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radio music 2006  

Radio Music / notes on Cage and after

guy de bièvre     print
Radio Music, composed in May, 1956.
premiered on May 30, 1956 at the Carl Fisher Hall in New York City.
Performance by John Cage, pianists Maro Ajemian, David Tudor, Grete Sultan and the four members of the Juilliard String Quartet.

An 'all musicians' super group, though the score does not require musical literacy, unlike the other radio work 'Imaginary Landscape nr. 4' (1951), for 12 radios, which is musically notated and requires a conductor.

A third work by Cage, requiring radios (5) and one newsreader, is 'Speech' (1955)

It was a way of abandoning his preferences and dislikes (Cage wasn't very fond of radios - something he had in common with his former teacher Arnold Schoenberg: "Yes, wireless is a fine thing; but still the greatest pleasure it gives is switching it off." (letter to Alban Berg in 1931)).

Radios in Cage's works, just like turntables/records (cf. Imaginary Landscape nr. 1 (1939), using test records (with constant tones) which some sources give the credit of being the first ever electro acoustic work, but there were earlier examples like Respighi's 'Pini di Roma' (1924), using pre-recorded sounds of birds) are to be heard more as 'objets trouvés' or 'found sounds' rather than sound generating tools (which they were in the hands of 'arbitrary' composers like Pierre Schaeffer (records) or Karlheinz Stockhausen (shortwave radio)).
Though he did re-route some of the technology as constructive creative tools in works like Imaginary Landscapes 2 and 3, where he used turntable tone arms to amplify percussion, and later on turntable cartridges as transducers.

The score to Radio Music (for 1 to 8 performers) indicates very brief instructions: ...to be played alone or in combination with the other parts. In 4 sections to be programmed by the player with or without silence between the sections, the 4 to take place within a total time-length of 6 minutes. Duration of individual tunings is free. Each tuning to be expressed by maximum amplitude. A _____ indicates 'silence' obtained by reducing amplitude approximately to zero.
The list of frequencies ranging from 55 to 156 is confusing at first (at least to me), especially when Cage mentions in interviews (cf. Conversing with Cage - Richard Kostelanetz ed.) kilocycles. The range between 55 and 155 kHz being the LW band, which in the US (contrary to Europe) has no commercial broadcasting, only 'services' like weather forecasts. But then pictures and people made me aware of the fact that AM radios in the 50's omitted the last 0's on the dial wheel. This placed the Radio Music frequencies in the AM band.

It is very likely that, just like documented for Imaginary Landscape 4, Cage used RCA Victor 'Golden Throat' radios for the first performance of the work.

Since then the work has been performed and recorded a number of times. The question that comes to my mind hereby is the one about originality. The same question that occurs when one is confronted to ancient music: should we play Bach on a cello or on a viola da gamba, on a piano or on a harpsichord?
One cannot solve that question by performing Radio Music on vintage radios (Golden Throats can be bought on ebay). It is in fact unsolvable: the contemporary radio landscape is completely different from the one in 1956.

The music was different (1956 is the breakthrough of Elvis Presley, the advent of Rock 'n' roll, with Alan Freed as the main DJ/perpetrator, starting his carreer in 1954), commercials were different (advertising products no longer available), there were live radio shows (very rare these days), lots of radio plays (big endeavors in those days... usually involving Hollywood actors and composers. 1956 among many other plays had the CBS Radio Workshop broadcasting Huxley's Brave New World with music by Bernard Hermann and NBC scored with the science fiction series X Minus One, totaling 113 episodes, featuring work by writers such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov - a lot of these plays can today be downloaded from the many 'Old Time Radio' sites.)

1954 saw the production of the very first transistor radio (the pocket sized Regency TR1), though Cage's Golden Throats were still tube radios.

The sounds were very different content and quality wise. Especially today with digital radio and analog radio presets on the one hand and internet radio on the other. Some people will never hear static or a station fading again.
Hence the challenge to transcribe Radio Music for internet broadcasts. This raises some immediate questions:
- how do we interpret the original wavelengths?
- what about the absence of static, or the impossibility to tune in between 2 stations?
- what about the latency due to switching between radio stations?

Remaining faithful to Cage's general aesthetic philosophy helps a lot. Indeterminacy should be preserved. Even in 1956, the score did not specify that the work should be performed in a specific geographical location (it will have sounded very different in France, in China, in the Amazon rainforest - though this would have been an unlikely place for a concert of Cage's works.)

One possibility would be to make a long list of internet radios, and order them according to their IP address, and transfer that order to the AM scale of the score.

In order to cope with the latency between the activation of each link and to compensate for the lack of radio interference we intend to have 8 large loop antennae hanging outside the building. The sound of each of these antennae would then go to each performer to be faded in while changing between stations.

Large loop antennae capture VLF (Very Low Frequency) signals, which in an urban environment mainly consist of electricity hum (50Hz), the harmonic composition of which changes according to the position of the antenna (which will be hanging and changing along with the wind.)




the Golden Throat transistor radio  more   print


excerpt Cage Radio Music  more


original cage score : radio music 1959  more   print



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