Melting the borders between art and science, a new wave of musicians are sourcing sounds from ever more alien domains. Report by Rob Young. This article originally appeared in The Wire 157 (March 1997).
One memorable day in the late 80s, in the Finnish capital Helsinki, a music and performance art group called Ultra 3 subjected themselves to a gruelling sonic endurance test. Isolated in a small room, they underwent ten hours, without food or other sustenance, immersed in a blanketing low-frequency hum at a shattering 125 decibels.
Almost a decade later two former members of that group, Mika Vainio and llpo Vaisanen, are in residence at a South London arts venue creating music in public for six hours a day, every day, for three weeks. Circumstances may have changed radically - now called Panasonic, they've become the toast of the European avant noise/Techno circuit, about to embark on a tour with Swans - but the stamina remains the same.
Panasonic emanate from a small collection of like-minded souls in Finland, a place where in their own words "hardly anything happens ever", who dedicated themselves to cultivating a bizarre climate of artistic experiment and technological innovation. Hardened by the Ultra 3 experience - "That worked really well," says llpo, "there was a good feeling after that, because we had trained our minds to be in the space ten hours" - they met Tommi Grönlund in 1989 and together began organising rave parties in their home town of Turku. "We kept organising those parties for four years," recalls Mika Vainio, "then in the end we got into too much trouble with the police. They stopped the whole thing. But the beginning was very much fun." Another creative outlet was born: Grönlund Sähkö label, which issued the first records by Jimi Tenor, Panasonic and Vainio's other project, the ultra-minimal Ø. "Actually Ø was before Panasonic," says llpo. "We made a few live gigs as well. There was two other guys: one guy was swallowing a microphone, and we used as well these biosensors to take electronic boom from the head, the heart and the genitals."
"He had microphone in his stomach," adds Mika, "and he was ramming his back..." The Sähkö collective dabbled with other sound machines including theremins, a light sensitive cage and a tubular speaker system designed to transmit infrasound below the threshold of audibility.
Panasonic's music has cooled down in the wake of these antics, but their new album, Kulma (Angle), is nevertheless composed from a forbidding array of pure tones, sinewaves, pulses, electronic squelches and ultrasonic waveforms, skilfully arranged into an accessibly rhythmic package. Most of the sounds are processed on silvery sinewave generators, custom-built by a technician friend "because we wanted to be able to make these sounds in different ways from normal synthesizers". Yet despite isolating the components of their music down to pure frequencies, modulations of air pressure, and rhythms that motor in and out of phase with Newtonian precision, the resulting product is surprisingly easy to live with - so much so that Björk hired Vainio for a remix on her recent Telegram LP. They readily concur with this suggestion of user-friendliness. "We are not trying to be the most extreme," says llpo. "One friend of mine wrote me a letter about [1996's] Vakio CD. He was thinking that this music makes an environment like a lift elevator, or a coffee machine: it's your friend, it's not just like a coffee machine that makes coffee, you have more contact with it. It's more normal." When they step into their tiny sauna studio in Turku each morning, their thoughts are more focused on everyday realities than quantum physics or chaos theory. "I think the idea of chaos theory is that there is no chaos, actually," says Mika. "It's just all in everything. These ideas affect us but not directly. Usually the ideas are very abstract, like a state of mind, a chess problem, or the weather on a certain day of the week, or whatever."
When they describe the symbiotic relationship they have with their equipment it sounds as though they have all but relinquished control of the process of making music. "I absolutely don't know who is king of the space," says llpo. "The way we are doing music," says Mika, "the machines are as important as we are. It goes both ways. When we are building the tracks we have some ideas in our minds; they're still playing us as well. Sometimes it's very difficult, if you have a really specific idea, to make a certain kind of track, it's often very difficult to force the track into that direction. It's often a lot easier and more enjoyable when you just let it grow by itself, in a way. Just go, and follow it.
"It's a very interesting idea," says Vainio later, "and a scary idea, how much information is happening all the time in the environment. Like, going through everywhere at the moment." It's true: a whole range of musical or technological devices and processes are becoming increasingly prominent through which hidden properties of nature or the man-made environment are being made audible. Panasonic are just the tip - the sugared pill, if you like - of an iceberg that looms large beneath leftfield music's choppy waters. However much they deny that they were trying to cause pain with their use of ultrasonic frequencies or infrasound inventions, their previous associations with former KLF member Jimmy Cauty (they played a gig using his self-styled 'Advanced Acoustic Armaments' sound system rigged up on an armoured car), who's currently under investigation for the alleged killing of several bovine creatures with his 'sonic gun', are a reminder that the physical, harmful effects of sound have been heavily researched by military and security forces in the West.
