blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Lost and Found Radio
     It should be realized that the elemental force lies in the sound, which affects everyone more
     directly than the meaning of the word, and all radio art must make this fact its starting-point.
     The pure sound in the word is the mother-earth from which the spoken work of art must never
     break loose, even when it disappears into the far heights of word-meaning. Rudolph Arnheim,
Radio: An Art of Sound, 1936

In November of 1947, Antonin Artaud was commissioned to produce a sound piece for the program The Voice of the Poet. The resulting work, “To Have Done With the Judgment of God,” was scheduled to air in early February of 1948 and was widely publicized. At the last minute, however, the director of French Radio, Vladimir Porché, cancelled the broadcast. Porché feared that Artaud’s radio play would create a scandal. The recording was too blasphemous and anti-American, he thought. The actual text is strange, if not unnerving, but no more so than other avant-garde works of the period. That it’s voiced, deliberately devised for the microphone, probably makes all the difference. Artaud, who had just been released from psychiatric care, was not a timid poet, and Porché may have been startled by the profoundly contradictory language of the play—the sound of its panic, rage, and dread. The play itself is comprised of absurdist poetry, recited by Artaud, and various sound effects, including drum, xylophone, gong, inarticulate screams, grunts, shrieks, and nonsense words. The recording eludes description. What you hear is the fury of an artist alienated from himself and his world condemning America as a baby factory hell-bent on war, while posing riddles about consciousness, feces, and technology. The conclusion features a scene in which God turns up on a gurney as an organ removed from the corpse of mankind. Artaud died one month after the program’s censorship, and this radio play, his final work, wasn’t broadcast until thirty years later. [1]

The Pacifica radio offers listeners an online version of the 1968 French Radio broadcast of “To Have Done With the Judgment of God” ( The printed play can be found online or with Allen Weiss’s analysis in Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (Boston: The MIT Press, 1994).

The originality of Artaud’s play is as remarkable as is its use of sound to achieve what neither theatre nor poetry alone could accomplish—transforming the suffering body into an acoustic spectacle. That such a work was composed and recorded for broadcast is interesting for any number of reasons; that it was censored, all the more so. You will have to search far and wide, however, to find Artaud’s work in the classroom.

If Artaud’s “To Have Done With the Judgment of God” is obscure or unheard of, that’s because the tradition of sound art is not as widely known as it might be. Sound art simply involves making things with sound objects. George Antheil’s Dadaesque “Ballet Mechanique,” for example, was performed with car horns, airplane propellers, saws, tam-tams, electrical bells, and anvils in New York in 1927. Pierre Schaeffer, who pioneered musique concrète in Paris after the war, took the modernist interest in odd sound objects even further, making compositions out of natural and mechanical sources recorded on the streets of Paris. Schaeffer’s experiments were assembled by splicing, speeding up, looping, and reversing recordings of trains, bells, rattling cookware, whistling tops, breaking glass, knocking doors, footsteps, and galloping horses. The key discovery of sound artists at the time lay in the simple fact that non-musical acoustic objects could be recorded and recontextualized for artistic effect. Prewar sound technology made this difficult and cumbersome, but the advent of the magnetic tape after the war made recording, splicing, and distorting sounds much easier. All of the principles of what we now call sampling and montage were established by this point.

While a fascination with noise informs some of the key moments in modernist sound art, the human voice (so vital in radio drama) was critical in the exploration of sound art as well, from Antonin Artaud and German Hörspiel to Glenn Gould and Janet Cardiff. [2] The sound artist is therefore someone who fashions things from the uniqueness of sounds, and that uniqueness is often grounded in the human voice. In the past, sound art involved various acoustic practices, from musique concrète, collage, and soundscape to noise music, sound poetry, Hörspiel, and radiophonic art, all of which were devised to create an artistic experience in listening centered around a complicated aural structure. Several examples can be culled from various histories. In addition to Artaud’s “To Have Done With the Judgment of God,” a short list of sound and radio art might include Arseny Avraamov's “Symphony of Factory Sirens” (1923), George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique” (1924), Pierre Schaeffer’s “Five Studies of Noises” (1948), John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape #4” (1951) and “Roratorio: an Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake” (1979), David Tudor’s “Rain Forest I” (1968-73), Glenn Gould’s “Solitude Trilogy” (1969-1974), Peter Leonhard Braun’s “Bells in Europe” (1973), Mauricio Kagel’s “The Inversion of America: A Radio Epic” (1977), Götz Naleppa’s “Robinsonate: an Island Sound-Sculpture in 15 Sentences” (1985), and Janet Cardiff’s “The Missing Voice: Case Study B” (1999). Such a list could go on, but my point is to indicate the continuity of sound art on both the literary and musical sides of things. It is a tradition that can teach us much about the expressive nature of sound structures, and this can be enlightening for writers who have forgotten that, at the dawn of narrative art, voice was not a metaphor.

