Requiem for Radio
Sound sculptures, shortwave simulcasts, performances and pirates
Requiem for Radio is a body of five works created by Amanda Dawn Christie between 2009 and 2018 that uses a variety of mediums and materials to explore the loss of the Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave transmission site, while engaging with and involving the international DX and pirate radio community. For one of the works created in 2017, a multi-channel piece was commissioned from composer Lukas Pearse that would be presented as a five-channel simulcast from shortwave transmission sites around the world. Mirroring the structure of that simulcast, this article is broken into five sections, each labelled according to one of the five transmission frequencies, followed by the name of the transmission site in Morse code.
In the first section, Christie presents a brief history of the RCI shortwave transmission site and how the process of recording the sounds of those towers led to anthropomorphizing these industrial artifacts before their demolition. In the second section, she presents an overview of Requiem for Radio and its five interrelated component works. In the third section, Pearse offers a brief history of the use of radio in avant-garde and electroacoustic music composition, followed by a discussion of the role that radio and Morse code have played in his own compositions, with particular attention to Dead Air Requiem, the five-channel composition that was simulcast as part of Deviant Receptions. In the fourth section, Christie gives a brief history of DXing and QSL cards and describes the level of involvement and engagement that the DX community had with the simulcast. In the fifth and final section, she discusses the importance of pirate radio, and the role that the pirate radio community played in the Deviant Receptions simulcast.
Shortwave radio is a unique medium that is slowly disappearing as many countries dismantle their transmission sites in favour of internet streaming. The Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave site in Sackville, New Brunswick (Fig. 1), is a notable casualty of this technological shift. Between 2009 and 2018, filmmaker and intermedia artist Amanda Dawn Christie worked on a variety of projects related to this site, including a feature length film, a sculptural radio-sink built from plumbing, photographic works, audio works, installations and performances. After the demolition of the RCI site in 2014, she focused on the creation of Requiem for Radio, a project comprising a suite of five works, one of which was a one-hour theatrical performance called Full Quiet Flutter that was conceived to mourn the loss of this site and the sounds it once carried.
One component of this multifaceted project involved a collaboration with electroacoustic composer Lukas Pearse, who created a five-channel work, for which each individual channel would be simulcast from a separate international shortwave site, with transmissions directed toward the province of New Brunswick (Canada) — where the RCI towers once stood. The original frequencies broadcasting these channels were: 11580 kHz from Miami, Florida; 9690 kHz from Nauen, Germany; 5130 kHz from Monticello, Maine; 9620 kHz from Moosbrun, Austria; and 6850 kHz from a shortwave pirate in an undisclosed location in the USA. This particular piece, titled Requiem for Radio: Deviant Receptions, staged a scenario that imagined transmission sites around the world calling out to and grieving the loss of their fallen sister site.
The channels were received on five separate radios and recombined during a live performance in the Salle Bernard LeBlanc of the Centre culturel Aberdeen (Moncton, New Brunswick), as part of the 2017 RE:FLUX festival of experimental music and sound art. While the composition was intended for the audience seated in the theatre, there was also another audience of shortwave listeners who tuned in to various individual channels of the work in other locations around the world. This unintended audience, most of whom had no background in electroacoustic practice or sound art, were incredibly enthusiastic and several of them wrote detailed descriptions of what they heard. These were sent in the form of reception reports, in return for which they received QSL cards (Fig. 2) signed by Christie. 1[1. QSL cards have been used since the 1920s to confirm reception of radio transmissions. The term “QSL” originates from the Q-codes developed for radiotelegraph communications. The code “QSL” can be sent as a question or statement to stand for “Can you confirm receipt of our transmission?” or “I confirm receipt of your transmission,” respectively.]
After the performance, the simulcast began to take on mythical status in the shortwave community, and members of the pirate radio community began to express interest in obtaining the .wav files from the individual “channels” so they could broadcast it again on their own terms. Once in the hands of these pirates, the artists who collaborated on the work will necessarily relinquish any artistic control so that it can be broadcast in various configurations, places, and times, amplifying it in a new translation that will continue to shift, mutate and recombine in new ways.
I. 11580 kHz
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Transmission Sites in Mourning
Red Lights in the Night Sky
Imagine yourself sitting with a friend on a hot August night, under a clear sky, watching the Perseid meteor showers. Fireflies are out. Between the green lights of the fireflies flitting in the tall marsh grass in the foreground and the shooting stars in the distant sky, you can see the red lights of the RCI transmission towers. Thirteen towers, some over 100 m tall, stand sentinel over the Tantramar marshlands. You sit under the stars looking at the towers and compare stories with your friends about the strange places from which you’ve heard radio broadcasts emanate — sounds coming out of the fridge, the sink, the toaster, the radiator and even off the clothesline (Video 1).
Erected in 1938, the Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave relay site was transmitting by 1942. RCI broadcast to Europe, Africa, South America and the Arctic (Finney 1996). In addition to Canadian broadcasts, this site also served as a relay for Radio China, Radio Japan, Radio Korea, Voice of Vietnam and Vatican Radio, among many others. It was the only high-power shortwave relay station in Canada (Wartman 2013).
While the broadcasts from these towers were intended for an international audience, they also had an immediate impact on the locals who lived within a 50 km radius. Many area residents reported hearing radio broadcasts emanating from unusual household appliances, including kitchen sinks, bathtubs, toasters, refrigerators, telephones and light fixtures. External Rectification, also known as the “rusty bolt effect,” is a phenomenon whereby radio can be received and amplified by unusual objects (Lee 1999).
On an emotional level, these radio towers tied into a very deep sense of home for many residents, as they stood as an incredibly distinctive landmark when travelling along the Trans-Canada Highway. In addition to their striking visual presence on the flat, below-sea level marshy expanse, they also added to the invisible landscape of the region through the radio waves that they transmitted, as well as through the folklore and rural mythology that they inspired (Christie 2016).
In 2012, it was announced that the RCI site (Fig. 3) would be shut down. The last Canadian international shortwave broadcast was sent in June of 2012 and the final international relays were sent in October 2012. The last Arctic broadcast — and the final broadcast to ever transmit from this site — was sent in November 2012 (Wartman 2012). The site was demolished two years later (CBC News 2014).
Obsolescence was one of the reasons given for the site being decommissioned. However, even today, people living in remote areas may have limited or no access to Internet and related services. Moreover, those facing economic challenges cannot always afford digital receivers or computers. Not to mention that there is clear evidence of totalitarian regimes regularly censoring the Internet in their own countries.
Meanwhile, shortwave radio is easily accessible in all financial, political and geographic situations. Shortwave radio is not easily blocked, and radio receivers are cheap to purchase and easy to build. The construction of shortwave radio transmission sites (especially large international relay stations such as the RCI site in Sackville), is, however, extremely expensive. As such, the demolition of shortwave radio transmission sites around the world marks an important shift in access to information. For 67 years, Canada had a voice to the world over shortwave radio, sharing news and culture with those in remote regions who had no access to computers or the Internet, and to places where the Internet was heavily censored and controlled (Montgomery 2012).
Since the demise of the RCI site, as with several other such sites around the world, shortwaves are now deeply populated with both extreme right-wing and religious broadcasting, notably coming out of North America, and political propaganda from around the world. Canada was one of the last few moderate democratic voices remaining on the planet sending news and culture around the world by shortwave radio transmission. We bore witness to an end. There is now one less voice on the air.
Recording the Voices of the Towers
Between 2012 and 2014, while the site sat inactive awaiting its planned dismantlement, Christie made an extensive series of recordings using contact microphones placed on various parts of each of the radio towers (Fig. 4). These recordings constituted a library of drones and mechanical sounds that were carefully logged and labelled according to the tower and component on which the microphones had been placed.
The Tantramar Marsh sits below sea level between the Bay of Fundy to the east and the Northumberland Strait to the west; as such, it is frequently subject to very high winds. These winds, blowing across the marshes between the two bodies of water, helped give rise to the distinctive sound or voice of each tower. As she spent more and more time on the site, laden with recording gear while walking the 11 kilometers of roads around the towers, she slowly began to anthropomorphize each tower, as they each began to reveal distinct personalities. She made portraits of them by photographing each tower individually, separated from the array (Fig. 5). When the demolition of the site started in the winter of 2014, Christie could be found braving the ‑20° Celsius weather behind a film camera, documenting each tower as it fell into the slushy, partially frozen saltwater marsh. Witnessing each tower fall was like watching someone die (Video 2).
