Recently I listened back to Glenn Gould's influential 1967 radio documentary The Idea Of North, part of his Solitude Trilogy. It features the voices of people who have had a 'direct confrontation' with the remote northern region of Canada's vast wilderness, describing the practical ins and outs of living there.
Gould was known as one of the greatest interpreters of Bach's Goldberg Variations. But he famously retired from live performance and instead spent long hours locked away in a studio, discovering ever more minute scales of perfectionism while cutting together choice recordings of his playing in an effort to create the most honed versions of the Variations.
He made the Solitude docs using what he called a 'contrapuntal' editing technique which mixed together multiple voices. It can sound noisy with the voices cancelling each other out in a kind of disorientating babble. But sometimes certain words and phrases leap out in quick succession, "endless", "ice", "nothing", "year after year" etc, creating a montage of verbal images.
At first it sounds odd that these intimate and warm voices are talking about such an expansively inhuman and cold place. Further into the recording a voice says: "You can't talk about the North until you've got out of it." And here's where the listener's journey enters into a more fictional space, the idea of The Idea Of North. Not only is the doc about hearing first-hand accounts of what the 'real' North is, it's about remembering it, re-imagining it and re-telling it from a distance.
Throughout the hour long broadcast the sound of a train rumbling along leads the listener towards this idea of North. There aren't any noises of nature like biting wind, wolves howling or footsteps crunching in the snow. Just the muffled sound of the Muskeg Express chugging its way further north along the tracks. The voices could have been recorded anywhere, but Gould places them inside the sonic and psychological space of a train. It's a space loaded with symbolism about fate, destiny, migration and nationhood (much like radio is too in the latter case). This mental space is also akin to that of Gould's perfect Goldberg Variations: it's a close, intimate and even claustrophobic space where one can focus intensely to the point of an epiphany (or hallucination). And though the people in the Idea Of North go to lengths to debunk myths about the north and of a macho 'northmanship' seducing travellers further and further north, the doc still creates a fantastical space, or at least a space where most anything could happen. For Gould, the north, is "a convenient area to dream about, spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid."
In his book The Spiritual History Of Ice: Romanticism, Science, And The Imagination, Eric G Wilson writes about this blurred borderline between real and imagined spaces: "Fantastical worlds can become real in two ways – in the systems of the tyrant or the visions of the liberator. Likewise real spaces can become fantastical in a twofold fashion. On the one hand, a tyrant might fictionalise a physical space so that he can exploit it [...] On the other hand, a liberator might transform a humanised region into the sublime laws sustaining the cosmos. A poet might release chthonic energies underlying city grids."
The Idea Of North documents first hand experiences with the real north, but it also documents Gould's journey towards a productive north, mapping a place of serenity and contemplation over vast and empty tundra. Surrounded by frozen calm, Gould's single-track journey is drawn towards an imagined centre point where the constraining delineations of reality cease and imagination can take over. It's at the centre of the world where the mind can focus on smaller and smaller points of attention, tapping into the creative chthonic energies emanating from the magnetic zero degree. But for Gould it's a place best visited rarely as an obsessive mind is easily subsumed by this vast fantasy, no matter how far away the body is.
Internet radios spider the internet for stations: algorithms track down broadcasts. Spinning a dial means I don't head for a particular target, I browse. Channel surfing by location, I stumbled (and stuck) to South Korea. Not regional or national stations, but ones that seem to be broadcast from a user generated platform a little like Fnoob, and are called things like Coffee, Music, And Emotion, Little House Under The Stars, and Lamp Of Love. I say seem, because I don't really know much about these stations.
What I do know is that these stations are solely interested in a type of seriously emotional manufactured pop: tales of teenage heartbreak, epic adolescent sagas, and intense melancholic ballads. At least, that's what it sounds like. My radio only goes so far in translating the Korean text (and Google hasn't proved much more useful), so ticker lines and track names get scrambled from Korean into Wingdings-like lines of symbols and letters, with only the station name staying intact.
Sung in my mother tongue I'd be far less interested in these cheesy ballads. Obscured by a language barrier the vocals are removed of the lazy romantic cliches I'm presuming make up the lyrics. Predictable, reliable, and stripped of potentially alienatingly bad lyrics, I really enjoy these stations - the warm intensity of the I-Really-Mean-It key change that suggests a statement of everlasting love; the same chord changes in every track, and a vocalist that always fits the same sonic box.
The tracks all sound the same, and in part it's this consistency that appeals. They wouldn't stand up to close listening, and further investigation might reveal an unsavoury production line of pop artists, or just a lot of terrible albums. I listen to this only in the context of my radio, because it's a mood I tune in to, not a collection of artists whose back catalogues I'm interested in. Even so, I don't seem to have a choice: Coffee, Music And Emotion is as impenetrable online as it is on my internet radio (unless of course, you speak Korean).