It's been alleged in several underground publications that in 1973 the British Army in Northern Ireland took delivery of the Sound Curdler, a £26,000 piece of equipment manufactured in Virginia, USA. The device is a souped-up public address system capable of frequency oscillation between 500 and 5000 Hz (cycles per second), designed for use in riot dispersal. Delivering a mighty 120 decibels of sound at 30 feet (113 db is the threshold of aural pain, and equivalent to standing beneath a jet plane as it takes off from a runway), its effect is to induce total panic, although it's never actually been used in the UK.
One weapon that has been tested at any army base in County Antrim, as reported in New Scientist magazine, is the Sqwark Box. This allegedly produces one ultrasound frequency (above normal human hearing range) at 16,000 Hz, and a second at 16,002 Hz. These mesh, generating and inaudible sub-beat interference pattern at an incredibly low 2 Hz, inducing dizziness and nausea as the body and internal organs resonate like a tuning fork. Its effectiveness in quelling disruptive crowds or enemy forces is easy to imagine.
In an interview on the day of last year's infamous 'sonic gun' non-event on Dartmoor, Jimmy Cauty, disinformer to the last, admitted that the weapon was a hoax. But his basic knowledge of sonic weaponry had come to him via Panasonic, who had shown him an article on the subject published in Fist magazine, which in turn had been sent to them by an English graphic designer called Joe Banks.
Banks is the brains behind Disinformation, a project that's released several recordings on that home of sonic esoterica, Ash International. His house in the South London suburbs is a goldmine of squirrelled-away articles, video tapes, books on subjects ranging from ancient Greek science to sunspot activity, brick-like copies of the Jane's compendia of military communications, and his bible, Hiroshi Matsumoto's Modern Radio Service. Plus, of course, the tools of his trade: a big old Lafayette HA800 professional receiver, Datong VLF converter, INSPIRE RS-4 VLF receiver and a home-made, 100 foot copper wire antenna wrapped round a loop of metal tubing. With this orchestra of home-built gizmos Banks has released three recordings, Ghost Shells, Stargate and R&D, all featuring soundbursts from different parts of the VLF (Very Low Frequency) and High Frequency wavebands. Antiphony, a double CD of remixes by Bruce Gilbert, John Duncan, Mark Van Hoen and SETI, among others, is released this month.
"One of the pleasures of radio science," says Banks, "is its ability to reveal just what small additions to the human sensory apparatus are needed to extend perception into entirely new realms of experience." His curiosity was awakened by a TV documentary about the radio phenomena associated with lightning, which sent him burying his head in as many books on the subject as his local library could unearth. Finally, he purchased a number of cheap VLF receivers by mail order, and made contact with an American organisation called INSPIRE (Interactive NASA Space Physics Radio Ionosphere Experiments), who sell their own receiver and encourage their customers to take part in ground observations of Space Shuttle and MIR space station experiments by tuning in at a specified time and monitoring the spacecraft's transmissions. "There are only five people in Europe who do it, and I worked out from the flightpath that they turned the kit on in the space station just for me," he enthuses.
With this unglamorous apparatus, a pair of headphones and a poised DAT recorder, Banks tunes through wavelengths far out of reach of the average domestic radio set, chasing after atmospheric phenomena such as magnetic storms and sunspot activity, submarine communication systems, emissions from the National Grid, and civilian data, navigation and timecode broadcasts. In his local park, away from large sources of artificial energy, we turn on the receiver and are rewarded with a low buzz of static flecked with tweaks and pops like a scratchy record. In fact, each tiny crackle is a flash of lightning somewhere on the earth's surface, possibly as far away as the tropics. His track "Theophany", available on Ash International's Fault In The Nothing compilation, is a recording of a lightning storm closer to home, each strike "infinitely loud", according to Banks, who describes the track as "not so much the record of a phenomenon as a record of the equipment's inability to accurately record it".
Banks is frustrated with the bogus claims to scientific rigour made in connection with much Ambient and Techno-based music, and presents his records as 'findings' rather than pieces of music: "like the Ronseal ad says, 'Does exactly what it says on the tin'".