Dissipation and Death
After months of demolition, one last shot was taken from the roof of the control facility at sunset, panning slowly across the barren snow-covered marsh where radio towers and transmission poles laid like corpses. For the first time in 70 years, there were no more red lights piercing the dark night sky to illuminate the flat, snow-covered marsh. It was a clear winter night and the snow was glowing beneath the blue light of the moon and the stars. Alone on the site for hours since the demolition crew had locked up and left, Christie was the only remaining person on site.
She felt compelled to walk out on the site one last time, to Tower D, the last one that fell. Arriving at the base of the tower, she felt an inexplicable compulsion to touch it. To place her hands on it, as if in a ritual of last rites. She removed her winter gloves, laid both palms on the cold metal base, and suddenly wept. Although these were merely inanimate metal objects, nothing more than scrap metal artifacts of technological communications infrastructure, somehow it felt as if the molecular structure of the metal had a memory. A memory of high-voltage radio frequency radiation from 70 years of international shortwave broadcasts. Transmissions of voices, music, stories and reportages that travelled from this exact location to remote regions around the world. She wept, touched the downed tower one last time and suddenly, in an instant, felt something dissipate. Whatever presence or memory had been there was now gone; there was a feeling that it was over now. It was finished. There was nothing more that could be done. She stood as the sole witness to the passing of this moment in the history of telecommunications; to the final expiration of its radiating body (Video 4 [see Conclusion]).
Could something spiritual or supernatural have happened here? Maybe. Not necessarily. It could have easily been the remnant emotions of the fatigue she felt as a large project neared its end. Either way, this event left an impression, and the anthropomorphization of the towers no longer standing in the Marsh would now be extended to include those towers and transmission sites still standing all over the world. She began to imagine shortwave radio sites around the globe, sending transmissions toward this part of the planet, calling out to their fallen sister site in the same way a person accidentally picks up the phone and calls a recently deceased friend, forgetting that they are no longer there. She imagined transmission towers in Germany, Norway, Russia, India, Cuba, the USA, Thailand, Singapore and China transmitting toward Sackville, New Brunswick, and calling out to RCI. As this image developed, she realized this could actually be orchestrated as a transmission art project, by building connections with the people working at those sites, purchasing airtime and commissioning an electroacoustic composer to create a multi-channel work specifically for this purpose.
Through work and activities that led to the creation of the 2016 documentary film Spectres of Shortwave (Videos 1 and 4) and other projects, Christie had already made contacts and connections with people working at international shortwave sites on various continents. She began to contemplate inviting the announcers from these stations to each record their voices calling out to RCI:
Come in RCI. Where are you?
This is German Shortwave Service, calling Radio Canada International. Come in Canada, come in Canada.
But no answer.
II. 9690 kHz
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“Full Quiet Flutter” for the Intended Audience
Requiem for Radio
Requiem for Radio is a body of five distinct but interrelated works that includes both installations and performances for human bodies, electrons and radio waves (Fig. 6). Architecture, technology, history and the human body come together in these near-supernatural conjurings of the spirits of the Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave towers. The project was conceived alongside the filming process of Spectres of Shortwave (35 mm with 5.1 sound, 2016, 1:53:00) 2[2. More information on this work is available on the Spectres of Shortwave website.]; production of the individual works began before the film was finished.
The Requiem for Radio suite is comprised of the following five components:
- Pulse Decay (2014). Solo performance for Theremin triggering audio and images of radio towers.
- New Dead Zones (2016). Interactive installation based on a scale model of an RCI radio tower site triggering audio recordings of the towers.
- Radio Cowers (2009–18). Stringed instrument incorporating electronics, cowhide and bone. Played with a bow made from the bone of a cow that lived near the towers. The 2018 iteration was constructed with an AM transmitter and loop antenna in place of the earlier resonating body.
- Deviant Receptions (2017). International shortwave simulcast for five transmission sites. Lukas Pearse’s Dead Air Requiem was commissioned as part of this work.
- Full Quiet Flutter (2017). Theatrical performance that integrates the previous four elements and several others.
Requiem for Radio: Pulse Decay
Pulse Decay is a solo performance in which control voltage from a Theremin (Fig. 7) is used to trigger the portrait images of the RCI towers alongside the contact microphone recordings of the tower whose image is being projected (Fig. 8). In this work, the Theremin sends control voltage to trigger ghostly images of the towers and the sounds that they once made, thus allowing performers to play the ghosts of the radio towers with Theremin antennas.
Thirteen RCI towers stood in the high marsh winds like giant Aeolian harps. Between 2012 and 2014 Christie had made numerous recordings of the towers using contact microphones placed at the base of and atop the towers (Audio 1), thereby capturing beautifully complex and haunting drones replete with undulating harmonics and subharmonics. Each RCI tower had its own distinct voice and sound.
The recordings were filtered using a hum remover with inverted settings to focus on a single primary frequency (and its related harmonics) for each tower, in order to create a scale going from C3 to C4 (Audio 2) in approximately chromatic intervals. 3[3. RCI identified each of their towers by a letter. The identifying letters of the towers do not correspond to the musical notes in Christie’s work because various letters are omitted in the RCI schematics of their tower array, which goes from “C” to “Q” when reading right to left.] These 13 recordings replace the sound of the Theremin, such that when played, instead of hearing the sounds of a Theremin, the melody is played on the “tuned” recordings of the radio towers.
The performance went through various iterations that involved technical growth as well as conceptual, compositional and interpretive evolutions. Originally conceived with modul8, later versions were developed using Pure Data, then Max/MSP, and most recently using a combination of Arduino, Processing and SuperCollider. Several iterations were created and performed, ranging from solo improvisation to a structured solo, a trio with cello and saxophone, a duet with saxophone, and a version to accompany a laptop orchestra. The most recent instance involves accompanying vocals as she sings lullabies to the fallen towers.
As this work evolved over the past five years, she began to view it less as a distinct, stage-based performance and more as a musical interface that could be performed in a variety of formats in a range of contexts. It was first developed and performed for the OBEY Convention (Halifax, 2014) and went through various iterations until the vocal lullaby component was added for the performance at The Circle of HOPE, (Hackers on Planet Earth, New York, 2018).
Requiem for Radio: New Dead Zones
This interactive installation forms the basic set piece around which the Full Quiet Flutter performance is built. It exists both as a part of the performance and as an independent installation with which the public can interact in the space where it is exhibited. For the installation, thirteen towers were constructed from ABS plumbing pipes and positioned around the installation space to create a scale model of RCI shortwave radio transmission site that was demolished in 2014. Capacitance and human touch are used to play the ghosts of the radio towers; each proxy in the installation was fitted with a copper capacitance sensor fabricated from plumbing components that made it possible to trigger sound recordings specific to the tower it represents (Audio 2, above).
The capacitance sensors used here refer to and maintain conceptual coherence with a “radio sink” that was originally intended to be the primary component of Deviant Receptions in the project (Fig. 12, below). The radio sink was borne of another project called The Marshland Radio Plumbing Project, where Christie had attempted to build a functioning radio entirely out of copper plumbing, following the principles of external rectification, or “the Rusty Bolt Effect” (Lee 1996). This radio sink was intended from the start to be incorporated in the Requiem for Radio suite, and as such its components were used in testing capacitance for the New Dead Zones installation, built using similar materials as the sink.
In New Dead Zones, each tower is fitted with four copper sensors and is connected to a small microcontroller that sends a Wi-Fi signal to a computer running a programme in SuperCollider. This then triggers the audio recording of that particular tower and sends the signal to the speaker installed at the base of that tower. Three of the copper sensors play the tuned recordings in three registers, while the fourth sensor functions as a trigger that toggles between sustain and release states.