A little like Rollo Jackson in Tape Crackers (if you swap out the Jungle and inner city tower blocks for South Korea's bedroom broadcasters) I don't know the artists being played, and I don't know who's playing them, just the station name and when to prick up my ears for the key change, and that's the way I like it.
Not many mixes demand to be prefaced by an hour long documentary, but this is an exception. The BBC radio series Legends Of The Dancefloor: A Piece Of Paradise featured a four hour radio broadcast from the Paradise Garage's second birthday, recorded by the young Lenny Fontana and on his dad's reel to reel tape deck back in 1979. Tucked away on the BBC radio schedules in July to run through the night, it almost passed me by, although perhaps I thought that a four hour recording from the Paradise Garage was just too good to be true.
Amazingly, the set is just as good as you might hope, so much so that it begs the question of how the hell it came to light in the first place, and how it remained hidden for so long. The broadcast was accompanied by an hour long chat between Mike Morin and Lenny Fontana, the latter of whom recorded it from local radio as a teenage disco freak before he was even frequenting the club.
The set and the documentary has now been unofficially archived on the web by Belfast disco freaks Iso Disco and also on Soundcloud by DJ Mixes – now the recording is out of the bag it would be a shame if it were to disappear into the mists of time once again.
What's the set like? Well, the sound quality is fairly good, but more importantly it’s the early years of the Paradise Garage, so the relationship between the DJ and the audience was still in the honeymoon stage, and you can hear the crowd responding to the music and the sense of community. Live PAs come from Sylvester and Loletta Holloway, voices that are so familiar frozen on their landmark records that it's genuinely startling to hear them singing in the moment. You can also hear better than ever Levan's style on the decks. He was not a technically dazzling DJ, but he knew his records so well that the verse of one could segue into the chorus of another. The sensitivity to mood and theme makes the experience something like film or theatre.
Perhaps in a way this mix is too good to be true, because when you're at a club you don't tend to listen forensically for four hours non stop – you tune in and out, you socialise and experience the space. But listening to it now, 30 years later in the comfort of your own home, it's like discovering a lost brotherhood, a better, fairer society from times past.
Spin the dial across the AM airwaves in the UK and you could be forgiven for hearing some oddly familiar sounds, at least for readers of The Wire. Work your way past the 1970s golden oldies stations, past BBC Radio 5 Live's incessant burble of "we want your views", and past the hospital radio broadcasters, and in the unlikeliest corner of the AM band you can hear ice-cold electronics, dystopian hiphop, hauntological echoes, and oddball lo-fi rock. They are all cut-up, layered, and moving gently and untroubled through the ether, behind the vein-bulging voices that boom out on meat 'n' potatoes sports/chat station talkSPORT ("for men who like to talk sport", on 1089 and 1053 AM).
Is this perhaps evidence of a radical change of direction at talkSPORT? A station which has, in the past, stirred controversy when shock-jock James Whale told listeners which way they should vote in the London Mayoral elections, or when presenter Adrian Durham hinted Russian football player Andrey Arshavin shouldn't be allowed be allowed back in the country after helping secure Russia the Fifa World Cup for 2018? The station does seem to have been going through something of a renaissance, perhaps an age of enlightenment recently, scooping Station of the Year and Programmer of the Year titles at the annual radio awards. But the chat on talkSPORT is more or less the same as ever: why the English Premier League is the greatest in the world, is Wayne Rooney a good role model for kids, and should a foreign manager be in charge of the England football team. It's the background sounds that has changed.
So, if you'd have tuned into the [Mark] Saggers And [Mickey Quin] Quinny show before the UK/Ukraine Haye versus Klitschko fight last week, behind their competition to win a signed pair of The Hayemaker's gloves was "Nite Flights" by The Walker Brothers (Scott Walker's whose own hopes for the big fight, as an American living in London, were hard to gauge). Listening to George Galloway talking about a possible amnesty for asylum seekers you might have heard the analogue nostalgia of Ghost Box's Advisory Circle between the callers. There's more: a sick El-P beat last heard on Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein behind Hawksbee and Jacobs, Not Not Fun Italo revivalists Umberto, Demdike Stare. Most remarkably, a summer giveaway to win 250 quids' worth of vouchers for UK DIY chain Wickes was soundtracked by Germanic-Detroit Techno fetishists Dopplereffekt. Somehow I'm finding it hard to imagine Gerald Donald of Dopplereffekt, be-sandeled on his brand new decking, flipping the sausages on a gas-powered grill.
It's an odd meeting of worlds – esoteric strains of underground sound culture filling in the gaps between soundbites of "GAME ON! and "The lads are focused and giving 110%". In truth, it's all sewn together so skilfully that you can hardly notice the joins, and the energy of these pieces of music is pretty much dissipated by the reassuring pitter-patter of seasoned sportscasters. The music perhaps just becomes a kind of pacifier – after all, the one thing you should avoid on radio is dead air, and these pieces of music are the padding that keeps things comfortable. But 4/4 techno beats, 70s Italian soundtrack fare and fourth world sampling have more juice and punch to them than drab muzak, even if it's put in the service of pumping you up for the Merseyside derby or backing advertorials for Sky. talkSPORT is a no-nonsense commercial operation, squarely the business of selling sport as pure entertainment. Yet it's also a comparative minnow struggling to defend it's patch on the radio dial, and if this means its producers and backroom staff find ad hoc ways to spice up their broadcasts, then that might be something fresh on the dial after all.
