Now on PBS

Switched On swingin' lounge with Emma Peel, Sat 1:00pm - 3:00pm
Soulgroove'66 r'n'b & funky soul with Pierre Baroni, Sat 3:00pm - 5:00pm
Babylon Burning reggae & dancehall with Jesse I, Sat 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Boss Action funk & soul with Miss Goldie, Sat 7:00pm - 8:00pm

The Sound Barrier fires up the turbines for 2017 Radio Festival!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

As The Sound Barrier transitions into Tales from the Other Side at midnight, and 14 May transitions into 15 May, the 2017 PBS Radio Festival will have lifted off from the launching pad, hurling into the vastness, the excitement, the undiscovered land, of music's massive galaxy.

And so this week on The Sound Barrier I decided to spend the show telling you a little bit about why it's important to take that giant leap into the unchartered cosmos that PBS navigates with such vigour and passion, thanks to the support of you, our members.

As German radio-text author and artist Ferdinand Kriwet puts it in his notes for Voice of America, the piece that opened tonight's show, the great nation that proclaims itself as the leader of the free world is not all wide-open freedom. It is a crass and repressive place of commercialism and mass media, where bombardment with the frantic pace of a commodified world is coming at its inhabitants from everywhere, always. Ferdinand Kriwet's Radio-texts are sensational sonic illustrations of modern life, of familiar sounds, of noises and sound bites that capture whatever idea it is that he is aiming to present. In Voice of America it is the mundanity of day-to-day life in America, but it could just as well be any big Western economy: the sounds of commercials, sports, comic shows, TV entertainment, news, politics, station identifications, prayers, the outdoor sounds of cities and, of course, the US Stock Exchange. It's enough to make anyone question where we are, and feel at least a little bit keen to break away from it all.

Anthony Pateras's compositional-improvisational quintet Thymolphthalein sought to do exactly that in their few active years together. Comprised of both French and Australian musicians, Thymolphthalein sought to create music that was neither composed nor improvised, but instead created general compositional directions at the macro level, within which the performers each performed freely. It was music designed to confuse, to actively rebel against established tropes about how music should be constructed. In this way, Thymolphthalein was a deliberate reaction against commodified music – music that is created, becomes popular (even if that popularity is with a limited audience of lovers of new music) and therefore begins to be repeated, so people receive what they expect. You Cannot Escape the 20th Century puts these ideas on display, challenging its audiences to hear it only on its own terms rather than in the context of what they already know, or what the industry has taught them to expect. This becomes especially strong in the music's inventive use of timbre, so we hear a strange and uncertain hybrid of electronic and acoustic sounds. The very idea of Thymolphthalein was in some ways bound to a limited life, or else it would itself become the very thing that it was rebelling against: predictable and established. The quintet performed from 2009 to 2013.

But it is not only the predictability and crassness of our commodified world that might lead us to want to escape it. It is the fact that it is, in any event, decaying. Whether it be through the destruction of climate change, the demise of the promise of capitalist glory, the engineered and often empty nature of our connections with one another in lives that are computerised and rushed, or the simple reality that our planet, even with the best of care, will not last forever, things will decay. Two of the pieces I played tonight captured this notion in very different ways.

The idea of decay was one actively embraced in Jason Lescalleet's 2014 LP, Much to my Demise. It is released on vinyl, and he asks you to destroy the paper sleeve in which it comes, and he hopes that the record itself will become scuffed and scratched so that each copy of it becomes its own unique testament to its own decay in the hands of its owner. It's an overt and poetic homage to age and deterioration, thumbing its wrinkled nose at our obsession with holding on to what we have.

Decay, too, has been very much a part of the aesthetic of William Basinski and nowhere more famously so than in his Disintegration Loops which emerged when, in 2001, he first began to attempt the digitisation of some old tape loops he had made years earlier. As he played them, he noticed the tapes themselves slowly disintegrating, and ultimately it was the sad beauty of that decay that he decided to capture and, paradoxically, preserve. He famously played the results to friends on the terrace of his New York apartment after the fall of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in 2001, and that image of watching the slowly settling smoke against a slowly setting sun in the evening has been forever attached to this music. Tonight, however, I played a different version of this piece – an orchestration of it that William Basinski first conducted at the 2008 Venice Biennale (the recording played on tonight's show) and then recreated three years later for the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy. Here in a live performance, of course, there is no tape to disintegrate. Instead the orchestra slowly inserts more and longer pauses into their playing, until it is the silence, rather than the sound, that becomes the music.

So, with a commodified, commercialised, computerised world in decay, why would we not want to explore what lies beyond us? Why would we not want to take that one small step that becomes the one giant leap into the newness of uncharted space, where whole galaxies of unusualness and magnificence are just there for us to find them and wonder at them? That's what this year's Radio Festival is all about, and so I thought the best way I could do my bit to prepare for it was to finish off tonight's show with one of the most exciting launching pieces ever written, the famous HELIKOPTER-STREICHQUARTETT ('Helicopter String Quartet') of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Making up the Third Scene of his opera MITTWOCH aus LICHT ('Wednesday from Light'), the piece involves the four members of a string quartet each playing from one of four helicopters that fly in the sky about half a kilometre above the theatre, with their playing, and the sounds of the helicopter engines and rotor blades, being fed back to the auditorium via live audio-video link. On tonight's show I played the live recording of the world premiere that took place on 26 June 1995, in Amsterdam. This recording, which includes an explanation of the piece by Stockhausen before the performance and a Q&A with the audience afterwards (all of which is stipulated in the score), coupled with a studio recording of the same piece but with about three minutes of extra music that Stockhausen composed after the premiere, is available exclusively from the Stockhausen Foundation, with whose kind permission tonight's recording is broadcast.

It is an astonishing wild piece. The players, who cannot hear each other, are kept in sync through a click-track. They are playing the formulas – the name Stockhausen gave to the complex musical themes which sonically embody LICHT's three core characters of Michael, Eve and Lucifer – but the notes of each formula are being thrown around between the instruments. It is a frenzied knot of musical collaboration, as these formulas, which are the real essences of the characters, combine and entwine so that none of their individuality is recognisable anymore, except perhaps for the signature number-counting that is contained in Lucifer's formula. Wednesday is the day of collaboration in Stockhausen's LICHT ('Light'), his cycle of seven operas, one representing each day of the week. So, while helicopters lift off from the earth and soar into the sky, circling around the theatre, separated by space, they are bound together by music.

And maybe this is the message with which we need to launch into this year's Radio Festival – and maybe this is the kernel of the reason why becoming a member of PBS is so important. The future lies beyond us. If we are going to meet it intrepidly and well, this place into which our time-limited present will thrust us anyway, we need to do it together, as a community, united by music. This is what PBS is all about – the home of little heard music that rebels against the tiring, tired, same-same, decayed world of commercial music: the station that boldly goes where no station has gone before.

If you would like to check out more of tonight's show, you can see the full playlist here on the website, along with the audio which is available shortly after the show has gone live to air and remains on the website for about six months.

©2017 Progressive Broadcasting Service Cooperative Ltd. | About PBS | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice | FAQ | Contact Us

Powered by Drupal, an open source content management system