The thirteen towers and their audio components are arranged in such a way that they can, as a group, produce the notes of a chromatic scale from tonic to tonic — the installation can essentially be played like a musical instrument.
The public is free to walk among the towers of this scale model of the site (Fig. 9). The installation stands glowing red and silent when no one is touching it. However, when one of the towers is touched, an audio sample of the recordings made of that tower before its demolition is triggered. For each visitor touching one tower, only one drone sounds; if enough people are present and touching all thirteen towers at once, a choir of thirteen drones is heard. Groups of visitors can work together to play chords and melodies on them as well. The electrons from the human bodies pass to the copper pads on the towers, and trigger the sound recordings — the ghosts — of those historic radio towers in a choir of drone songs.
Requiem for Radio: Radio Cowers
Radio Cowers is a humorous and playful work within the Requiem for Radio suite. It involves a musical instrument inspired by the cow pastures surrounding the radio towers as well as the dairy farms that had to be moved because they were too close to the high voltage facility. This project also evolved through various phases involving different instruments, each played using a bow made from cow bone and horsehair (Fig. 10). The most recent development of this project involves an instrument modelled after a cello, but with a loop antenna and AM radio transmitter instead of a resonating body (Fig. 11).
The bone used in its construction is an actual femur from a calf that lived near the RCI towers in 2008, and its length is the same as Christie’s forearm. In the beginning, this bone-bow was meant to be attached to her forearm via an elbow-length glove made of cowhide. The glove worn on her other arm incorporated a small, solid-state amplifier and crystal radio sewn with conductive thread, thus merging radio electronics with hide, hair and bone. However, there were some logistic difficulties with the gloves — such as the interference of sweat with the conductive thread and hide — that could not be resolved before the initial May 2017 performance. As such, the gloves were not used for that particular presentation of the piece.
Initially, the Radio Cowers instrument was intended to transmit directly into the radio sink as a part of the Full Quiet Flutter performance. However, after key elements of the radio sink were lost, this aspect of the performance was removed. For the 2017 performance, a regular 7/8 cello was played with the cow-bone bow, but rather than transmitting over radio waves, the output was run through effects pedals and plugged into a 1938 Marconi shortwave radio via the phono jack (Fig. 10).
Radio Cowers was revisited and refined in summer 2018 during a residency at the Wave Farm in upstate New York. For this iteration, Christie constructed a cello-like instrument with a loop antenna and low-power radio transmitter in place of a resonating body. This instrument is meant to be played with the cow-bone bow, but a regular cello bow can also be used. It does not need to be plugged into anything, as it transmits audio wirelessly. The instrument had its inaugural test run on WGXC-FM as part of the Wave Farm’s 2018 Audio Buffet. 4[4. Audio Buffet is an annual event held at Wave Farm, where dozens of acoustic and electronic sound artists gather for a live improvisational broadcast from Wave Farm’s property in the Catskill Mountains, using a 32-channel mixing board that was donated by Pauline Olivieros and IONE in 2015.] She has already been performing as an improviser with the instrument, and with its development and construction now complete, she plans to compose new works for it.
Requiem for Radio: Deviant Receptions
Originally, the Deviant Receptions component of the Requiem for Radio suite was intended to involve playing the Radio Cowers instrument and transmitting the output into the radio sink developed and built for The Marshland Radio Plumbing Project, which began in 2009. That work references the documented history of people in the region hearing radio broadcasts emerge from household appliances such as fridges, radiators and kitchen sinks (Audio 3).
One very important aspect of this conceptual, site-specific work was the transformation of the pipes and plumbing components of the radio sink as they went through various iterations and modifications in the landscape during each stage of the process and with each development. Every time the radio sink was installed on the marsh, it underwent modifications such as pipe cutting, soldering and welding. These transformations and modifications were photo-documented as integral parts of the project (Fig. 12).
As a conceptual artwork, the value of the radio sink lay in the material history of its components and their modifications over time in the landscape and in relation to the various projects it was involved in. Performance events and photo documentation of these transformations in the presence of the RCI site were key aspects of the work. Unfortunately, two of its pipes were lost after one of the testing phases related to New Dead Zones in 2016. Given that the RCI site had ceased to exist in 2014 and had stopped transmitting two years prior, any attempt to reconstruct the sink with new pipes would result in an artificial facsimile devoid of the material history that was conceptually integral to the work. Rather than create a work of artifice and fakery, the sink was therefore removed from the Requiem for Radio project altogether. This decision was taken in order to preserve the conceptual integrity of the work.
A New Direction for “Deviant Receptions”
Given that the radio sink could no longer be included in the Deviant Receptions component of this project, alternative solutions for the transmission component of this work were needed. The mental image from 2014 of radio transmission sites from around the world calling out to their fallen sister site in Canada came to mind — perhaps this could possibly take the place of the radio sink as the broadcast receiver in the performance of this work?
This turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events, and the next stage of the project’s evolution opened up the possibility for Christie to commission Lukas Pearse to compose Dead Air Requiem, which was integrated as the new primary component of Deviant Receptions. The work in its renewed form stems from the idea of having five distinct signals broadcast from different shortwave transmission sites in different parts of the world, all directed toward the general region where the RCI site stood for 70 years before being dismantled in 2014. Discussions then ensued with Pearse, and he was asked to use William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices (1594) as a starting point for his composition. They decided to convert the Latin text of the Mass ordinary into Morse code. In order to avoid it becoming too heavily tied to the theological elements of the mass, only the Kyrie was recorded with human voices, with the collaboration of a local choir in Moncton and Pearse advising on recording techniques. It was important to make sure that when the final tracks were transmitted from different radio stations there would be coherence among the five channels, regardless of whether or not they were perfectly synchronized in the eventual simulcast.
Compositional Challenges and Idiosyncrasies of the Simulcasts
Because the five tracks would be transmitted independently from five different locations around the world, there was no way of guaranteeing the synchronization of the separate parts. This would become one of the challenges with this composition. As such, Pearse would have to create a five-channel composition that would remain coherent even if the tracks were not started precisely at the same time. He would also have to create something that would not be compromised by transformations that result from the mono amplitude modulation of shortwave broadcast, and that would be played on a variety of different types of radios with varying qualities of speakers. Finally, each track would also have to be able to stand alone independent of the others, for those individuals tuning in around the world who either could not catch all five broadcasts or lacked the equipment to play them all back simultaneously.
With these considerations for the work in mind, Christie forged ahead and contacted the broadcasters from five different shortwave transmission sites around the world and sent them a script to read in their own voice. They were informed about the idea of these transmission sites calling out to RCI, like a person picking up the phone to call a deceased friend in that brief moment that they had forgotten that their friend had died. For example, texts included utterances such as:
This is WRMI, Radio Miami International calling RCI, Radio Canada International. Come in Canada. Acknowledge. …
Canada, where are you? …
Come in RCI. Where are you? Where are you?
All of the international broadcasters who participated in the project were extremely open and generous. They recorded their own voices calling out to RCI and sent back the resulting .wav files, which were then passed on to Pearse for the composition.
In addition to Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, the recordings of the choir singing the Kyrie and the radio announcers calling out to RCI, Pearse was given Christie’s library of contact microphone recordings of the RCI towers, all of which he was asked to use as source materials. Additionally, Morse code and numbers stations, both closely tied to historical and contemporary practices of shortwave radio broadcasting and DXing, were discussed as potential materials. Morse code is still widely used both by professional and amateur radio operators on shortwave, while numbers stations are mysterious transmissions of sequences of numbers that have been attributed to spy activity, notably since the Cold War era, but whose transmissions have never been claimed by any nation or organization. DXing, a term stemming from the telegraphic shorthand for “distance”, is the practice of receiving, identifying and logging long-distance radio transmissions.
Of all the components of this body of work, Deviant Receptions benefited from an incredible amount of serendipity and chance. This is true in how the channels had allowances for chance built into the design of the composition, in the decision to collaborate with Pearse, and in the reception and unintended audience response. Pearse’s composition, titled Dead Air Requiem, forms the primary audio component of Deviant Receptions within the Requiem for Radio suite. His reflections on this process and how he had previously used radio in his own compositions and live performances form the next section, while Christie’s reflections on the impact and implications of this piece within the larger project form the final two sections.