Once the province of ham radio enthusiasts, esoteric or covert research, sound-effects LPs, dark corners of libraries and second-hand shops, or available only via mail order from specialist magazines dedicated to radio science, astronomy or geography, these 'weird radio' and natural ambient recordings have been surfacing in the last few years on experimental music labels such as Touch, Ash, trente oiseaux, Irdial (who recently issued US VLF expert Stephen P McGreevy's Electric Enigma on two CDs, and will shortly issue The Conet Project, a triple CD collection of the mysterious and surreal 'Numbers Stations' situated at the far ends of the shortwave spectrum, which are alleged to be espionage related transmissions), and of course, via the in-telephony of Scanner. The combined effect of all this recorded matter - the 'service' this music provides - is to reveal information and presences not normally available to the unaugmented ear.
"This kind of thing really broke out of specialised science in the 1940s," says Banks, "but it's a well established research area, there are hundreds and hundreds of people researching it, so it's by no means obscure, it's just obscure to the general public. Quite often people involved in sciences have no idea that there could be any creative interpretation [of what they discover], by which you could gain any different perspective on the world."
He originally conceived Disinformation as "sort of art gallery type stuff", but soon realised that CD production allowed far wider dissemination of ideas. Antiphony is packaged with photos and documentation relating to the 1920s sound mirrors, forgotten chunks of concrete defence hardware that remain scattered around the English countryside. Contextualising his work, he positions himself against the digital age's obsession with cleanliness and silence; he mentions that software exists to wipe recording studio tapes clean from signal-spills from the National Grid.
"Its main purpose," he explains, "is for when a guitar lead has acted as a radio picked up the signal from the National Grid. You think of it in terms of the guitar not working properly, but in fact it's working fine. The signal doesn't come from the faulty guitar, it's coming from the ambient electrical field. Lots of sound engineers spend most of their natural life fiddling about trying to get rid of this signal. What I've done is get this signal, specifically designed a system that will amplify it as much as possible, and use that as a basis for musical composition. The only comparison I can think of in musical history is "The Rumble" by Link Wray, where he invented distortion by buggering up his guitar - taking an established procedure and ruining it in order to achieve something new."
Ambient is getting a kick in the pants. Far from the conventional notion of the genre as passive receiver of information, soaking up whatever enters its orbit as a whale hoovers plankton, people like Joe Banks and Stephen McGreevy know what they're looking for in the earth's ambience and hunt it down remorselessly. Unlike the wide-band plunderings of Disinformation, however, McGreevy focuses only on that range which allows him to hear "the beautiful radio 'music' produced naturally by several processes of nature including lightning storms and aurora", with a particularly American appreciation of the "wonder" of the music of the aurora borealis. Another example of this conscious, directed use of Ambient sound is former Cabaret Voltaire member Chris Watson, who compiled a selection of the location recordings he has been making for the last 18 years on his 1996 album Stepping Into The Dark. Again, although the tapes are released completely free of manipulation, untreated, the sound is offered up not as pure documentary but as a work of art, with inbuilt entitlement to appreciation and evaluation in the same way as a 'conventional' composition might have. "I hope people listen to the recordings and just enjoy them," says Watson when I ask how he hopes the pieces will be received. "Judgement is more difficult I rely on my ears and feelings. Stepping Into The Dark is a personal collection, which I hope will stimulate something of the spine-tingling associations produced by the best music." He certainly doesn't view these as Ambient pieces. "The recordings were made to capture exactly those sounds which make each location individual, ie special. I strongly believe these recordings are something to take part in and to react to. Part of the excitement is the way the technology has to work in parallel with a living habitat over which there is no control. It is still very much an alien landscape."
Philosophers from Pythagoras to Henry David Thoreau have been fascinated by the Aeolian harp, the Greek stringed instrument that vibrates through the action of the wind passing over the strings, literally sieving music out of the air. Perhaps the most celebrated (relatively speaking) modern day exponent of this technique is Alan Lamb. Born in Scotland but transplanted at an early age to the alien landscape of Western Australia, by a series of lucky experiences he became aware of the 'singing' of telephone wires in the wind, and in 1975 he managed to buy (for $ 10) a half-mile stretch of abandoned telegraph wires which were still standing on a farm owned by his sister. "I spent six years perfecting methods of recording from them," he says. "Hi-fi stereo sound, unbelievable sound." By attaching contact microphones along the wires, he found every nuance of vibration which passed through them could be transferred to tape, and a CD of some of these recordings, made in 1981 in this faraway expanse of Australian desert which lies at a point where the warm winds from the continent's interior cross with the Antarctic breeze rising from the south, was released in 1988 on Melbourne's Dorobo label. The wires transduce a variety of micro-events in the surrounding environment spiders and ants can be heard walking along the cables, and a 'percussive' interlude was caused by cows rubbing against the poles. "The merest brushing of a fingernail may result in a fantastic aural blast like a trumpet if one learns how," says Lamb.
