The Clouds Should Know Me By Now
ShortWaveMusic 2005-2013, by Myke Dodge Weiskopf
I grew up in the 1980s, an era when memories were still subject to the degradation of analog media: print-through in magnetic audio tape, discoloration of Super 8 reels, remanence decay in VHS tapes. As a child, I was drawn to the perceptual shifts and dislocations these phenomena created. I became interested in the idea of creating the past in real time, of becoming a curator of such things myself with an eternal eye toward some unknown future archaeology. Decades on, that archive is now written into an informal history of late-twentieth-century media formats, from cassette tapes to Mini Discs to CD-Rs and hard drives into the new etheric world of servers and clouds.
There are too-obvious things to say about the literal sonic fidelity of the archive, as it traces my evolution from technical and creative juvenilia to the present day. I’m more interested in exploring the artist’s fidelity to an idea: the way a body of work traces back to a core set of principles, aesthetics, or beliefs over the course of one’s life.
Two projects in particular exemplify this fidelity within my own sound art work. Both pertain to the inscrutable medium of shortwave radio — a lifelong obsession I developed during formative years of travel in foreign countries. It’s also a rare space (for me) in which the principles of sonic fidelity play a crucial role. A friend once described shortwave radio as a “musical chance engine,” and that description perfectly encapsulates the genius of the medium: tuning a radio under ideal conditions, one is subjected to a kaleidoscopic explosion of sounds. Human languages and gendered voices tumble over one another, while long striations of encoded data smear across stretches of the dial. Bursts of data collide with robotic meteorological broadcasts. Clouds of traditional music seed stentorian propaganda broadcasts. Western pop is squeezed through a psychedelic filter of ionospheric distortion, weather-driven noise, and adjacent-channel interference. As a sheer listening experience, shortwave radio is unlike any other phenomenon in the history of sound. And from the moment I first heard it, I was intoxicated.
I was particularly entranced by the “non-human” broadcasts: audio signals of radioteletype and NAVTEX and slow-scan TV and Sitor B and traditional Morse code, among others. And of course there were the “numbers stations,” those coded spy broadcasts now thoroughly mainstreamed thanks to the music of Wilco and Stereolab and films like Vanilla Sky, but which were still considered deeply mysterious, clandestine, and unsettling into the ‘90s. My first nascent sound collages (1990-1991) were essentially excuses to record, cut-up, and manipulate shortwave recordings, made in a primitive fashion between a boombox and a home stereo. But soon thereafter I began the more serious project of documenting my listening, keeping record of dates, times, and frequencies on my recordings. Shortwave afforded me the perfect opportunity not only to luxuriate in the strangeness of the sound field, but also to put my ideas about documentary sound into practice. My fellow hobbyists sent meticulous listening logs into magazines such as Popular Communications and Monitoring Times with all kinds of technical notes, but to my mind, their ideas of “documentation” were woefully inadequate.
What was the value of all that logging if your fellow SWLs (shortwave listeners) couldn’t hear the transmissions, couldn’t travel vicariously through the miracle of amplitude modulation? Combing through broadcast bibles like the World Radio TV Handbook was an anxiety-inducing exercise: I wanted to listen in on those alluring station identifications from tiny, low-power regional broadcasters in far-flung places. Merely reading about them was torture.
Then, in 1992, I connected with a fellow hobbyist from Luverne, Minnesota, by the name of Lloyd Matthiesen. One Saturday afternoon, Lloyd called me out of the blue to offer a set of historic recordings of the U.S. radio station WWV, which had been broadcasting the time-of-day, second by second, since 1945. WWV and its Hawaiian sister, WWVH, are what’s known as time-signal stations: government broadcasters whose primary intended purpose is the dissemination of scientifically precise time by radio. I had become particularly obsessed with these stations, which could be found around the world at this time, and thus developed a minor reputation in the shortwave community. Lloyd sent me a cassette dub of his vintage tapes which blew my teenage mind in several directions. We agreed to issue a small-press cassette edition of his recordings for the world at-large, which I released that year under the title At the Tone.
It was the first and most perfect fusion of my abiding interests in archival audio and shortwave radio. Although Lloyd has since passed on, our simple homebrew project continues to this day, as my subsequent decades of research, revision, and serendipity have led to the unearthing of scores of additional WWV/H recordings. At the Tone has been updated accordingly in 2009, 2015, 2017, and 2018, and likely will be again. It was featured in the book Transmission Arts: Artists and Airwaves by Wave Farm’s Galen Joseph-Hunter in 2011.
