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Radical Aesthetics and Sound Sensitivity Information

Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA's Sound Sensitivity Information Director, has been invited to join the staff of radio station VPRO in Holland from September to January. Although VPRO is a government supported station, it is enthusiastic about the Pacifica stations and we have both felt the benefit of these exchanges. Most recently, KPFA was host to Philippe Scheltema who did the midday program Here's Philippe this past winter. It helps keep our flow of information and input of ideas fresh and flexible, covering broad areas of radio, politics, and of course radical aesthetics…

In Europe, radio is still alive and kicking—a force for intelligent, in-depth analysis and debate, music and literature broadcasts of a sophisticated nature, and productions in all areas of programming which are carefully thought out and skillfully accomplished by audio technicians who are experts in making a point without the aid of a video screen. But in the United States, virtually every broadcast station is run by a minimal staff which transmits the same type of music or talk all the time on each channel—most of it calculated to reach the largest body of listeners without regard to any laudable standards of content.

Ironically, when radio was born in the 1920's, U.S. observers viewed the invention as a great hope for elevating the consciousness of Americans. But this potentially educational medium was quickly taken over by commercial interests. Advertising on the radio, and later on television, has polluted the airwaves just as the proliferation of internal combustion engines has jeopardized the purity of our air. In most countries, "commercial" stations do not exist. In the United States there is a fearful lack of "non-commercial" stations. Nearly all radio is commercial.

Non-commercial radio in America began in 1949 when a group of confirmed pacifists who were imprisoned during World War II for their beliefs founded KPFA in Berkeley. Run by their Pacifica Foundation, this FM outlet began broad- casting controversial programs on the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, uncensored poetry by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, frank discussions on marijuana, homosexuality and Marxism, and music by experimental composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

The price of such unbridled freedom in programming is perpetual financial distress for Pacifica stations. Much of the equipment is worn and obsolete. At KPFA the undermanned full and part- time staff of 23 attempts to do what would ordinarily be handled by 2000. They are assisted by over 100 conscientious volunteer workers who spend one or more hours per week doing program production, equipment maintenance, concert recordings and telephone answering. Some of these volunteers, such as San Francisco Examiner jazz critic Phil Elwood and poet Kenneth Rexroth have been station regulars since 1950. Most, however, are members of the Bay Area student community. They come to work for periods ranging from one day to one year. Owing to this chance element, novice engineers have been known to broadcast taped programs backwards and to introduce a certain well-known composer as Frederic "Choppin" But even though there are insufficient numbers of subscribers, resulting in a financially precarious operation, there is a plus side to the story. KPFA is known for maintaining an extraordinarily creative and flexible attitude toward the medium of radio. It has been a dynamic force in political broadcast coverage and has been the leading American radio station in coverage of the avant-garde arts.

At KPFA, experimenters in music, poetry and intermedia events have been given generous amounts of air time which they mold into new and exciting experiments in perception. This approach has infused the dignity and elegance, the excitement and surprise of artistic approaches into a dying mode of communication. And these new sounds coupled with more conservative arts coverage, provide provocative listening for devotees and skeptical listeners alike. The regular day-to-day fare at the station consists of ethnic music—from India, Tibet, Rumania, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the Orient; a wide variety of classics excepting the warhorses played on other San Francisco Bay Area stations; programs of jazz, blues and folk music ignored by other stations and live concerts of all types.

Beyond this, lies a vast quantity of experimental music by composers from all over the world. Many programs feature interviews with the composers themselves explaining their techniques and goals. Participants range from the well-known (Cage, Lou Harrison, Morton Subotnick) to younger men and women just beginning to make their way.

Some of these have been Jordan Stenberg (born 1947) whose recent music includes a theatrical element: fragrances. There is also Anna Lockwood of England [sic], whose goal is to induce serenity in her listeners. This she has done in many ways, including having the audience listen intently to the sounds of an upright piano burning to ashes in a darkened airplane hangar. Anthony Gnazzo recently broadcast his Homage to Mel-Eric Morton (a fictitious Scandinavian composer)—the piece consisted of an erased magnetic tape. Joanna Brouk extends her vocal capabilities by utilizing an electronic music synthesizer to create hypnotic chants of great beauty.