"Do I play or am I played?" he once wrote in a catalogue note. As a trained scientist and expert in neurobiology. Lamb assumes the observer's role in the propagation of this music: the artist as facilitator, spreading sounds beyond the bounds of their geographical location. "Here's to Pythagorean values," he says, referring to the ancient Greek mystical concept of the harmony of the spheres - cosmic resonances believed to exist in the universe independent of human consciousness. "Haven't we all had enough of the great one and only, the composer, the conductor, the great virtuoso?" In this spirit, he has handed over the working tapes for his third, unfinished album of wire recordings, Night Passage, to be remixed by Ambient types Ryoji lkeda, Lustmord, Thomas Köner and Bernhard Günter. I thought it was a good idea," he says, "it so resonated with my own thinking viz collective music making on the great nerve net of the late 20th century." On hearing the results he found that "these composers were fast catching up; it will not be long before there is a community of musicians and composers who can truly create that collective musical organism so apparent on the near horizon: that one dreamed of by your ancient Greek."
If such a collective truly coalesced at some unspecified point in the future, Bernhard Günter would surely be its minister of silence. This German musician, born in 1957, produces music of extreme delicacy, diluted or enriched, depending on your point of view, by lengthy tracts of utter digital silence. His 1993 CD Un Peu De Neige Salie, newly reissued on Table Of The Elements, begins with faint crackles and twitches, and progresses over its five untitled tracks down through layers of ever burgeoning silence, punctuated by sporadic microscopic clicks. Günter's hypersensitivity to the most intricate nuances of sound will tax the sturdiest pair of ears, but this is no calculated wind-up. He sees his work as a direct descendant of the magnified incidents in the music of Morton Feldman, Pierre Boulez or Xenakis. Just don't call him a Minimalist.
"I would not be able to tell you what Minimalism is," he tells me from his home in Koblenz. "It's a question of scale. This scale defines what one will perceive as an event in a composition - like in Feldman's first string quartet, when after about one hour there's a first pizzicato note, it's an event. The same pizzicato in, say, a [Brian] Ferneyhough string quartet would mean less than a fly-shit, because it would be buried in tons of other pizzicati or special playing techniques."
Günter's music at times descends to a level of minus 60 decibels. "Very often [the long passages of silence] are intended to function as a kind of projection surface for the listener's recollections of what he has heard so far, and his extrapolations as to what he will hear as the piece goes on, or a quiet time for him to calm and focus his concentration... I believe that silence is an integral part of music, just as shadow is necessary to perceive the quality of light."
Günter has followed a common path, becoming disillusioned during stints in rock and jazz groups, then travelling to Paris where he attended lectures by Boulez at his IRCAM centre. "After a couple of trials with various rather abstract jazz projects I quit playing in bands, got a computer and some electronic sound generators," he recalls. He samples sounds from around his house, treating them to make the original sources unrecognisable. "I like to use Edgard Varèse's expression 'crystallisation' for the process," he explains. "It's all done by ear, not by any preconceived concepts, methods, or theories. Thus, my music is neither serial, aleatoric or algorithmic."
So what is it? Günter takes pains to discourage what he calls "associational listening", urging that the only way into it is by ceasing to question what 'it' is. "I wish to get away from the paradigm of music as language-like, the aesthetic that believe music, or art in general, is a form of communication. My favourite metaphor for explaining what I'm after is a tree on a meadow: the tree is just standing there, it's not a message for you, but looking at it, you may think about a lot of things, feel a lot of things. So in a way I'm trying to do music that exists like a tree. When you associate things with what you hear, visualising this or that, language gets back into the game and destroys the possibility of perceiving the existence of sound, its 'being like this'."
