sound picture of the composition and an individual who after speaking the word “Tourette’s” outbursts an explosion of four-letter words. I was listening to this whilst in the distance I could hear children playing and my neighbour chopping wood with a large axe. This took place off the northern coast of New Zealand on Waiheke Island, a place that enjoys the reputation of being an island paradise. All of these sounding materials combined to recontextualise my environmental experience — my local area, and in particular the neighbour with the axe, had a different feel to them the next day! The experience of two worlds unfolding simultaneously, one nested within the other, is where the potential for the indeterminate and the interactive participation situates itself.
The approach I took in the structuring of these pieces was to have sonic content morph from the representational to abstract, from identifiable structure to noise, so that the transmitted fixed media could blend and distant itself, or camouflage or contrast undulating to and from the physical environment — the sounding medium and the local ambient are engaging in a unique conversation: “Was that a car pulling up in the driveway or was that the radio?” Through experiencing this dialogue, the listener becomes a participant, as she/he creates sound when interacting with the surrounding physical space, for example doing the dishes and dropping cutlery, or perhaps cleaning and moving objects around, etc. The divisions between the three environmental inputs — transmission media, ambient environment and participants’ sounding actions — become blurred and result in a participatory, immersive auditory event. This implies that the hermetically complete work no longer exists: the work and the environment in which it is experienced are indistinguishable from one another.
There are two ways in which I realise these auditory environments. Firstly, there is the participant choosing involvement by utilizing their domestic FM receiver at a specified time as a result of programming. This has been realized by the support of Jam Radio situated in Devonport, Auckland. The second approach is a Banksy metaphor of Public (or Guerrilla) Art practice, i.e. audio media consumers finding themselves within a fabricated sonic environment without their choice or permission. My first attempt is situated within the restraints of the technological means at my disposal. This took place at the Tintenbar to Ewingsdale section of the Pacific Highway upgrade, as well as at the St. Helena Tunnel construction site in Byron Shire, in the northern part of the state of New South Wales. I spent a number of days parking up at gate entries to the highway construction sites that are intended for incoming goods vehicles. I would tune my UHF transceiver to the frequencies signposted for the truck drivers and commenced transmitting monologues of authoritative yet meaningless phonetics (Audio 1). This would produce various amusing outcomes including security staff approaching us in a state of vexation due to our non-authorized use of transmission frequencies. During this period, while staying at a popular seaside village, some amusement could be had by cycling through the holiday park and transmitting inappropriate sound objects (Audio 2) onto channel 20, the one used by campervans and trailers.
The next phase is still in development. This has the potential to involve all mobile media device consumers. There are many clandestine organisations, such as The DNA Box — Outlaw Telecommandos, who have many motives and agendas, but a notable DNA Box project is to tap into mobile communications with the goal of “Striking at the Nucleus of Corporate Communications.” They wish to intercept and subvert the actions of large corporations they believe are engaging in irresponsible financial interactions (The DNA Box 1989). The technologies that such organisations as The DNA Box describe are designed to facilitate hacking into and receiving of domestic mobile phone conversations. This can involve having a device scan for empty channels waiting for phone ID codes and programming them into a databank that can then be replicated. This device might also emulate the signals and codes sent by local cellular carriers, thus emulating a phantom-switching cell. It will usually take place within the 825.03–889.98 MHz range.
In my case, I wish to reverse this process. In theory, it is possible to use this technology to transmit as well as receive. I will create cells or zones in public spaces. These relatively small “hot spots” would have a transmission radius of no more than 20 metres, pivoted around my own position, camouflaged amongst the populace with a shopping bag that will conceal the apparatus. As the public enters the space, their phone will be scanned, details acquired and then their phone will ring. When they answer, they will be hearing the unexpected. Of course this is not only a breach of privacy but also quite illegal! My motive is the hope that as the participants might be feeling violated at the intrusion of one’s personal space — as there is nothing so intimate as having a voice “punching a hole in space” (Chandler and Neumark 2005) being transmitted like a secret whisper in one’s ear — by encountering the unfamiliar, as well as perhaps the uncomfortable, they will begin to engage in a new relationship with how they perceive themselves in space by becoming conscious of the environment which they inhabit. They become a part of the world instead of apart from it. The question I’m asking is: What is the difference between my actions and the actions of Advertisers and Branding that is inserted without permission into our personal space, as both Banksy and Huxley have criticized? Could such a personal and intimate intrusion create a greater consciousness of all those daily intrusions that we have become desensitised to, due to saturation?
Banksy. “Manifesto.” Graphic design and reworking of Sean Tejaratchi’s 1999 essay, “Death, Phones, Scissors.” 2007. Available online at http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/01/banksy-manifesto/2007
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Huxley, Aldous. Silence, Liberty and Peace. New York NY: Harper, 1946.
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Paik, Nam June. “Postmusic: An Essay for the New Ontology of Music.” The Monthly Review of the University for Avant-garde Hinduism. Edited by Nam June Paik. FLUXUS: a publication, 1963.
Phizmiz, Ergo. ZIP:MGNG, Phour Fonetic Sound Rooms (2002). Available online at http://www.ubu.com/sound/phizmiz.html [Last accessed 28 February 2015]
Schafer, R. Murray. The New Soundscape: A Handbook for the modern music teacher. Scarborough ON: BMI Canada, 1969.
The DNA Box. “Hacking Cellular Phones.” January 1989. Available online at http://www.textfiles.com/phreak/CELLULAR/dnabox.txt