Fidelity to an idea
Seventeen years elapsed between the first (1992) and second (2009) editions of At the Tone. In that interval, I graduated both high school and college, and barely survived a chaotic and difficult run at a performing career in the music industry. In the long reckoning period that followed, I reconnected with shortwave radio. Around the same time, the phenomenon of MP3 blogs was in its Wild West infancy, as the post-Napster musical economy led to the wholesale uploading of albums via business-oriented file sharing sites like MediaFire and YouSendIt. There were certainly more “legit” music discovery blogs which showcased new material from prominent indie record labels, but the underground blog scene of the early 2000s was a far more interesting place, focusing as it did on obscure, out-of-print, and long-lost records.
Late one night, while deep in my headphones recording signals atop Corey Hill Park in Brookline, I had the vision of sharing selected musical clips from my shortwave archives as an avant-garde spin on the MP3 blog concept. Hence, in June 2005, ShortWaveMusic was born. (N.B.: The name ShortWaveMusic was coined as an obvious and not terribly creative description of the project’s conceptual brief. For those curious about the connection to William Basinski’s piece by the same name, I will only say that his record wasn’t formally released until 2007, despite being recorded in 1982. Coincidence is coincidence.)
More so than any of my other shortwave projects, ShortWaveMusic demanded a certain rigor. Although a few early entries were drawn from my existing slate of recordings, I intended for the blog to function as a “state of the union” for shortwave broadcasting in 2005. Hence, I needed to put in the time each week to record fresh material from my listening post in Brookline. In practical terms, that meant making at least three transfers on public transportation (bus and subway) from my home in Somerville, in addition to a half-mile walk up the steepest hill in town, all the while carrying a shortwave radio, portable DAT recorder, tapes, notebook, and headphones. The whole enterprise took nearly an hour each way, and I was lucky if I didn’t have to race to catch the last train or bus home after a particularly intense listening session.
In its original incarnation, ShortWaveMusic was a semi-regular blog featuring one to four clips per week, depending on the thematic thrust of the post and whether I felt the pieces could stand on their own. The editorial tone was arch, quippy, and tongue-in-cheek, as befits the attitude of someone who was sincere to an uncool degree but didn’t want to appear so. With each excerpt, I provided the relevant reception data – broadcaster, country of origin, date, time, and frequency – but also gave the clips names like “Song for Clifftop and Cha-Cha Heels,” “Sub-Tropical Static Muzak Hymn,” and “A Children’s Calliope of Catatonia.”
The project was at its most innocent in those first few years, as it was still a sound-art vehicle vaguely masquerading as a musicological enterprise. I shared pieces which (to me) exemplified one striking sonic phenomenon or another, an impossible trick of propagation or the way a certain piece of music sat in a sonic space. Sometimes the allure was purely within the music itself, a haunting melody or unfamiliar instrumentation or a stunning vocal performance. The accompanying descriptive paragraphs were free-associative and packed with references, as I unfortunately lacked the musicological background to offer anything meaningful about the songs themselves.
The concept of fidelity was crucial to understanding ShortWaveMusic, both sonically and conceptually. The masthead described it as “an occasional blog featuring music and/or musical noise intercepted via shortwave radio,” which indicated that signals need not technically originate from an instrument, or even a human at all. I was interested in sounds which could be interpreted within a more liberal, soundscape-derived framework of musicality. My favorite SWM posts were those which blurred or interweaved those definitions: a piece of Greek folk-pop being sandblasted by radioteletype; a ‘60s garage-rock classic as heard through the squelchy, ring modulator-esque processing of a single-sideband filter; a subharmony of transmitter buzz added to a fragment of Fairuz song from Cairo. I created an entire taxonomy of posts I termed “Duelling XMTRs!,” in which two or more stations being received on the same frequency played a swirling game of cat-and-mouse as they ricocheted around the ionosphere. These listening circumstances were entirely unique to the medium and made the case for the project’s relevance. As I noted in the blog’s sidebar: “WARNING! Shortwavemusic is not a hi-fidelity, Westernized ‘world music’ experience. I celebrate the unique sonic characteristics of shortwave and frequently post clips which are subject to the effects of propagation and interference. Not for the faint of heart!”
From the northeastern coast of the United States, I was primed to receive signals from the African continent and Southwest Asia, which were my primary areas of musical and linguistic interest, as well as the Mediterranean. The first few years of SWM were heavy on Egypt, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Kuwait in particular, as their high-powered signals barreled into Boston with little effort. I also salted in a generous amount of American religious programming. This was mostly for satirical effect, as with the more earnestly folksy or outré material, but the liturgical music occasionally took on a spectral shine when refracted off of the sky. I was occasionally moved to track down the original recordings of these performances, but in 100% of the cases, I found that I preferred the emotional effect of my heavily modulated versions.