Requiem for Radio: Full Quiet Flutter
Requiem for Radio: Full Quiet Flutter is the culmination of the four projects discussed above, in the form of a one-hour theatrical performance that combines various elements of this research and creation process. The performance follows the format of a traditional 12-part Requiem, but with an additional part added because there were 13 radio towers. To maintain the coherence of movements 1 through 12 with their counterparts in the historical Requiem form, a 13th section was inserted at the beginning of the work as “Movement 0” — a nod to the binary data at the base of computer coding.
The Full Quiet Flutter performance is built around the New Dead Zones installation, in this version played by three performers on stage. The pre-existing Pulse Decay and Radio Cowers instruments were also incorporated, alongside vocal works, saxophone works, movement, lighting and staging choreographies specifically created for the performance of the work (Video 3). The Deviant Receptions component involved the five-channel Dead Air Requiem composition by Lukas Pearse, with each of the channels transmitted from separate locations around the globe and received by five separate radios in the theatre.
In order to receive the transmissions for Pearse’s composition, they installed an antenna on the roof of Moncton’s Centre culturel Aberdeen and ran the cable down through the attic and into the theatre space of the Salle Bernard LeBlanc, where it was connected to five separate shortwave radios. Each radio was designated to receive one of the transmissions. The goal, of course, was to receive all five of the simulcast transmissions from the international broadcasts; however, shortwave radio is greatly affected by weather conditions and solar storms so a wireless radio back-up plan was set up. In case there was poor propagation from one or more of the global transmissions during the performance, five small FM transmitters were installed to broadcast the channels within the theatre space. This made it possible to rapidly flip individual radios over from shortwave to FM, in order to pick up any problematic tracks locally. 5[5. Listeners using their own radios did not have recourse to such a “backup plan” and would only be able to hear those broadcasts that were clear enough and strong enough to receive, this being dependent on their geographic location and the propagation conditions between them and the transmission source.]
For the live performance in the theatre, the radios were only used during the first ten minutes and the last five minutes of the hour-long performance. However, when purchasing shortwave airtime, it is easier to purchase full one-hour blocks. For this reason, Pearse was asked to compose a one-hour work, even though only 15 minutes of it would be heard by the audience in the theatre. The other 45 minutes of the piece were nevertheless broadcast into the ether; Pearse’s full composition could then only be heard by shortwave radio listeners.
The tracks were broadcast on the following frequencies and stations, with a different singer featured on each channel:
- 11580 kHz: WRMI Radio Miami International, Okeechobee Transmission Site. With Nokomi Ouellette (alto).
- 9690 kHz: German Shortwave Service, Nauen Transmission Site. With Roger Castonguay (bass).
- 5130 kHz: WBCQ Free Speech Radio, Monticello Transmission Site. With Joseph Goodwin (tenor 2).
- 9620 kHz: Moosbrun, Austria. With Renelle LeBlanc (soprano).
- 6850 kHz: Pirate Radio Boston. With Justin Guignard (tenor 1).
It was important that the project include work with pirate radio, as this is a significant aspect of radio history and practice (Joseph-Hunter 2013). Working with pirates, however, can be unpredictable. In the first performance there was no broadcast from Pirate Radio Boston, and so in the theatre performance, the FM transmission backup was used. On the second day, Christie sent a call out to the pirate community looking for someone else to hop on board. That night, Radio Free Whatever broadcast the file, but they broadcast it three hours after the performance ended, instead of at the same time as the performance. On the final night, both Pirate Radio Boston and Radio Free Whatever 6[6. Location unknown.] broadcast the same file at the same time as the performance, so while on the first two nights there was a four-channel international shortwave simulcast, the last night had a six-channel international shortwave simulcast with one of the tracks being transmitted simultaneously by two pirates.
Bringing all of the components of the Requiem for Radio suite together in the Full Quiet Flutter performance made it possible to explore the interplay among each of the four earlier pieces in a live setting. As an artist, much of Christie’s research and creative work branches out simultaneously in various directions, like the roots of a tree or like the threads of a spider web. Distinct but related projects often develop simultaneously around the same subject, informing each other during the research and creation process. The Full Quiet Flutter performance provided a context in which several distinct projects and research-creation streams could be brought together into one coherent whole that could be experienced by an audience in one sitting.
III. 5130 kHz
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Numbers, Morse and the Mass Ordinary
Radio has obviously played a powerful role in the shaping of the global understanding of music since its evolution into a medium for mass dissemination in the late 1920s. This legacy was furthered by Canada’s introduction of the CBC International Service in 1945, renamed Radio Canada International in 1970 (Eaman 2015). Central to shortwave radio technologies is the ability to cover far greater distances than FM transmissions. This led to a staggering shift in musical consciousness, as the range of music cultures that the average listener would potentially hear represented expanded greatly with increased public access to shortwave radios in the early to mid-twentieth century. However, shortwave broadcasts by national radio agencies can be seen over the course of several decades to have typically reflected the dominant or mainstream cultural values of their socio-political landscape. The transmissions were often subject to strict controls and standards, in order to ensure that the transmissions would be a “proper” representation of the broadcast agencies’ values (Marquis 1984) and, by extension, those of the nation that regulated them. Nonetheless, non-state-sanctioned radio has existed in various forms since the early days of radio, and the impulse to broadcast (and receive) outside official boundaries has persevered (Van Panhuys 1966). An interest in both the official and unofficial nature of radio was a key feature in the composition of Dead Air Requiem, a five-channel composition simulcast from five different international transmission sites as part of Amanda Dawn Christie’s Requiem for Radio: Deviant Receptions.
The potentially continuous nature of radio transmission and the ubiquity of radio in popular culture have played a significant role in the development of the 20th-century European avant-garde musical trajectory (Taylor 2001). Offering a readily available source of sound, radios have long interested composers and musicians, with well-known examples including John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) and Radio Music (1956). In Cage’s work, the radio transmission type is unspecified and it is the potential of radio to be organized numerically and dynamically that is of interest. In several of his process-oriented works in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Hymnen (1967), Kurzwellen (1968), Pole (1969) and Expo (1970), Karlheinz Stockhausen explicitly explored the shortwave spectrum with a specific interest in showcasing the transnational nature of the medium (Moore 2019). Other composers and performers have explored the sonic capabilities of modifying shortwave radio transmissions both in studio and in concert, notably Holger Czukay of the Krautrock band Can (Moore 2018) and Keith Rowe (of the seminal UK electroacoustic improvisation group AMM), reflecting an interest in the sonic textures of shortwave as well as using the serendipitous results to inspire musical responses.
While each of these artists’ relationship with shortwave radio informed the development of Dead Air Requiem, Pearse’s own experiences with the medium of radio itself was also formative. An initial interest in radio art was stimulated while working and volunteering from 1988–98 at CKDU-FM, a campus and community radio station in Halifax, in parallel to studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In 1989 he was introduced to the music of Czukay — a fellow bassist and also a radio manipulator — while working on The Voice of Authority, a radio art programme he co-hosted with fellow NSCAD media art student Laura Borealis on CKDU. This inspiration led to enrolment in the electroacoustic studio course at Dalhousie University in 1990 to study with composer Steve Tittle. Under his encouragement, Pearse explored the manipulation of recordings of shortwave broadcasts, many of which were related to the then-ongoing Gulf War. Although the shortwave propaganda broadcasts from both the USA and Iraq were immensely intriguing, of greater interest to him at the time were the telemetry signals of Morse code, which featured stochastically similar rhythms that had a subtly shifting sonic character due to the radio transmission process. The knowledge that these sounds were meaningful and abstract was fascinating, but also frustrating, as their musical and semiotic meaning remained obscured. The selection of short samples of inflammatory speech from this propaganda was somewhat interesting in terms of what it provided in experiments with tape loops used as samples for live performance with his NSCAD art-school student band Wolfblitzers Gazmazk, but the prevalence of newsworthy catchphrases rendered them for the most part only temporarily relevant. It seemed that there could eventually be a place for radio Morse code in his work, but a way of integrating it remained elusive for many years.