Schaeffer’s “Symphony for Man Alone” was assembled from breathing sounds, vocal fragments, shouting, humming, and whistling.

“To Have Done With the Judgment of God” stands at the intersection of avant-garde sound art and radio drama, two traditions that flourished in the late 1940s. To the innocent ear, sound art may seem esoteric, but that can’t be said of American radio drama of the same period. From the Columbia Workshop and Mercury Theatre on the Air to Suspense and Lux Radio Theatre, the airwaves were filled with narrative and dramatic programs that captivated American listeners throughout the 1930s and ’40s. This was a time when American radio produced a series of highly acclaimed aural literary works and serials—Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City,” Orson Welles “War of the Worlds,” Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number,” Peter Lorre’s “The Horla,” Arch Oboler’s “Lights Out,” Norman Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph”—that were as good as anything coming out of Europe and its subsidized programming. An older generation rallied around radio, the heart of American popular culture, as a theatre of endless possibilities.

Television may have killed radio, as the saying goes, but sound art and radio drama did not disappear. A case in point is Glenn Gould’s The Solitude Trilogy (1969-1974), one of the landmarks of late twentieth-century radio art. Best known to his native Canada as a prodigy on the piano, Gould stunned the world with his recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” while only twenty-two, and then shocked listeners even more by walking away from the concert stage in 1964. Gould created several radio programs for the CBC in this so-called retirement, including a series of sound pieces on isolation in the Canadian far north titled The Solitude Trilogy. Here, Gould explored a new kind of radio art drawn primarily from a cubist approach to sound design, with subjects speaking simultaneously rather than sequentially.

Gould’s unusual approach to radio is famous for the demands it puts on the listener. “There’s no particular reason,” he wrote, “why one shouldn’t be able to comprehend two or three simultaneous conversations. Some of our most aware experiences are gleaned from sitting in subways simultaneously listening to several conversations, switching our point of view from one to another—picking out strands that fascinate us.” Gould liked to compare his radio work to the music of Bach, and often referred to his unique approach to sound contrapuntal. In The Solitude Trilogy, this meant weaving voices in and out as a composer might write lines of music in a fugue. Glenn Gould’s relationship with the music of Bach was as significant for his radio work as it was for his concert performances, and the sheer complexity of Bach’s contrapuntal style was formidable. Applied to radio art, a Bach-like aesthetic would seem counterproductive to the kind of didactic clarity demanded by the documentary genre. But Gould firmly believed that the human voice could be treated as a musical instrument and that spoken words could be integrated into a variety of complex contrapuntal arrangements.

