Monday, November 22, 2010

what is radiophonic?

I'm going to take a break from my more navel-gazing obsession with reflecting on my own sound/musical work. Instead I want to write down some thoughts on radiophonic art that were first sparked three years ago by hearing six new, short 'radiophonic' works in three distinctly different listening contexts.

The six works were created by six quite different artists and artist collaborations in response to the same commission: to create a 4-minute sound work for radio incorporating one or more of five given samples from Monteverdi's 400-year-old opera l'Orfeo. The task was further fleshed out with the suggestion that the works respond in some way to the history/nature of opera and/or the Orpheus myth: a collection of stories and re-tellings replete with the classic opera themes of love, death and the power of music.

The listening contexts in which I heard the six works were (in this order): 
1. alone on headphones connected to a computer;
2. with others in a sound-proofed studio on a large and excellent studio play-back system;
3. at home off a portable transistor radio in the kitchen during their first broadcast.

The ways in which I experienced these works and their perceived effectiveness in the three different contexts (socially/sonically isolated intimacy; high-end sound projection in a purpose-built work space; in a lo-fi, casual social context) highlighted for me the differences between the 'radiophonic' mode and the other predominant listening modes of 'concert' (public, hi-fi performance-oriented projection) and 'private soundtrack' (the solipsistic listening spaces of the mp3 player and other such personal listening technologies).

So to the works.

Damian Barbeler's Tuning Orfeo was totally absorbing in immersive headphone listening mode, its layering of field recording, samples and indoor performance making an interesting play with contemporary listening contexts. This was still moderately effective in the listening context of a studio, but evaporated completely when heard off the radio in my kitchen where the additional layers of rich acoustic spaces (indoor sounds plus the layers of sound from outside) made the layers within the piece inaudible.

Distorpheus, Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras's attempt to capture 'the power and drama of operatic form' made it's impact fully on the big speakers and classic proscenium listening situation of the studio. This power had less room to breath on headphones, and lost most of its ability to command attention when delivered through my domestic radio speakers at home. Here the big gestures and sonic intensity of the work became thin and uninteresting.

In contrast, while I enjoyed Amanda Stewart's Eurydice's Sigh on headphones, I was mildly disappointed by it in the studio setting. It wasn't until I listened on the radio at home that its intimate address of multi-voiced whispers and utterances revealed its power, reaching straight into the sound-world of the kitchen. Its play between speech and the musical potentials of voice now became a thoroughly arresting and intriguing presence within the acoustic environment of my domestic world, the words heard as if listening to the speaker's thoughts, or to her voice speaking directly to me.

Even more low-key in its initial sleepy, fuzzy impact on headphones was Dave Noyze and Sarah Last's Monteverdudley, a curious investigation of speech synthesis and the soundworld of the regal organ prominent in the Monteverdi opera. The studio listening situation added little to its impact, but like Stewart's work, this piece revealed hidden depths in the radio listening situation, proving strangely compelling as a synthetic, muffled guest insinuating its way into the atmosphere of my kitchen. Again, the spoken utterances became far more compelling in this domestic context.

The remaining two works were much more level in their impact across the three listening situations. On the one hand there was Constantine Koukias' Vox Orpheus - a gently alluring invitation into an exotic realm of ancient Greek language and music. The effect was attractive in a low-key way across all three listening contexts - a kind of dream world of lovely sounds and voices existing in a timeless space somewhere just out of reach.

Arresting in all three contexts was Gail Priest's Coffee this morning which combined the immediate impact of rich repeated chords in a bright, 'pop' music production with the radiophonically effective intimacy of her kitchen-drama monologue which, with its accompanying domestic sounds, appeared like a guest drinking coffee at my table. (You can read more about the ideas behind these works as well as listen to many more works created in response to the Orpheus challenge on the Orpheus Remix Awards website.)

So what is this thing called 'radiophonic'?

Radiophonic listening almost invariably involves the work being projected into an already rich sonic environment as one of many competing sound sources. In this context the work is most likely to achieve some impact by addressing rather than ignoring the primary function of radio listening - as an aural companion making a direct address to listeners within their divergent and uncontrollable listening contexts.

This is a radically different performative context to the  hi-fi or electroacoustic concert presentation of work where the whole listening context is focused proscenium-arch style on the stereo field of the audio's projection. It is also substantially different from the immersive and aurally decontextualised intimacy of headphones.

What radiophonic art's future is in a rapidly changing media context is hard to say. Though as long as there is sound being transmitted into portable devices and heard as part of the fabric of listeners' personal spaces, from kitchens to cars to bedrooms to beaches, then there will be the need to make opportunities for artists to seek new ways of engaging with this context.

What this blog completely ignores is the intriguing histories of divergent sound arts that have fed into the development of radiophonic art. But that is definitely a story for another day, and probably a more qualified teller.