Available through the Helen Scarsdale Agency: $18.00
The shortwave radio spectrum is dappled with anomalous
crackled repetitions, pulsed datastream grit, and other
synthetic transmissions of encrypted information. Far
less sensational than the thoroughly disturbing phenomenon
of numbers stations, these strange sounds are often
referred to as utility signals, as they may be used
to transmit information from remote weather stations,
specify GPS co-ordinants, or communicate between air
traffic controllers. Yet, without the proper equipment
to translate and analyze these broadcasts, utility signals
are unintelligible garblings that leave their origin,
recipient, and meaning up to the listener's wild speculations.
Throughout his career, sound artist John Duncan has
often manipulated shortwave radio broadcasts (especially
these utility signals) in order to exacerbate the psychological
condition which renders the unreadable other as alien,
antagonistic, conspiratorial, and haunted. However,
his recent investigations into the chromatics of shortwave
have taken a noticeable conceptual turn away from confrontationalism
and towards an electronic transcendentalism, where Duncan
has replaced fear of not knowing with the recognition
of the potential for beauty to emerge from such sounds.
Duncan composed Phantom Broadcast from a single
shortwave transmission, not giving any specifics as
to its nature because they were neither clear nor relevant.
As with all of his shortwave explorations, he has announced
that he has worked on Phantom Broadcast mostly
through contextualization rather than electronic signal
processing (although some reverb and downpitching are
self-evident). This is a little hard to believe as the
album opens with a magnificent ringing that appears
less as radio noise telegraphy and more as a heavenly
choir of baritone vocalists modulating between a small
range of sustained notes behind an equally endless metallic
bell tone. Throughout the 48 minute piece, Duncan unveils
gradual shifts appearing as reverberating masses of
air that elegantly rise and fall with an occasion flickerings
around the edges. Phantom Broadcast should stand
as one of Duncan's greatest pieces, rendered as a majestic
reflection of the Minimalist orchestral timbres found
in Ligeti's Lux Aeterna.
As seen in the collaboration with the classically trained
German ensemble Zeitkratzer, Duncan has speculated that
his work may be shifting beyond the scope of electronic
composition and towards chorale productions. Judging
from this successful transformation of shortwave into
such a production, his future as a composer looks bright.
My vote for best record of 2002.