In 1992, Pearse’s growing interest in experimental music took him to the Newfoundland Sound Symposium, where he heard Keith Rowe extensively processing shortwave and marine radio transmissions through electric guitar pedals during a concert by the UK group AMM. 7[7. The results of this remarkable concert were recorded and released as the album Newfoundland (AMM 1992), lauded as “one of their finest albums” and also considered to be “one of the best possible introductions to the genre” of freely improvised electroacoustic music (Olewnick 2018).] This experience influenced his own use of shortwave receivers in concert as part of the Halifax indie rock band Horseshoes and Handgrenades 8[8. Not to be confused with the bluegrass band of the same name!] (Audio 4). After seven years of commitment to various Halifax indie rock bands that involved many trips across Canada in unheated vans — always listening to the radio — Pearse returned to university to pursue a music degree. His subsequent compositions eventually moved towards incorporating indeterminacy by using radios, most notably for ASAP — All Sounds Are Possible (2001), a piece for shortwave radio and double bass.
In 2004, in the midst of a contemporary music postgraduate degree at Goldsmiths College (London UK), Pearse was invited to join the Royal Academy Composers Ensemble. The group participated in the Barbican Centre’s John Cage festival event Musicircus for a performance of Imaginary Landscapes No. 4. 9[9. John Cage Uncaged: A weekend of musical mayhem. Barbican Centre, London UK, 16–18 January 2004 (BBC 2004).] Having been randomly selected to start the piece, Pearse tuned his radio 10[10. The aptly-named Ego 2000 radio, ironic in contrast to Cage’s efforts to compose this piece “free of individual taste and memory” while the “ego” as a Freudian construct specifically refers to one’s judgement, planning and memory (Cage 1973, 59–60).] to the call numbers instructed by Cage more than half a century prior. Upon the start of the performance, the transmission that emerged featured BBC Radio hosts discussing the very fact that the ensemble would be performing as part of the weekend’s event. This caused quite a commotion among some members of the audience, who — not only after the concert, but even as the performance had just begun — expressed their disbelief that this serendipitous coincidence had not been planned. The occurrence further cemented Pearse’s notion that the randomness of using radio in a compositional framework holds the potential to far exceed any composer’s expectations.
Later that year, 20–30 grad students from across the UK were invited to observe the planning and preparations leading up to the opening of the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) in Belfast. Over the course of the Sonorities Festival’s “Stockhausen Weekend”, the guest of honour himself presented multi-speaker diffusion performances of key works from his electroacoustic repertoire, including Hymnen (1967) and the iconic five-channel Gesang der Jünglinge (1956). The manipulations of shortwave broadcasts of national anthems in the former and the systematic manipulation of recorded, radio-like voices in the latter proved to be a profoundly moving experience for the younger composer, who also had the opportunity to meet Stockhausen in person. These events would have a lasting effect upon Pearse’s own compositional interests, and the vast and untethered quality of shortwave radio would long remain musically compelling for him.
In 2012, Pearse was commissioned to compose music for a dance and video projection performance piece to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and the recovery operations based in Halifax. Created in collaboration with choreographer Veronique Mackenzie and media artist Susan Tooke, Depths of Sorrows was composed with its central dance accompanied by a string trio (Video 4). The work is composed using rhythms based on Morse code signals from the years prior to the tragedy as well as the international codification of “S.O.S.” as a radio signal in the wake of the disaster (Coughlan 2012), and engagement with both the meaning and the rhythms of Morse code reawakened the composer’s interest in incorporating coded messages in his compositions.
Guido d’Arezzo, William Byrd, Karlheinz Stockhausen…
These previous experiences with radio as a musical resource had already shaped Pearse’s interests in shortwave radio before he learned of Christie’s work on her film Spectres of Shortwave. 11[11. Research and recordings Christie made while working on the film would later be incorporated into Requiem for Radio: Full Quiet Flutter.] Building upon her concepts and extensive audio documentation of the RCI site in Sackville NB, the one-hour long, five-channel electroacoustic piece Dead Air Requiem was composed as an homage to both RCI and the shortwave medium itself, taking structural inspiration from and including an early Requiem by William Byrd.
The prevalence of 5.1 sound mixing in contemporary film practice and Stockhausen’s use of five speakers in Gesang der Jünglinge provided further poetic coherence to the project: within the larger five-part formal structure of the Requiem for Radio suite, Deviant Receptions involved Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices incorporated into a five-channel simulcast. Further, composed in 1594, Byrd’s Mass is a comparatively early composition using the five-lined staff, which has since at least the Renaissance been established as the preeminent technology for the transmission of Western polyphonic music. Among other things, the codification of the four-line staff (traditionally attributed to Guido d’Arezzo in the early 11th century) and the subsequent establishment of the five-lined staff (which Ungoli of Forli would successfully promulgate two centuries later) enabled revolutionary changes in the dissemination of music in the evolving European tradition. With the advent of a reliable means to document, preserve and “export” works, musical ideas formerly restricted by geographic location could now cross regional and national boundaries and reach unfamiliar territories — not to mention (initially) unintended audiences. Using historic notated music in this contemporary electroacoustic piece meant for international broadcast thus seemed extremely relevant. Further, the formal structure of the Requiem for Radio suite is similarly comprised of five distinct elements, so this adherence to using similar or related structural elements as in Christie’s work helps ensure the transparent integration of Dead Air Requiem within her larger project.
Source Materials in “Dead Air Requiem”
Due to the referential interconnections forming the conceptual basis of the work, none of the various elements of Dead Air Requiem have priority over another on a formal level. They are presented here more or less in the chronological order in which they were completed.
Among the first elements that Christie proposed for use in the composition of this piece were the recordings of actual shortwave announcers from five sources around the world calling out to RCI. These recordings, with broadcasters asking for acknowledgement from RCI after giving their own locations, reiterated the use of shortwave not just as a means of transmission, but also as two-way communications. Having announcements made by recognizable, professional radio voices situated the work in the real territory of shortwave culture, while also highlighting the absence of RCI on the airwaves (Audio 5). This expansive, transnational quality of shortwave operates simultaneously as a representation and a proposal, reminding listeners that the spatiality of radio mimics, or perhaps parallels, that of globalization itself (Jacob 2011).
The contact mic recordings of the RCI towers that Christie used throughout the sound design for Spectres of Shortwave, and exclusively so for the film’s ending sequence, had been filtered to emphasize harmonics across a chromatic scale. These were loaded into five iterations of a software sampler within the DAW. The musical score of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices was then converted to MIDI data. Each voice was assigned its own MIDI track so they could independently trigger the samplers to play the RCI tower recordings. Each of these samplers was routed to a discrete channel and given its own digital reverberation. Using a very long (25 s) decay time made it possible to smooth out many of the artifacts of the recordings, creating a legato effect not unlike a string ensemble.
The tempo of the Mass was reduced to a speed that would thereby stretch the duration of the MIDI playback to one hour. This gave each note within the Mass an abnormally long duration, so as to allow the individual RCI recordings to proceed for an extended period once triggered. In the time-stretched version of the Mass, each quarter note lasted roughly 25 seconds.
Due to its historical relevance to shortwave radio transmission, it was crucial that Morse code be included in Dead Air Requiem, and it was equally important that the meaning of the code be relevant to the piece. The five sections of the Mass ordinary that are in Latin (i.e. all but the Kyrie, which is in Greek) were converted into Morse code using an online text-to-Morse-to-MIDI generator (Lie 2010).
Once this MIDI data was generated, the tempo was adjusted so as to ensure that the entirety of the Morse code “translation” of the Mass would be broadcast five times over the course of the piece. Because this procedure created a texture that was more homogenous than desired, the Morse code was automated to fade in and out of perceptibility over the course of the piece, and to slowly wander among the five channels.