The Walker Brothers on Saggers And Quinny
Cannibal Ox on Hawksbee And Jacobs
Umberto with George Galloway
The Advisory Circle on George Galloway
Dopplereffekt on Saggers And Quinny
Demdike Stare behind George Galloway
This weekend, from 12 noon on Saturday 19 March 2011 until midnight on Sunday 20 March, Resonance FM is holding a live, on air fundraiser to raise money to keep the best radio station in the world up and running. A whole slew of unique, collectable and plain beautiful objects and experiences are available for auction. Notable items include a 90 minute bass guitar lesson with Led Zep's John Paul Jones, two weeks in Annapurna Eco-Village, Nepal with all creature comforts provided, one month's entry to London venue and Wire fave hangout Cafe Oto, signed Chris Watson Records, Bob Cobbing posters, red wax from Anish Kapoor’s recent Royal Academy retrospective, a one hour sitar lesson with Baluji Shirvastav, and much more. You can find details of all the lots and how to bid at resonancefm.com/auction.
As for The Wire's offering this time around – it's a rare, art-edition release of a one-sided LP by The New Blockaders and Nobuo Yamada. It's packaged in a weathered metal box and affixed with heavy duty bolts. A must for any hardcore noise lover. Pics below. Tune in this weekend for all the auction-action.
The German radio show Borderline: Musik Für Grenzgänger (which seems to roughly translate as 'Music For Border-crossers') will once again be playlisting selections from our 50 Records of the Year chart in a series of dedicated shows to be broadcast over the Christmas and New Year period.
The shows will be broadcast between 5-6pm (WET) on five consecutive Fridays beginning on 17 December. If you live in Northesse, Germany you can tune in on 105.8FM. Otherwise, the shows are streamed live at http://www.borderline-extra.de, where you will also find full details of all the broadcast dates and times.
4 November 2010 on AIMM: New music brought to you by the team behind The Wire magazine, presented this week by Derek Walmsley. This week, to celebrate the forthcoming launch of his new label, we have two exclusive new tracks from former Skull Disco man Shackleton. Now based in Berlin, Shackleton's organic, ethnically tinged style of dubstep was one of the most original strains of electronic music to emerge from London in the late 2000s. His new label, entirely dedicated to his own work, is named Woe To The Septic, and we'll be airing its debut 12" release.
Every Thursday 21:00-22:30 (BST), 104.4 FM for Londoners, streamed live at resonancefm.com for the rest of the world.
Knut Aufermann, author of the Radio Art feature in The Wire 320 has compiled, in his own words "a selection of radio streams to listen to whilst concentrating on other things, a kind of audible wallpaper that commercial radio aspires to, but much better."
• Live VLF Natural Radio
A collection of live streams of the VLF band. Beautiful sounds captured from the earth's natural radio signals: lightning strikes from near and far. The station in Todmorden, UK is my personal favourite.
• Ham Radio Live: FM
Repeater "Zugspitze" DB0ZU and "Bussen" DB0RZ
An amateur radio repeater station based on the highest mountain in Germany for trans-alpine communications. Mainly silent with the odd morse code interjection this stream randomly offers insight into the Bavarian psyche, when human voices break in as a reminder that you are legally eavesdropping.
• Knut Aufermann:
online sound installations
47 different loops from sound installations that were broadcast live on various radio stations, often for hours thoughout the night. The sound sources are always mix of electronic, electroacoustic and radio feedback, the latter one happens when a radio transmitter listens to its own output.
Quick (and late) notice for two gigs put on by friends and extended family of The Wire. Tonight (8 October) Jonny Mugwump's Resonance FM show Exotic Pylon holds its second live event at The Vortex in Dalston, with a rare UK performance from Black To Comm, plus Infinite Livez and much more. More details here
Then on 10 November, Mordant Music will be playing
live at Joseph Stannard's Outer Church in Brighton which moves to a
new home at Komedia in Brighton. There'll be MM films and much
Adventures In Modern Music tonight features 90 minutes of brand new and unheard music as Derek Walmsley flicks through the upcoming Autumn releases, with fresh releases from Joe Colley, Mark McGuire, Ahleuchatistas, Francisco Meirona & Dave Phillips, Bjørn Fongaard and many more, all culled from the ever-bulging shelves of The Wire’s office. AIMM is broadcast every Thursday 21:00-22:30 (BST) at 104.4 FM for Londoners, streamed live at resonancefm.com for the rest of the world.