A body of work traces itself
My move to Los Angeles in December 2007 caused a serious impasse. L.A. had two major disadvantages: for one, it became impossible to find a spot that was electrically quiet enough to receive signals without interference. Compared to Boston, L.A. was a great heaving grid of grinding noise, and not a particularly musical one at that. I made a few disgruntled recordings from a perch in Runyon Canyon overlooking Hollywood, but the results were disappointing. Furthermore, the range of available material was not terribly interesting to me: South and Central America, East Asia, and the Antipodes didn’t figure strongly into my musical interests. Between the lack of enjoyable music and the horrendous conditions, all the special qualities that propelled the project had been crushed into ionospheric dust. The only solution was to take myself to the signals.
So ShortWaveMusic became an entirely different beast: an annual crowdfunded expedition to a different part of the world where I would record both local and international broadcasts to form a composite portrait of the listening conditions from that location. This revamp started in earnest in 2009, when I piggybacked on a vacation to Ibiza with a close friend.
In 2010, I joined a musicological trip to Bulgaria for the Koprivshtitsa festival, whereby I recorded live folkloric music all day and ShortWaveMusic all night. A few months later, the NYC sound-art group Soundwalk Collective commissioned me to record signals in the Empty Quarter desert in the United Arab Emirates, the results of which folded into the 2011 edition of SWM. In 2012, I took a solo trip to Mali for the Festival au Désert in Timbuktu and backpacked around the country for two weeks, recording musicians and capturing a huge cross-section of regional and international broadcasters. And, in what turned out to be the project’s capstone, I went to the archipelago of Socotra in 2013 on an exhaustive recording tour of the main island’s music, culture, and folklore for a multimedia project, which has sadly not yet seen a proper release. (The SWM portion of the trip was issued on schedule.)
By this point, ShortWaveMusic was no longer just a quirky treatise on the strange sonic alchemy of shortwave radio. It was more akin to those logs from the hobbyists’ magazines: a proficient and highly listenable account of radiophonic conditions around the world. I returned home with days’ worth of recorded material, all meticulously catalogued down to the GPS coordinates of the individual transmitters. The recordings were no longer pinned to my left-field commentary, but were instead serialized on SoundCloud playlists with only the most essential information. I bagged crystalline recordings of music from highly sought-after stations from otherwise inaccessible regions of the broadcasting world, but at the expense of the original blog’s personality and charm.
ShortWaveMusic eventually garnered sufficient attention, and was taking so much of my time, that I began to conceive of it as a career. I had conversations about forming a nonprofit for the purpose of recording cultural heritage worldwide via shortwave. I considered founding an organization dedicated to rescuing older hobbyists’ archival shortwave reels from decades past. (Fortunately, my friend and colleague Thomas Witherspoon beat me to it, establishing the Shortwave Radio Audio Archive in 2011.) And I engaged in serious discussions with a major archival record label about a five-CD box set containing a huge cross-section of my ShortWaveMusic recordings.
From one vantage point, I was in a spectacular position. I had the opportunity to executive-produce a series of releases which would propagate the gospel of shortwave, just as The Conet Project had done for the “numbers stations” a decade prior. I was being offered the chance to capitalize on a lifetime of passion, specialized knowledge, and artistic vision — pretty much what any creative person ever could ask for. But when one is responsible for a project that dances on a razor-thin margin of fair use, the one thing which will reliably knock it off-balance is money. It doesn’t require a significant amount of cash for this to be true. Any amount of income that even pretends to be attached to someone else’s intellectual property is grounds for trouble. I had no reservations about raising funds for ShortWaveMusic as a documentary practice, covering travel and equipment and so on. But to release a physical product as part of a capitalist entertainment system of royalties, rights-holders, credits, etc., brings with it an entirely different set of responsibilities and considerations.
The first thing that killed the box set was my resolute inability to figure out the actual songs and artists I had been recording all those years. My focus had always been on the broadcasters themselves. Shazam was intermittently useful, but try ID’ing a live performance from a tiny regional station in Mali or a performance studio in Kuwait. I then tried grouping the recordings by language and farming them out to fluent freelancers, but it takes a certain kind of ear to parse any language through the chaos of shortwave, even by a native speaker, so that endeavor fell by the wayside. And, truly, the real problems weren’t limited to the relatively mechanical matters of songwriters and performers and so forth. That stuff, in the scheme of things, is fairly well understood, assuming you have all the information at hand.
