Low-Watt Radio and the Technological Mediation of the Voice
Or, Radio, voice and the sonic commons 1
Low-watt radio has played an essential role in my art practice since 1991, serving as the principle tool for guerilla public interventions and large-scale installation and performances.
[1. The term “sonic commons” used in the subtitle is borrowed from Ursula Franklin’s keynote speech at the Tuning of the World Conference (8–13 August 1993) at The Banff Centre (Canada), where the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) was formed.]In contrast with the tendency to use the most sophisticated technology, my work with low-watt radio has served as an easy and inexpensive option. While my colleagues in the early 1990s were working with the most current multi-channel diffusion systems, I was using a “poor person’s version with moveable humans and portable radios” (Kennedy 2010). In most of my works around that time, a soundtrack is broadcast from my one-watt transmitter to any number of radios around a room, with the dynamics for each controlled by a live performer. As the spatialization methods I used increased in sophistication, it became possible to move my sounds around the room by directing live performers who held the “radio-speakers”. This low-watt radio transmission device has been used to diffuse recorded and live sounds around a wide variety of architectural and open spaces, filling them with an imposing auditory presence, and yet having no real loudness in any one place.
During a residency at The Banff Centre for the Arts in 1993, I started creating radio-based soundwalks. 2[2. The term “soundwalk” refers to the acoustic ecology practice of walking along a designated path and listening as deeply as possible, in order to perceive sonic phenomena that might otherwise escape our detection without this focussed approach to listening to and experiencing one’s environment. See Hildegard Westerkamp, “Soundwalking,” Autumn Leaves: Sound and the environment in artistic practice, edited by Angus Carlyle (Paris: Double Entendre, 2007, p. 49).] This activity for me, coming from a musical performance background, had the added conceptual value of taking the work out of the concert hall and into the context of performance art. I found radio to be a practical tool that could act as a common thread, linking both the temporal and spatial from the beginning to end in each work. The idea of using radio was to connect all listeners and spectators through the transmitted soundtrack that was only barely audible as they walk from one radio-based site to another. There were musicians stationed at each radio site who improvised with the soundtrack at a volume just loud enough to be heard at the next site in either direction. Musicians and spectators alike were made aware of the physical range of their sound level. This attention to low volume throughout the work enabled a surreal intimacy, a relationship of sound with physical space that continues to inspire me. It is a process of discovering our physical environment through sound propagation.
The first of my Radio Soundwalks was held outdoors in a patch of forest about one kilometre long with a radius of approximately one kilometer. Five radios were spaced equally apart with five improvising musicians playing near each of them. The soundtrack played a recording of my voice singing soft, extended tones and breaths, and also reciting a quote from Cage about silence. Rather than leave the sounds of nature unaltered, I wanted to add a recorded source into the environment. I was trying to incorporate a technological element into the work with the lightest footprint and the most personal touch possible. To simply invite the listener into the appreciation of a pristine natural environment is not an artwork, in my view, but plain common sense.
In all these radio-based soundwalks 3[3. Another radio-based soundwalk at The Banff Centre for the Arts was enacted along the row of piano practice modules. One performer in each enclosed room improvised with the same radio broadcast, while hearing only faint traces of each other. Spectators were free to enter each room or not. Another performance featured the photography department, each in their enclosed studios improvising on their photography equipment over a radio broadcast.], the sound level determines the circumference of the performance, outlining the borders by the limits of audition. Everything is on a human scale and the sound level reflects typical human production, attempting to integrate itself with other existing sounds, more than to overpower them. The audience has the opportunity to enter the piece in a state of reduced listening (Chion 2005, 120), strolling at their own pace through the sonic environment, each creating their own personal mix. The sound is intended to reach each individual in a personal way, an æsthetic that I adopted from R. Murray Schafer (Schafer 1974 and 1986). 4[4. Schafer’s theoretical and historical essays on the performance devices used in his works were the subject of my master’s thesis in 1989.]
My radio-based works have included guerrilla musical interventions in which the singers of my female choir, Chœur Maha, carried portable radios into public spaces on International Women’s Day. These pieces were conceived with my then-frequent collaborator Kim Sawchuk. We set about to infuse iconic sites of patriarchy encountered in Montréal, such as the City Hall, Hydro-Québec Building and Basilique Notre-Dame, with an organic, feminine auditory presence. The women sang soothing, wordless melodies over a broadcast accompaniment of strings and flutes. Affirming a non-hierarchical model, they moved freely, like a flock of birds with no identifiable leader or sections.
Based on the flexibility and autonomy of this robust technique, I began composing more complicated scores for specific public spaces. In my 1994 work Never/Always, an electroacoustic component was broadcast over CKUT radio from McGill University, and each of the 100 singers in the mixed choir (women, men and children) sang along to it while traveling in choreographed formations through the central plaza of Place des Arts, in downtown Montréal. The score included a map of the city block indicating where each section (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) needed to be for each movement in the piece. As I wrote at the time:
It had an explicitly political intent: addressing and counteracting the individual’s isolation within the anonymity of urban society. A sudden cohesive community was created, united by music. (Kennedy 1994, 25)
Another piece for large-scale choir and radio was commissioned for the inauguration of the Vancouver New Public Library in 1995, around the time when I began to refer to these productions as “sonic choreographies”. More recently, upon invitation of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2011, I created Paradio, which focused on the geography (and civic history) of Troy NY (Video 1). The work united four university choirs from the surrounding area, again with each individual singer holding a radio and singing a composed score about the location where they were actually walking.
