Am I the last person on earth?
Stories circulate in the aether, half-stories, life stories, fragments and edges of stories yet to be, numbers, atmospheres, disembodied entities. They are flux as weather, a haunting, writing themselves on falling leaves, ash and static, fade to memory on the turbulent substrate. During childhood, voices seeping into a room, collecting in high corners, cobwebs of sound dust. At intervals they spoke of storms battering half-real places – Fastnet, Dogger – languages faint and spittering though carefully enunciated from the far part of the intangible world, spit of fairy people in clouds and rolling mist, spirit voices could be, sinking back into shadows of music, thundering showers, ominous to come.
Cold war, iron curtain, ominous rooms whose walls were permeable to these distant signals as if invisible thought-missiles soaked through brick and plaster in advance of the real thing. Last week I read a news report, the return of shortwave radio: “BBC website blocked in Russia as shortwave radio brought back to cover Ukraine war” (The Guardian, 4.3.22). This reversion to a supposedly obsolete technology is not unfamiliar in the world of audio communications. We might think of it as a spectre of the future, or the ghost that refuses to leave the room. Shortwave uses frequencies that carry over long distances, is accessible on portable radios, relatively untraceable by comparison with digital media’s footprint and less prone to internet-based services’ susceptibility to network collapse or signal failure.
Shortwave radio could be described as the sound of the cold war. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen, composed in 1967, treated it as a primordial audio soup out of which national identities emerged. This large-scale work involving electronic, vocal and instrumental music was structured into regions with national anthems as its thematic material. “The first region has two centres,” Stockhausen wrote, “the Internationale and the Marseillaise. It develops as a strict, organised form from out of an international gibberish of short-wave broadcasts.” Listening now to Hymnen, hearing its eerie atmospheres, scattered, ebbing, flowing, as if weather conditions, temperature inversions, distant ice storms, fog and gales were randomising human connectivity, the work seems almost nostalgic, the process of modulation central to its being an expression of both long-distance communications and utopianism. All things will be merged. Think also of John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for twelve radios, premiered in May 1951, in which chance operations were used to score manipulations of tuning, dynamics and durations of the radio signals. Across the world, May 1951 was the date of a counteroffensive by US-led forces in Korea, a military operation that resulted in more than 75,000 casualties. “In and out of earshot drifted fragments,” wrote Cage biographer David Revill in his account of the Imaginary Landscape No. 4 performance in New York. “The word ‘Korea’ recurred.”
Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, soon to become co-founders of Sony, learned of the end of World War II by listening to shortwave radio. “There was a lot of static on the radio and a lot of background noise,” Morita wrote in his autobiographical account of Sony, Made In Japan, “but the high, thin voice of his Majesty came through.” In the aftermath, chaos and ruins, the desperation of survival, Ibuka and Morita began working on product development in the field of consumer electronics. The first was a unit that could convert AM radio to shortwave receivers. In 1952, during a trip to the US, Ibuka learned it would be possible to licence the recently invented transistor from Western Electric. Three years later, the company had developed their own miniaturised transistor radio. The principle was the same for all miniaturised electronics that followed, from Walkman to iPod to mobile phone. According to Morita it was a question of privacy, choice, an ethics of personal space, a room of one’s own “. . . where he or she could turn on this tiny radio and listen to whatever pleases him or her without disturbing or bothering anybody else.”
All landscapes are, in a sense, imaginary. They develop in the mind as coherent assemblages of distinctive features (owing much to a variety of art histories), a reductive framing of ecologies otherwise too complex to comprehend. The move toward solipsism in consumer electronics – from bluetooth earbuds to social media – is tied closely to the promise of mobility, though that mobility may rarely stray far from the room of its own. An inner landscape grows, lush and tropicalised as JG Ballard's The Drowned World, rich and extensive as the external world may be barren and restrictive, a landscape of wild ideas, theories, conspiracies, weird experiments, vast archives of music, voices both soothing and crazed.
I am frequently struck by the similarities between spiritualism and shortwave radio, or at least shortwave as it used to be, entities drifting through non-space, voices waiting to be heard. The mediumship of the listener, I once called it. Storytellers also circulate in the aether, some arguably more real than others. “And moreover that every single time that I have mentioned Kathleen Ferrier singing the Brahms what I ought to have mentioned was Bidú Sayāo singing the Villa-Lobos,” says the narrator of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, perpetually uncertain despite her convictions. “Even if it may have been Kirsten Flagstad singing. And in a manner of speaking I was not really hearing any one of the three to begin with.” Is she the only person left on earth? Listening to the weather apocalypse through bluetooth headphones, can any of us in our solipsism be certain of our answers to a question that may drift by in a pandemic, a Zoom meeting, a transmission from somewhere that may be Florida or China or a southerly point of Ireland: am I the last person on earth? Is it possible to imagine radical change for the world, even as the world radically changes itself, almost beyond our control? There is a lot of static, a lot of background noise.
David Toop is an author, musician and curator based in London. His books include Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds and Haunted Weather.
Christopher Steenson, Soft Rains Will Come is at VISUAL Carlow from 26 February – 22 May