To provide a setting for these new composers, Pacifica's Music Directors have championed the works of such earlier 20th Century experimenters as George Antheil, Edgar Varese, Henry Cowell, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, Harry Partch, Nicolas Slonimsky, Charles Ives, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Henry Brant, Alexander Scriabin, Julian Carrillo and Conlon Nancarrow. These, in combination with broadcasts of works by younger Bay Area and non-local composers have made KPFA a focal point for those who wish to be informed about the latest and most interesting musical trends but who cannot find such information in the fiercely conservative local newspapers.

What other programming has KPFA designed to stretch the radio medium to its fullest? There is the continuing hour-long program of ambient (or natural) sounds recorded all over the world by contributors to the KPFA World Ear Project. Amateurs with tape recorders have responded to a worldwide promotional campaign for submissions of recordings of un-staged audio "situations." The idea is to familiarize listeners with sound as an international language and also to isolate seemingly "non-musical" or "everyday" sounds so that they might be perceived in an exhibition-like setting. This is certainly analogous to Andy Warhol's placing a Coke bottle on a pedestal in an art muse-um. By taking sounds out of their normal environmental context they then can be reexamined and perceived with a fresher attitude. Among the many contributions have been the sounds of a cockfight in Indonesia, a crowd witnessing a solar eclipse in a remote corner of Mexico, and a ricksha sloshing through a foot-high overflow of the Ganges River in India.

In Radio Events, an artist is invited to utilize the resources of the station to produce events which involve the physical participation of the listener in some way. Normally we listen to the radio passively. We don't have occasion to interact with what's coming out of the little box in our kitchen other than to turn it on and off once in a while. Radio Events is an attempt to change our minds about what the radio can be. In the past few years, artists have asked listeners to boil water on their stoves (Philip Corner), rearrange their living room furniture in time to raucous circus music (Ann Halprin), drive to the Mills College Electronic Music Studio to perform randomly on synthesizers—200 people showed up! (Tom Zahuranec), and to join human-size bunnies in an Easter Sunday frolic through a Berkeley park (Paul Cotton).

One of the most unusual events required participants to listen every morning for one month precisely at 8:45 AM. Each day one tone was struck on a piano. Nothing more. The audience was to identify the significance of the sounds. A few stayed with it long enough to tell us that artist Mike Cohn was transmitting the tones of the thirty lowest white keys of the piano in ascending order with 24 hours between each tone! On another occasion, the station commissioned a work for a live broadcast from a local piano shop. The resulting piece by John Dinwiddie required 17 pianists on 16 pianos. We had numerous calls for a rebroadcast which we were glad to provide.

In November 1969, KPFA presented the first West Coast broadcast in four-channel sound. This was done in co- operation with KSAN and Don Buchla, inventor of the Buchla Synthesizer. (K101, on numerous occasions, falsely claimed this distinction, the most recent example being an article in the S.F. Chronicle Datebook .) Since that time, there have been about eight four-channel broadcasts, many featuring electronic and instrumental pieces composed specifically for the medium. One live broadcast from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco consisted of brass music by avant-garde composer Robert Moran. The cavernous acoustics of the church were effectively transmitted into the homes of listeners over KPFA and another cooperating stereo FM radio station. Of course, to hear all four channels, one had to gather two stereo radios and four speakers. But the riotous merry-go-round of sound which ensued was well worth the trouble of gathering the necessary equipment.

Another level of experimentation in arts programming at KPFA has been that of program-time allocation. When a proposal to devote an entire broadcast day to the life and works of Gertrude Stein materialized, many on the radio staff thought the idea too extreme. Yet it was done, with readings, music of the period and interviews with friends of the famous writer, and the result was a great success. This stimulated a series of such projects, including a 17-hour chronology of the complete poetry of Allen Ginsberg, produced and recorded by the poet himself from his works written between 1949 and 1971. A mini-festival of music by Alan Hovhaness (including selections of Armenian folk music and pieces by Komitas Vartabed) was likewise very successful. And from our New York Station came a 3-1/2 day reading of the complete War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, featuring well-known celebrities each reading 20-minute segments of the book.