Any highlight reel of sound art and radio drama in the years following the advent of TV would be incomplete without Joe Frank. Joe Frank’s radio shows—a mix of essay, fable, drama, and improv—are renowned for their ironic forays into the dark side of human experience. Frank began with a late-night show in 1977 at WBAI in New York, the home of free-form radio, and was hired a year later to co-anchor National Public Radio’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. Over the course of the next two decades, he produced and developed hundreds of essays, monologues, and plays at NPR and later at KCRW in Los Angeles. Frank’s third-person narratives, mixed to repetitive electronic music (from Brian Eno’s ambient tracks to Steve Reich’s loops), are mesmerizing, intellectually probing, funny, and disturbing. As Susan Emerling writes, Joe Frank conjures up the bad dreams that This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion have when they leave the radio station at night. [3] Imagine Rod Serling reprogrammed by Antonin Artaud. Frank himself felt a bit out of place anchoring the weekend edition of All Things Considered, closing the show with his manic, Dostoyevsky-inspired five-minute essays, and moved onto to NPR Playhouse before his one-year contract (which was not renewed) ran out. Frank continued producing his hybrid radio plays as an independent, which were sold to NPR Playhouse, before he was hired by NPR’s Los Angeles affiliate, KCRW, and given his own hour-long slot. As Harry Shearer said of Joe Frank’s weekend appearance at NPR: “For 51 minutes it was the regular vanilla news program, only not the usual NPR voice—less nasal and less vocally constricted. Then the last five or six minutes of the show was an essay that was like a fist coming out of your radio.” [4]

Susan Emerling, “Public Radio’s Bad Dream,” Salon, March 7, 2000, 1.
Quoted in Emerling, Salon, 4.

Early on in its career, NPR was an important player in the life of American sound art and radio drama. NPR not only hired Joe Frank and aired his radio plays, but broadcast cutting edge experimental sound pieces as well. For a short spell, the network even aired Ken Nordine’s surreal “Word Jazz,” thirty minutes of off-beat stories and acoustic whimsy. It was also during these early years that All Things Considered aired short commentaries by writers outside the broadcast system, brief essays by Andrei Codrescu and later David Sedaris, among many others. These compact narratives would later acquire lives of their own when Ira Glass liberated the radio essay with its own 60-minute venue on This American Life.

An even bigger player in the advocacy of sound art and radio drama was the Pacifica radio station KPFA in Berkley, the bastion of alternative radio. Unlike other stations, KPFA offered a wide range of programming in the arts and humanities. The station even had, much like the BBC, its own drama and literature department. KPFA made, for instance, a habit of recording and broadcasting Beat poets in the 1950s, including Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; and aired book reviews by Kenneth Rexroth; and recorded readings by Dylan Thomas, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, and Amiri Baraka. Because showcasing literary sound art was part of its mandate, KPFA revived radio drama in America with several key productions, including “The Black Mass” (1963-67), a series of radio plays adapted from short works by Poe, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Melville, Bierce, and Camus, and later the Eugene O’Neill Radio Series. In 1986, Erik Bauersfeld, then director of Drama and Literature at KPFA, produced the Hörspiel/USA project in collaboration with WDR Köln, the first (and maybe only) time listeners in America were introduced to Germany’s highly regarded tradition of innovative radio drama.

If only KPFA were the rule in public radio and not the exception. Several years ago, Richard Kostelanetz complained that no institution was more inhospitable to experimental sound art than American radio, and he thought that this had done great harm to our acoustic culture. Europe, he noted, was quite different, especially Germany, where radio was privileged, like opera, as high culture. In America, he complained, radio was the bush league. To make his point, Kostelanetz told a story about how, just after the death of Glenn Gould, he was approached by National Public Radio to say a few words about the great pianist on a Sunday afternoon arts show. As NPR was celebrating “radio art month” at the time, Kostelanetz reminded the executive that Gould had produced The Solitude Trilogy, “extraordinary compositions of speech and sound that ranked among the greatest audio art produced in North America.” The NPR executive shifted uneasily in his chair, as Kostelanetz continued his pitch. “Since they’ve scarcely been heard south of the Canadian border,” he added, “I’d be happy to discuss them, at any length you wished.” “Yes, yes,” the NPR executive replied. “I’ve heard about these programs by Gould, but I will need to discuss this suggestion with my managers.” Not surprisingly, NPR turned down the offer to have Gould’s radio documentaries broadcast or discussed on air. “We can only do things that everybody knows,” the executive explained, “and Gould’s programs are simply too unfamiliar.”