The bigger issue developed out of the shifting nature of ShortWaveMusic as a whole. The entire act and object of listening had changed for me since the project first went abroad in 2009. No longer a wry commentary on the transformative physicality of shortwave listening, it had matured into a proper documentary study of the state of international broadcasting. And while that was a more noble and legitimate goal in some ways, it also meant that the entire framework bore a new kind of scrutiny. There are few risks involved with being a sound-artist listening from one’s home city in what amounts to a game of radiophonic chance. But now I was, from a certain view, a white male jetting into non-Western countries for the sole purpose of bringing home cultural artifacts, however intangible. By 2013, this was a bankable phenomenon within the music industry. Certain labels and crate-digging blogs (run, of course, by white men) had built careers and reputations on foraging for the most obscure and “undiscovered” music from the African continent and southwest Asia. And once the contract for that box set arrived in my inbox, I had to ask whether that was a trend I wanted to be associated with. Given my personal politics about the centuries-old pattern of white people profiting from the products of other cultures, I couldn’t proceed in good conscience. My intentions had been pure in sharing this gorgeous, ionosphere-warped music, but sometimes one has to examine the structural implications beyond one’s own personal feelings.
By now, I had already booked a trip for the 2014 installment of ShortWaveMusic. The exact destination no longer matters. I ate the cost and cancelled the flight. I put the project on ice and returned to a creative practice that I could own in its entirety, without such complications or external factors. I resumed the mantle of my one-man band, Science Park, and began writing songs again with the focus I’d abandoned since fleeing the music industry for the terra incognita of shortwave in 2001.
There is, of course, a postscript.
When ShortWaveMusic folded in the summer of 2013, I was well into my first decade as a producer working full-time in public radio. It was a logical leap for someone well schooled in audio production, field recording, research, and cultural affairs. In 2012, I and a group of fellow producers had participated in World Listening Day, an event held annually on July 18 (the birthday of acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer). For 2013, I wanted to spearhead an event of my own. I thought back to an idea I’d been nurturing for over a decade, explored in this journal entry from 2004:
“The more challenging question is how to bring [my recordings] out of my own world and into others’. Clearly traditional venues won’t be of much help here, nor would modeling my show after a traditional rock concert. I envision something less explicitly musical and more educational – a beginners’ shortwave tutorial, perhaps, or a shortwave radio listening lounge, or something even further afield: Terry Riley’s ‘All-Night Flight’ reborn with shortwaves and chord organs instead of reed instruments and tape delays. It could be either instructive or ceremonial, or a little bit of both.”
By 2013, I had compiled an additional decade’s worth of field recordings, shortwave interceptions, sound-art pieces, and other sonic ephemera. So I began assembling the very first ShortWaveMusic «ALL NIGHT FLIGHT», modeled after that landmark Terry Riley piece. The first installment was held as planned on World Listening Day in Joshua Tree, California, in a secret performance venue owned and operated by a circus duo of my acquaintance.
True to the precepts of Riley’s original idea, «ANF» is designed as a live improvised performance which runs from 10pm to 6am. Participants sit, sleep, or wander around a ring of speakers circling a pile of cushions, pillows, and other soft reclining materials while I sit to one side facing inward. I reject traditional concert settings in favor of remote, rural, desert, or undocumented areas. The mission statement describes it thus:
«ALL NIGHT FLIGHT» is a wide-ranging sonic odyssey which reflects ecologies of many kinds: environmental (ocean sounds, wildlife, atmospheres), religious (calls to prayer and ritual singing), radiophonic (data transmissions, Morse code, folkloric music), and beyond. The listener experiences “natural” sounds juxtaposed with “unnatural” sounds, robotic speech mixed with human speech, field recordings of electronic amplification carrying human sound across rural environments. My hope is that the listener will be able to hear the world as I do: an endlessly recombinant sonic field where every noise, song, and sound, regardless of its source, takes its place in a perfect, haunting, and eternal arrangement.
In many ways, the annual performance of the «ANF» is the logical endpoint of my thinking on artistic fidelity. As a tradition, it affords me the chance to survey my own creative practice from a bird’s-eye view and to create new work accordingly. For participants, it provides an opportunity to explore their perceptions of sound in various states, whether waking or liminal, lucid or altered, and to interact with the deep desert environment around them. And it gives my work a sense of context, history, and longevity — the very framework I set out to create some thirty years ago. That child of the ‘80s is still listening.
ShortWaveMusic «ALL NIGHT FLIGHT» is the public performative outlet for Myke Dodge Weiskopf. Listen to + view his field recording, sound archaeology, and shortwave expeditions.