Andra McCartney has eloquently explained my work:
Kennedy is attempting to establish an aural commons where the inhabitants enact conscious choices, express themselves through melodious sound, pay attention to the spaces that they are moving through and adapt to those environments, listen for the expressions of others and converse with them. The installation-performance is reliant on the expressions of the audience. Kennedy provides the framework upon which the expressions depend, but she does not determine the outcome. (McCartney 2006, 19)
The last half of the 1990s brought my practice into the realm of cell phones, a logical extension of radio technology. Cell Phone Ballet (readapted for different settings in San Francisco and Montréal) deals with issues of intimacy of communication, of public and private space, and of the individual with regard to contemporary society. Synchronized calls were triggered through PBX switches, reaching incognito performers positioned amongst an unsuspecting audience. A scripted performance score created a dialogue between the performers, each chastising one other for disrupting the performance. Gradually, the inner conversations of the cell phones began to surface in the auditory space, revealing that they were all connected to each other. Both the private world of the cell phone and the outer appearance of public disturbance were played against each other through an invisible connection, in the midst of a musical choreography of live sound in space. As the calls were answered, the phone conversations were amplified through portable computer speakers tucked into the performers’ pockets. These had to be grafted onto earbuds, since wireless headphones or Bluetooth did not yet exist.
Context is everything in Kennedy’s “sonic choreographies” where individual subjects articulate Bordo’s strategies of intervention, contestation, and subversion within public spaces. Here the body stands as a mediator between the anonymity of portable broadcast technologies and the vulnerability of vocal expression. (Waterman 2007, 127)
Lately, I have returned to the original idea of a more loosely choreographed radio soundwalk with a performance called HMMM. Participants hum along to recorded and broadcast versions of themselves on their radios, creating a wash of vocal sound across a noisy urban area. Each performance is preceded by one or more workshops where I explain the physiology of the voice and a little about sound propagation. Participants learn to use humming (or other sounds) as a means of echolocation while walking through public space, and react vocally to the radio’s sonic cues as well as to all other sounds around them. The most recent performance of HMMM took place in Llubljana (Slovenia) in 2014, and culminated in an impromptu visit to City Hall, as alluring and enchanting as the performance of Never / Always twenty years earlier.
These soundwalks and sonic choreographies are integrally connected to their electronic devices on many levels. Low-watt, or “pirate” radio is an emblem of freedom of speech and individual expression. It has been linked to political disruption and the voice of the underrepresented. This connotation is very much desired and intentional in these works. They are meant to be a “call to arms” — or to “mouths”, if you will. The utter accessibility and affordability of low-watt radio is also symbolically important. The fact that basically anyone can make their own transmission device for under $50 5[5. Sound artist Tetsuo Kogawa has made the schematic for a one-watt radio transmitter available on his website for decades.], and anyone can find a portable receiver to pick up the broadcast, makes it the ultimate tool for democracy, in my mind.
With the conventional approach to presenting sonic art, or sound-based works, the audience experiences the work through a conventional PA system: loud sound dominates the area surrounding each of the speakers used for the diffusion, with much less sound — relatively speaking — present elsewhere in the performance venue. The space becomes fixed and immobile. With portable receivers (e.g., boomboxes) every individual has the capacity to control their own mix of soundtrack to voice, and they are completely free to move about and explore the space.
On a purely technical level, these radio transmissions are the only means to arrive at such accurate synchronization. In fact, it is more precise than sending audio or text through cell phones. This is the critical element that allows many singers to perform in a synchronized manner over wide areas of space. This work has been compared to Phil Kline’s Silent Night crowd pieces with boomboxes, but those works are loosely connected in time with cassette tapes and create a beautiful wash of sound. Radio transmission, however, is the only device that allows participants to feel completely in sync with other performers and to create a rhythmic momentum that spans up to a kilometer away (the typical broadcast capacity of one watt). The disparity between the physical distance and the slightly surreal temporal connection is what lends these works a kind of cognitive dissonance, and hence their magical appeal.
Chion, Michel. L’audio-vision : Son et image au cinéma. Cinéma et Image. Paris: Nathan-Université, 2005.
Kennedy, Kathy. “Guerilla Performance… Radical Radio.” Musicworks 59 (Summer 1994), pp. 27–31.
_____. “The Power of Small: Integrating low-power radio and sound art.” In Islands of Resistance: Pirate radio in Canada. Edited by Andrea Langlois, Ron Sakolsky and Marian van der Zon. Vancouver: New Star Books, 2010.
McCartney, Andra. “Gender, Genre and Electroacoustic Soundmaking Practices.” Intersections — Canadian Journal of Music / Revue canadienne de musique 26/2 (2006). http://doi.org/10.7202/1013224ar [Accessed 29 December 2019]
Schafer, R. Murray. “The Theatre of Confluence (Notes in Advance of Action).” The Canada Music Book / Les Cahiers canadiens de musique 9 (Fall 1974), pp. 33–52.
_____. “The Theatre of Confluence II." Canadian Theatre Review 47 (Summer 1986), pp. 5–19.
Waterman, Ellen. “Radio Bodies: Discourse, performance, resonance.” In Radio Territories. Edited by Brandon LaBelle and Erik Granly Jensen. Errant Bodies Press, 2007, pp. 118–153.