A recording of the Kyrie from Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices was made in Moncton, New Brunswick, with each singer discretely recorded to a separate channel. Used in isolation from the other sounds relatively early in Dead Air Requiem, it appears as if Byrd’s Mass were part of a conventional broadcast (Audio 6). This was timed to occur in the live performance of Full Quiet Flutter twenty minutes before the same singers (seated dispersed amongst the audience) began singing identical vocal parts. 12[12. The result harkened the serendipity of the performance of Cage’s Musicircus discussed above.] In the last ten minutes of the performance, the composite recordings of the voices are reintroduced, but subjected to time stretching and extensive reverb before being blended back into the texture of the work, and sounding as if they had become distorted by radio artifacts themselves (Audio 7).
Numbers Stations and Other Shortwave Phenomena
Perhaps one of the most pervasive elements of the piece is the collections of shortwave radio anomalies — so-called “numbers stations” and other shortwave radio phenomena. These recordings were sourced from numerous internet databases as well as from recordings of shortwave radios (such as Fernandez 1997). Many of these anomalies are well documented yet remain unexplained, with online forums monitoring their history and ongoing nature. It is speculated that many have archaic yet active espionage functions, and most defy simple explanation (Audio 8).
These recordings are for the most part brief and repetitive excerpts of shortwave transmissions comprised of voices and electronic tones, the purpose of which remains inscrutable. Some feature voices counting numbers in groups of five (very relevant to this project), some have sustained buzzing pitches interrupted by pure tones, while others are comprised of repeated patterns of brief recordings of instrumental music followed by several pulsed tones. They are eerie in their obtuse nature, neither as clearly encoded as Morse nor as abstract as the radio anomalies originating from atmospheric conditions (Audio 9). They use recognizable sounds yet remain indecipherable, and there are accounts of this type of shortwave being used for both governmental and illegal purposes for many years (Sorrel-Dejerine 2014).
The best known of these “numbers stations” is UBV-76, which has operated for decades and is believed to have originated in Russia. While some are tempted to dismiss these numbers stations as hoaxes, the timespan and scale of these operations, combined with the accounts of retired Cold War participants, indicate that these remnants of comparatively obsolete technology may still have a place in the shadowy world of espionage (Savondnik 2011). Thus, an initial interest in the abstract sonics of shortwave, combined with concerns about the political meaning of the messages has re-emerged as a concern in this project 25 years after Pearse first explored the use of shortwave telemetry and propaganda broadcasts.
The shortwave recordings were then algorithmically sequenced using Ableton Live. Divided into five categories — vocal, tonal, rhythmic, textural and “musical” — these appear randomly throughout the piece, echoing the manner in which they might appear and how they might sound while a listener scans shortwave signals.
The shortwave anomalies and the MIDI Latin Morse code slowly pan throughout the five channels, so that while their continuous spatial motion may be perceptible to those who hear the piece performed over a multi-speaker setup (such as the five individual radios in the Full Quiet Flutter performance), they in fact fade in and out of each discrete channel. The spatialization was done in Ableton Live using the Max For Live multi-channel audio effect, and the output — five discrete mono channels — was tracked into and synchronized using the DAW. This enabled the stochastic sequencing capabilities of Ableton Live to merge with the discrete surround audio recording and the exported audio.
Each of the five channels was given its own discrete multiband compression and equalization, with the expectation that each channel would most likely be experienced in isolation by shortwave listeners. The mixing of five separate but interconnected versions required that they be mixed both as a group as well as individually, to maintain phase coherence across the panning. This design created a spatialized effect that is perceptible when all five channels are heard simultaneously, however, it was understood this would remain hermetic knowledge once broadcast, elusive to most listeners (Audio 10–14).
The media-specific nature of Dead Air Requiem was essential to this composition. Knowing the complex variables of the piece’s ongoing presentation over shortwave radio from the beginning of the composition process made for singular considerations. It was unnecessary to impart the piece with an artificial sonic patina emulating the shortwave medium’s artifacts, as these would inevitably result from the broadcast process. Each time it is broadcast the sonic quality will vary and the possibilities of loose synchronization will result in related, yet independent voices. And ultimately, the rebroadcasting of the shortwave phenomena over broadcast frequencies unrelated to their source imparts the piece with a disruptive quality probably only apparent within the community of shortwave radio enthusiasts — a type of narrowcasting within the broadcast medium — where the commentary on the loss of RCI might be most appreciated.
The various elements of Dead Air Requiem were each formally interconnected. From the liturgical Morse code in the medium of shortwave to the number of shortwave stations and the number of voices in the Byrd Mass to the playback of the of the sampled RCI towers’ sounds as the notes of the Mass, a sense of reflexivity pervades the entire work.
IV. 9620 kHz
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QSL Cards and DXers
Given the nature of shortwave radio, the simulcasts of Deviant Receptions could likely be received in most parts of the world. Shortwave radio travels by ricocheting between the surface of the Earth and the ionosphere, and this allows it to follow the curve of the planet. While it could naturally be expected that a few people might stumble upon these broadcasts by chance, the amount of attention these transmissions garnered from the international shortwave and DX community was quite — and pleasantly! — surprising.
There are many types of shortwave listeners and one particular community of shortwave listeners is the DX community. The nomenclature DX comes from the telegraphic term for “distance” or “distant”, and DXing is the term given to the practice or the hobby of listening for and logging distant transmissions from around the world. DXers (the name given to people involved in the practice of DXing) attempt to receive and log transmissions from as many distant sites as possible. When they receive a transmission, they send a reception report to the person or organization responsible for the transmission. These reception reports include information on the type of antenna and receiver that were used to receive the transmission, assessment of signal strength and, finally, proof that this transmission was heard. Proof can take the form of a written description of the audio content, an audio recording of the content, a video recording of their radio playing the content, or a screen capture of their software-defined radio (SDR).
Once a reception report has been received, the person or organization responsible for the original transmission then sends a QSL card to the DXer. QSL cards have been around since the beginning of shortwave radio and DXers amass huge collections of these cards. There are actual competitions held for those who have obtained the most QSL cards, and as such the reception reports are required as proof that they did not cheat. These days, most stations issue electronic QSL cards sent by email. In preparation for the Requiem for Radio: Full Quiet Flutter performance, a batch of QSL cards was printed that was intended to serve as novelty and for promotion. There was no expectation to receive any actual reception reports because of the decentralized nature of these transmissions; normally they would be sent to the broadcast station itself. Surprisingly, many reports were sent to Christie — as opposed to the stations that had broadcast the transmissions — by post and via email. In the end, the QSL cards were in fact used as normal, and were sent to all who had submitted reception reports.
Suspicion of Pirates and the HF Underground
The first simulcast, which took place on 25 May 2017, was intended to be a test run of all five broadcasts paired with a full technical and dress rehearsal in the theatre. During the dress rehearsal and test, a shortwave and pirate radio enthusiast based in the Netherlands posted a video to YouTube that included an audio recording from one of the transmissions. The original title of this video was “Pirate Radio broadcast or numbers stations?” and the description included questions from the poster wondering what this broadcast was that he was hearing. 13[13. Unfortunately, the title of the video posting was changed before a screen capture could be made to document it. That original video is still online as of November 2019, but the poster has since renamed it “Moosbrunn: Requiem for Radio by Amanda Dawn Christie project 9.620khz AM” (Bits & bleeps 2017).]
Within hours, reference to the broadcasts was being made on a thread on the HF Underground, an online forum populated by users monitoring High Frequency (HF) pirate broadcasts. Some of the contributors had been commenting on what they thought were pirate transmissions that included Morse code and numbers stations across multiple frequencies. At first, the comments suggested that the same broadcast was being heard on various unusual frequencies. Gradually those posting in the thread began to comment that each of the frequencies was slightly different. The process of these DXers listening to the various broadcasts and comparing very slight differences was fascinating to witness. It was an exciting find but unfortunately the thread has since been relocated, or possibly removed. Posters initially thought the Morse code was interference from other radio operators, until one poster started decoding it and wrote “The Morse code is in Latin! Does anyone here speak Latin?!”
This revelation attracted more listeners who seemed just as eager to figure out what they were hearing. Eventually someone made the connection with the first of the three Moncton performances that had occurred earlier that night and posted links to the Requiem for Radio page on Christie’s website. It would seem that the poster knew about the project from an earlier posting on a blog about shortwave listening (SWL) called SWLing Post (Witherspoon 2017). The frequencies were then shared amongst the various listening communities, and during the next two performances, DXers around the world got out their radios and tried to capture as many of the frequencies as possible. Again, no screen capture was made of the original title of that first thread on HF Underground, nor could it be located in archives.