Some listeners do like to be challenged by what they hear, but where does one go for strange works of sound today? Hip radio programs like This American Life, Radiolab, and Studio 360 have taken up some of the slack left by the graying of NPR. There’s Tom Waits, who occasionally produces a striking spoken word track on his albums (“What’s He Building in There?”). There used to be Joe Frank’s KCRW show, but that was cancelled several years ago. For the hard-core listener, there’s the avant-garde media site UbuWeb, which has hosted a vast archive of online media since 1996. There, you may stumble on James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, Silvia Plath reciting “Daddy,” William Burroughs lecturing on cut-up poetry, Samuel Beckett’s film collaboration with Buster Keaton, or Marie Osmond reading a poem by Hugo Ball. Strange stuff indeed. And for the truly desperate, there are zany podcasts on iTunes, like “Lo-Fi Confessional” (my favorite)—a quarterly audio-zine “dedicated to fringe electronica, electro-acoustic experimentation, noise, IDM, found sounds, and sonic strangeness of all frequencies: including but not limited to glitch, break-core, ambient/drone, post rock, musique concrète, sound collage, turntablism, and analogue improvisation.”

Of course, what we really need (I am speaking for both the avid listener and the independent sound artist) is a national venue—an online, curated magazine that specializes in radiophonic art, from audio drama and radio essays to sonic poetry, experimental sound art, and the feature (documentary)—something like Bareclona’s Ràdio Web MCBA, “a radiophonic project,” as RWM explains, “that explores the possibilities of the internet and radio as spaces of synthesis and exhibition.” Ràdio Web MCBA not only includes curated sound exhibits and installations but essays and other publications on current trends in radio and sound art.

It’s easy to take the aurality of language for granted. We usually don’t think of our voices in the literal sense when writing, having been effectively schooled in sophisticated ways to reduce the idea of voice to its message. Voice thus gets lost in notions of textuality, and when this happens we forget that the voice is a medium in its own right, that poetry and storytelling are grounded in the music of the spoken word. At the dawn of narrative art, poetry was a radiophonic event.

I'm thinking mostly of Homer and his kithara (the lyre of Apollo), a box-shaped four-string instrument. “Sing to me, Muse, of that man of twists and turns.” We are told that Homer never performed without it, usually in the halls of a warlord. During recitals, the instrument rested against Homer’s shoulder, propped up by a sling that wrapped around his wrists. More than likely, he improvised his four-note melody as he sang his tale, a melody that ran up and down the scale like dark ships rising and falling at sea. Every telling was different—he rarely kept to the same script. To adjust the beat of his phrases to the constraints of the dactylic hexameter line, Homer would run through his options, his stockpile of epithets (lord of the war cry, breaker of horses, sacker of cities, the great tactician, high-hearted, wide-ruling, bronze-armored, brazen-clad, gray-eyed, white-armed, lovely-haired, daughter of Zeus) and with lightening speed stitch in a tag that fit—all of this while sustaining the story’s measure on his lyre. In the Odyssey, we occasionally glimpse the mastery of the teller by the effect of his tale on an audience, such as when Demodokos, the resident bard of the Phaicians, brings Odysseus to tears in the middle of his story. When words are perceived primarily as sounds, the voice is as ephemeral as it is mysterious and stirring. In a culture of writing, with five centuries of literacy behind us, it’s easy to forget, as Stephen Connors reminds us, that the voice wasn’t reduced to the conditions of writing—to silence—until much later in the history of the book. [5]

Stephen Connors, Dumbstruck (New York: Oxford UP, 2001), 24.

The musicality of the vocal—words, sound, voice, aurality—these are things that reach across time, across technologies. The irony is that our latest advances in digital technology seem to be taking us back to the Bronze Age, returning us full circle to the oral and sonorous conditions of poetry before the dawn of writing. With a small investment, there’s nothing preventing you from becoming the next Antonin Artaud or (for those of a more timid nature) Ira Glass. As the poet Tristan Tzara wrote, “thought is made in the mouth.” Because we fetishize the printed word in all of its glorious silence, privileging the phonic element in writing is a radical thing to do. Mixed with music and sound, the voice becomes an excess that wakens in our minds the forgotten listener in all of us, that part of the aural imagination capable of finding meaning beyond the code of language—in pure sound, in music.  end

   Mother of Invention  
   Lost and Found Radio

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