Günter's latest release is a collaboration called Home: Unspeakable with the avant garde musician and agent provocateur John Duncan, based on a text by Samuel Beckett. Together with sound designer and performance artist Max Springer, Duncan was also responsible for an extraordinary aural document of an immense particle physics experiment currently being undertaken in California. The CD, called The Crackling, appeared last year on Günter's trente oiseaux label. It was composed from digitally edited and treated segments of recordings made by Duncan on location at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) in California, which is a straight line of prefabricated steel structures more than three kilometres long, terminating in a cylindrical, solid steel collision chamber 20 metres thick. Electrons are driven up the tunnel by microwave drivers spaced at ten metre intervals, achieving velocities just below the speed of light before colliding with other particles at a temperature of three billion degrees Kelvin. The chamber, according to Duncan, is colossal, "easily large enough to house several 747s, one on top of the other".
Duncan has a long history of esoteric and transgressive research in the name of art and enquiry: his Stress Chamber installation has parallels with the earlier Ultra 3 performance; while some of his more legendary performances almost verge on the criminal (he once invited an audience of women to assault his naked body, having first shown them half an hour's worth of hardcore pornography). The Crackling, an astonishing record by any standards, is not only an aural record of the most gargantuan experimental apparatus in the history of physics, but also - deep breath - an inquiry into the nature of humanity's view of its place in the cosmos in the light of new discoveries about the behaviour of particles.
Prior arrangement with the authorities allowed Duncan unprecedented access to the SLAC site. "The recordings were made in a few hours," he recalls, "with particular attention to the microphone placements and movements put into the tubes of the 120 Hz electron drivers along the tunnel, moved slowly along a section of the tunnel, put into a liquid nitrogen exhaust vent, placed in the centre of the collision chamber 'hall', at various points of the cryogenic system and around the collision chamber itself."
Duncan's sleevenotes portray the site as a necropolis. "The place is full of contradictions: structures built to dwarf and outlast their creators, designed to generate subatomic events that take place in a time scale that is experientially impossible to imagine, using forces or processes that are hostile or lethal to human life, yet are entirely human-created. A 'city of the dead' that seems to have existence with or without its creators."
Seen in this light, Duncan compels a reading of this enormous crucible as an atomic-age cathedral: a monumental and ingenious piece of architecture dedicated to exploring the origins and driving forces of the universe. "Yes," he occurs, "by now it's pretty well established that science is the accepted frame for explaining the findings, and in that sense it's 'trusted' as a religion is 'trusted'. It's also clear, to many scientists among others, that there is infinite knowledge that the discipline of science can't even begin to explain. The SLAC and CERN [a Swiss ring-accelerator] facilities, for all their efforts at precision, are just two of any number of examples that show just how clumsy scientific research can be. Putting faith in science - or anything else - to provide all answers to all questions is a howling tragic mistake. I'm interested in the entire process."
Why is there such an influx of commercially available CDs such as those described here, apparently intent on reshaping the paradigm of form in music? James Whitehead, aka JLIAT, has an idea. An art student at Falmouth College who came in contact with Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Harrison Birtwistle and John Cage in the 70s, now living in the ancient pilgrimage town of Walsingham in Norfolk, Whitehead's three JLIAT CDs (16:05:94, The Dancing Horse and The Ocean Of Infinite Being) are inspired by an esoteric and mystical form of Christianity. This is Holy Minimalism that makes the likes of Arva Pärt and Henryk Górecki sound like the worst excesses of trilling baroque ornamentation. All three CDs are shimmering drones built of stacked octaves of synth loops that last 60 minutes precisely. Although his pieces can take over a year to complete, he says, "they are part of a 'common language' which as such is not 'owned'". These monumental, sustained sound-continuums, each resonating internally with infinite micro-vibrations and ghost-chords, are some of the best examples of music as 'thing-in'itself'. "Minimalism closes the circle of man's development," he says, "which is why it resembles primitive art. Music is one of the most effective forms for communicating these ideas because of our current infrastructure."
A fan of the transcendental Minimalism of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Whitehead hopes his soundfields will provide an unwavering surface for deep meditation. "A Rothko canvas becomes more than oil on canvas when it becomes 'just' oil on canvas," he says. "The point at which a minimalist work takes on a spiritual dimension is probably the most difficult to describe. It's the point at which the algorithm breaks down. The parameters fall into place, and suddenly out of the ordinary and expected comes this beautiful object. I like the quote from a physicist - I've forgotten the name - on finding some new and unexpected particle: 'Who ordered this?'"