Perhaps one of the most unusual and popular programs of the marathon variety was Oneness , produced by two especially talented radio producers, Roland Young and Glenn Howell, both black composer/performers. Their trans-ethnic fare consisted of lots of music (including traditional African, experimental jazz, soul, classical and avant-garde electronic music), a quantity of remarkable interviews with political figures and jazz musicians, and an unusual news program called The Real Dragon (hosted by white radical political figures Lincoln Bergman and Claude Marks). For ten months in 1972 Oneness was heard from 1:00 PM Saturday afternoon until 1:00 AM the following Sun- day morning. Young and Howell proved that un-"popular" music could be effectively presented in a listenable format for 12 successive hours, and the program, which was originally begun to meet the needs of the large Bay Area community of blacks turned out to be just as popular among all racial groups.

The most recent path of experimentation in the arts undertaken by KPFA has been in the field of sound poetry—word compositions which exist as recordings. This now-thriving genre, which originated with the Dada poetry experiments of the 1920's, has been reactivated principally in Europe since the advent of the tape recorder in 1950. The readers of this movement include such masters of sound poetry as Henry Chopin, Francois Dufrene and Bernard Heidsieck in France, and a talented group of younger people in Sweden, England, Italy know the basis of sound poetry is the remarkable versatility of the voice and the great variety of the sounds of language as well as non-linguistic sounds. Speech can be music, even if its pitches and rhythms are not analogous to those of traditional singing. That is the premise.

Poet Clark Coolidge presented the first series of sound poetry broadcasts over KPFA in 1969. A series of seventeen weekly programs titled simply Words was considered at the time to be scandalously avant-garde. Each program featured a single writer. Vito Acconci rolled a ball around a giant loft and called out “here” each time he moved to the toy’s stopping place. After a half hour of this he ran panting into a microphone each step. He was counting the exact number of times his feet touched ground! During another memorable Words program which garnered many complaints from the audience, poet John Perrault presented a repetitious telephone tape of "This is a recorded message," which lasted for thirty minutes. Other programs were by some of America's best-known experimental writers: John Giorno, Tom Veitch and Coolidge himself.

In accordance with the policies of such unusual broadcasting, which often provoked lovers of one type of music or another as well as subscribers interested only in our political talk shows to cry out that precious air time is being wasted in the presentation of junk more akin to noise than to what they know as music, I have purposely changed my job title from Music Director to "Sound Sensitivity Information Director." In this way I have tried to shift the emphasis from "whether or not it's music"—a question which is of little significance to the listening experience—to "how do these sounds affect my life (entertainment /disturbance/ etc.) and how do they relate to my creative perception of art experiences (stimulation/boredom/other)." Thus the problem is no longer definition but experience. And that's really what music should be too.

Not all radical art is tedious and austere and childish, as many reactionary (and subsequently defensive) critics would have the public believe. In fact, what we need is more of this mind-challenging work on radio and television. Such stimulation can serve as an antidote to all-too-prevalent, all-too-acceptable, saccharine fare which we are exposed to daily on radio and television.

In Europe and many other areas, government radio and television provide a limited amount of such material. Yet even these large broadcasting corporations (Swedish Radio alone employs 5,000 people to run only three broadcast stations 17 hours a day) must hew to the better-trodden paths virtually 90% of the time. On the redeeming side, however, those artists who are given air time are well paid for their programming contributions and are able to work in state-of-the-art sound laboratories with skilled technicians.

But in the United States, it is exceedingly rare that an experimental composer or poet could have his or her work presented, either on radio or television. The commerciality of these media has forced us to accept this irresponsible and unconscionable situation of altogether rejecting new art. And no remedies seem to be close at hand.

In the meantime, those artists will have a hearing only on the Pacifica radio outlet in Berkeley, California, KPFA, or at its sister stations in New York, Los Angeles and Houston. Here alone will listeners encounter the works of the yet-undiscovered Beethovens, Picassos, Joyces and Stravinskys presently living and fermenting in our midst, and unable to utter so much as an electronic peep over the largest agglomeration of radio and television stations in the world.

-Charles Amirkhanian, July, 1973

 

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