Other threads about Requiem for Radio can, however, be located in the HF Underground archives that reveal the ways in which listeners were receiving and responding to the work. One particular thread features comments about possible differences between the broadcasts on different nights (HFU Forum 2017b), despite the fact (which the posters may not have known) that the transmissions were the same on each night.
Later in the thread, commenters attempted to figure out where one of the European broadcasts was actually coming from. They initially assumed that it was a pirate because it was broadcast on a frequency and in a direction that was abnormal for that transmission site. They would only find out later that slots had been purchased from German Shortwave Service for two frequencies at separate sites in Austria and Germany to transmit towards the theatre in Moncton. The thread includes exchanges of information on where the European broadcasts were coming from, which organization owned those transmission sites and how such broadcasters operate with foreign customers (Ibid.).
These online forums, discussions, blog posts and YouTube videos are excellent examples of how a work made for one medium (shortwave) was discussed on another (the Internet) so that specific communities could go back and find the work on its initial medium (shortwave) on the following nights. These discussions were then all archived on both HF Underground and SWLing Post, providing traces of the event in online forums and blogs.
In the days that followed the performances, and in the wake of follow-up online discussions and blog posts, reception reports started pouring in from around the world: from China, Japan, India, Greece, Italy, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, the US and Canada. Simulcast works involving multiple channels on different frequencies are certainly rare; some radio operators have in fact suggested that this may be the first time multiple but distinct broadcasts were synchronized across multiple international transmission sites (Christie 2017b). As would be expected, due to propagation conditions and geographic locations, only a few people would have been able to receive and hear all five simultaneous broadcasts. 14[14. As explained below, it was only on the final night of the performance that the fifth channel was successfully simulcast with the four others.] Most heard only one channel, a few captured three, even fewer received four and only one received all five.
The reports ranged from technical lists of reception equipment and signal strength to lengthy poetic descriptions of what listeners heard. Several listeners sent audio files of recordings they made of the broadcast they caught (Audio 15), with each recording differing depending on the signal strength at their location and the characteristics of the equipment they used to receive it (Audio 16). Some listeners made individual recordings of all the broadcasts they received and then mixed them together on their own. Other listeners sent videos of their radios in their homes, bedrooms and porches playing the simulcasts. Still others sent screen captures of their SDR screens as proof that they received the signals (Fig. 13).
Several of the listeners admitted that while they did not know much about experimental music or sound art, they greatly appreciated and enjoyed the broadcast. One listener who caught portions of the Miami and Austria broadcasts in Leipzig, Germany reported that he “would not consider [himself] an insider to sound art,” but had in the past often listened to such projects on Deutschland Radio and Resonance FM (London). He also lamented the growing difficulty for shortwave reception in urban areas due to the increase of emissions from electronic devices interfering with the broadcasts (Christie 2017c).
The most detailed written description of the work came from Dave Valko in Dunio PA, who caught only the end of the 26 May broadcast. After looking into what he had heard, the next day, in order to augment his existing 2-channel SDR setup, he “dug out 3 of [his] old shortwave receivers from storage and tuned in to all 5 frequencies at the same time for the entire program” on the third and final of the broadcasts (Christie 2017e). Valko’s report included a few mp3 recordings that he had made from that reception, as well as a mono mix he had made of the five tracks. Another individual sent a very poetic description of his experience at the edge of Lesser Slave Lake in north-central Alberta, where he sat on a piece of driftwood and listened to the broadcast on headphones, with his antenna strung across to a cluster of “scrubby bushes” nearby (Christie 2017d). He included a photo of the lake and the log from where he listened, as well as a second image of planet earth with a red line drawn from Miami where the transmission originated to Lesser Slave Lake where he was listening (Fig. 14).
Once word got out that physical QSL cards had been printed, many DXers began sending in reception reports and offered to pay for postage. Instead of accepting money for postage, and to thank them for their contributions, Christie mailed a QSL card free of charge to all contributors who allowed their reception reports to be posted on the Requiem for Radio webpages. In order to protect their privacy, whenever requested, the reports were rendered anonymous. Aside from these small editorial changes, most of the reception reports have been posted in their entirety on the Requiem for Radio pages, where the sound recordings, videos and descriptions of the broadcasts are now available (Christie 2017). The style between reception reports varies greatly and they provide, as a whole, a unique kind of music analysis from an unintended audience.
V. 6850 kHz
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Pirates Take Over Future Diffusion of the “Requiem”
There are many types of pirate radio, each with their own nuanced issues. A broadcast can be considered pirate for various reasons: broadcasting without a license, broadcasting on the wrong frequency, not announcing station IDs, or broadcasting with more power (wattage) than legally allowed. What is legal and illegal on the airwaves differs from country to country, as each nation has their own organization for legislating the airwaves. In Canada, the airwaves are regulated by the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) while in the US, the airwaves are legislated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These organizations legislate which bandwidths of the spectrum can be used for which types of communication (i.e. citizen band, commercial radio, air traffic control, etc.). These organizations are also responsible for attributing licenses to use the airwaves and for enforcing the laws by prosecuting those who do not abide by the regulations. Given that the regulations vary from country to country, pirate radio can often be seen as a challenge to national boundaries.
Pirate (or at least unregulated) radio predates nationalized broadcasting — the first licensed broadcast station, KDKA in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, was only launched in November 1920 (Joseph-Hunter 2011, xv). Prior to this, all radio and wireless communications were unregulated. With the advent of licensing and regulations, the government began to have more control over the airwaves. Fines and penalties for violating regulations can be quite extreme, especially in the US. Pirates can not only have their equipment confiscated, they can also be given extremely large fines and even face jail time. This is why so many pirates use pseudonyms instead of their real names and only announce the frequency of their broadcasts a half an hour before going on air (if they announce it at all). In the course of working on Requiem for Radio: Deviant Receptions, contact was made with members of the pirate community through someone who knew someone, who knew someone else. Communications were often indirect and done through anonymous accounts held by users employing pseudonyms.
Several reasons explain why individuals are willing to risk fines and incarceration for pirate broadcasting, not the least of which is the difficulty in obtaining licenses. Licenses for broadcasting stations can be quite inaccessible to various communities for financial, cultural and logistic reasons.
Other reasons for taking the risk of pirate broadcasting range from undertaking and encouraging political action to addressing the limitations of existing cultural representation. Pirate radio remains a medium that is actually vital to many communities who are underrepresented on mainstream radio. WBAD in New York City, for example, was a pirate radio station that flourished in the 1990s, a period that was “a heyday for FM pirate radio,” before the Internet grew into the mass media platform as we know it today. In a climate and time when mainstream radio was only programming music from major labels and censoring lyrics, through its focus on hip-hop artists whose music featured expletives WBAD became an important platform for a community shut out of much of the mainstream due to FCC regulations (Goren 2018a).
Another need being filled by pirate radio is that of broadcasting to marginalized immigrant communities. In larger cities, many communities run their own low-power radio stations without licenses in order to share music and announcements with each other (Goren 2019; Klein 2019; Kingston Mann 2019). Many of these stations are not even aware of the fact that what they are doing is illegal, as they are not aware of the complex regulations and procedures (Goren 2018 and 2019); they are simply providing a solution to specific needs in their community. David Goren’s Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map gives a sense of the range of programming that is provided by pirate stations in such culturally diverse urban centres as the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, for example (Goren 2018b).
There is a certain irony in this situation. Unregulated radio predates nationalized broadcasting, yet as many countries shutter their shortwave services (as Canada did with RCI) it is the pirates who remain on the air. Given the important role that pirates and unregulated broadcasters have played in the history of radio, it seemed essential to include at least one pirate among the transmission sites for Requiem for Radio: Deviant Receptions. However, the extent of indeterminacy this would introduce to the project was quite unexpected. On May 25, the night of the dress rehearsal and tech run, the planned pirate broadcast never happened, and so only four of the five channels were broadcast over shortwave. 15[15. As mentioned above, this channel was replaced in the theatre with a locally broadcast signal.] For the first public performance the next evening, Radio Free Whatever came on board to broadcast the track; however, the performance in the theatre ended at 00:00 UTC and the track of Pearse’s Dead Air Requiem meant to be broadcast on pirate radio was logged on the HFU Forum by JoeFLIPS, a DXer based in Warwick RI (USA), as beginning at 02:37 UTC — two and a half hours after the performance ended. The report then also states that at 02:45 RFW made a station ID. Their broadcast of Dead Air Requiem seems to have continued after that, as the same poster logged “02:46 — YL [Young Lady] reading numbers over spacey music” (HFU Forum 2017a). Then, for the final public performance on May 27, two different pirates — Radio Free Whatever and Pirate Radio Boston — both broadcast the same track at the same time and on two different frequencies, so the final night was essentially a six-channel broadcast with one of the five channels doubled. Due to the indeterminacy introduced by working with pirate radio, there was never a five-channel simulcast as originally intended: instead, there was a four-channel simulcast the first two nights and a six-channel simulcast on the last night.
After the performance and simulcast, occasional references to Requiem for Radio would appear in the HFU Forum either as a reference point, or with the idea that someone in the pirate community was possibly rebroadcasting one of the tracks on their own terms. For example, at 00:33 UTC on 3 June 2017, the same DXer who posted about the earlier delayed transmission logged that he was hearing something that “sounds like the Requiem For Radio Program S4” 16[16. SINPO (Signal, Interference, Noise, Propagation and Overall) is a signal reporting code used for logging radio reception quality. Each letter of the code is given a score of 1 to 5, with 1 being barely perceptible and 5 being exceptionally strong. So a rating of S4 means that the signal was very strong. Oftentimes, reception reports will include a string of five digits (e.g., 43512) and it is understood that each digit corresponds to one of the categories of the SINPO code, in which signal refers to signal strength, interference refers to man-made noise (such as interference from other stations), noise refers to atmospheric noise (such as from lightning or solar storms), propagation refers to the steadiness of the signal and overall refers to the listening experience under these conditions.] on 6955 LSB/USB (HFU Forum 2017c) — in other words, on a date and frequency that was not used for the performance and simulcast. Although he initially assumed he was listening to another broadcast of the work he heard a week earlier, 13 minutes later he presumed that the presence of rock music in the signal meant that “this isn’t Requiem For Radio.” Several months later, someone in the pirate community suggested to Christie that because one of the .wav files was sent to the pirate community, there was a very real possibility that it was being rebroadcast from time to time, in whole or in part, whenever certain pirates felt like it.
During the 2018 Winter SWL Fest in Pennsylvania (organized by NASWA — North American Shortwave Association), where Christie was invited to talk about Requiem for Radio as Keynote Speaker, she was informed that there were certain members of the pirate community who were interested in recreating the entire five-channel simulcast of Requiem for Radio: Deviant Receptions. Since releasing it to the pirate community for the original broadcast, one of the tracks was already floating around in the community; these pirates were therefore requesting access to the remaining four tracks. This is an interesting development not least because it would seem clear that once all five tracks are given over to the pirate community — a community that, by nature, operates by its own rules — these tracks may then be broadcast however and whenever pirate broadcasters choose. It goes without saying that the eventual results could potentially diverge greatly from the original work, but such variation would naturally be an expected and welcome outcome of using pirate broadcasting as a medium. As of November 2019, the remaining four tracks are not yet in their hands, but it remains an intriguing prospect to release them into the collaborative community of pirate radio broadcasting and thus allow the Dead Air Requiem to take on a life of its own in the unregulated airwaves.
There were in fact plans for this all-pirate simulcast to take place in October 2017, but for two key reasons this did not happen. First, it would have fallen in the period just prior to an expected solar minimum 17[17. Solar cycles last 10–11 years and affect terrestrial organisms and radio communications, among others, in various ways and to differing degrees according to the position in the cycle. Increased solar activity alters the ionosphere in ways that can help improve the propagation of radio waves, and the inverse is also true.] and thus radio propagation conditions would not support reception above 5 MHz in the evenings. Only a few shortwave pirates (less than three that we knew of) have antennas long enough to transmit on 4 MHz, so in order to accommodate and adjust for the decreased bandwidth accessibility, the five channels would have been reduced to three. The second problem was that some freely available webSDR systems were now incorporating network-based, direction-finding techniques such as Time Difference of Arrival (TDoA), an algorithmic approach that has long been used in ranging, radio navigation and surveillance. This meant that users on some freely accessible webSDR networks could now select three remote receivers to triangulate in order to find a transmitter’s location. This development is freely available online, and is accurate to about 50–80 km, which understandably made many pirates extremely uncomfortable. 18[18. Because of their size, shortwave antennas tend to be much more conspicuous than FM antennas. In order to be efficient, an FM broadcast antenna only has to be a meter or two long, whereas a shortwave broadcast antenna would have to be tens of meters in length. The antennas also need to be fairly high above the ground in order to be efficient. A meter-long FM antenna is not so conspicuous when placed on top of a building; however, a 40-meter shortwave antenna is much more difficult to hide, even when installed on very high structures. It is also important to note that the lower the frequency, the longer and higher the antenna needs to be: a 4 MHz broadcast antenna would need to be about 35 meters long, and ideally 30 meters off the ground, and would therefore be quite visible from 50 km away.] Even before this development, many pirates preferred to go off air before clocking 30 minutes of activity in order to reduce the risk of being located, so the one-hour long performance of Dead Air Requiem was already a pretty big risk for pirates even before this technology was introduced to freely available webSDR networks. Despite these risks, some pirates are still interested and waiting for proper solar conditions to transmit the full five-channel simulcast. Once conditions are more optimal, all five tracks will be released into the pirate community for a simulcast performance involving five pirate radio broadcasters. After that launch, members of the pirate community will likely continue to use those tracks as they please, with or without the collaboration — or consent — of Christie and Pearse.
The use of radio to memorialize the loss of the Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave site and to commemorate the experiences of the unintended audiences in Sackville complicates the established transmission-reception paradigm of radio itself. Unregulated broadcasters, in existence since long before nationalized radio corporations such as RCI, have always offered mechanisms for witnessing, sharing and receiving information. Thus, while national regulations were established to control broadcasts early in the 20th century, unconventional pirate broadcasting perseveres still today and even in spite of the Internet — the disruptive technology used to justify the decommissioning of Canada’s national shortwave service (Fig. 15).
As RCI came to the end of its 70-year existence, Amanda Dawn Christie witnessed its demise, carefully documenting its fallen towers in photographs, film and sound recordings, and scavenging its parts. The works she created to memorialize the loss stands as an offering to an unforeseeable audience of unintended witnesses all over the world. Just as the kitchen sinks in the vicinity of Sackville (where RCI’s transmitters stood until 2014) “played” radio broadcasts intended for an international audience, the radios of DXers located around the globe received and played isolated tracks from a five-channel work composed by Lukas Pearse that was intended for a single audience located in a theatre elsewhere in New Brunswick. Eventually both communities made these unregulated receptions their own.
In time, the tracks from the simulcast will be handed over into the hands of the pirates so that through the death of the RCI towers, new life may arise from within the pirate community.
In addition to those mentioned in the text above, many other individuals contributed to the realization of Requiem for Radio. The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Bruno Bélanger, Rémi Belliveau, Léandre Bourgeois, Nathan Finnemore, Steve Frost, Paul Gamache, Chloé Gagnon, Max Kasper, Danny King, Stephanie Knapper, Marc Landry, Camille LeBlanc, Martin Marier, Ross McCart, Mark McGinnis, Larry McKnight, Annie France Noël, Émilie Peltier, René Poirier, Gord Skiffington and Mark Young.
Requiem for Radio was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Board of New Brunswick, Wave Farm Transmission Arts, MDocs Storytellers Institute, Studio Prim, the Centre culturel Aberdeen, the RE:FLUX festival & GSN, WRMI: Radio Miami International, WBCQ: Free Speech Radio, German Shortwave Service, Pirate Radio Boston and Radio Free Whatever.
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