Sines of the Times – Loops + Topology: airwaves

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Loops + Topology: airwaves

CD review/musing by Arjun von Caemmerer

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To the marvels enfolded within this album, airwaves, there is literally no end: the 99th of the 99 tracks documents the passage and receipt of a singular letter sent snaking across the Atlantic Ocean on the 12th hour of the 12th day of the 12th month of 1901. Audible clearly against the background static, this letter, whose horizontal configuration maps exactly the contours of the sine wave, is the ‘dit dit dit’ (or the ‘dot dot dot’) of the Morse code letter ‘S’, the letter chosen by Guglielmo Marconi for the first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission. Thus the final track on this album is not so much an ending, a closure, as the documentation of another beginning — the opening of a time bracket that chronicles and celebrates 100 years of radio broadcasts. airwaves, constructed by eight musicians who collectively comprise Loops + Topology, is consciously fashioned as a kind of time travel, running retrograde from 2001, our current Digital Age, to the origins of the Radio Age, back in the Year Dot . . .

Were this merely an album of selected radio broadcasts culled from the last century it would be fascinating enough, but Loops + Topology have had their ways with this material in a manner that elevates it to the truly extra-ordinary. The 2001 incarnation of Loops (who were also then Ensemble in Residence at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music) comprise the Triple-J of Jazz: Jonathan Dimond (one of the principal composers on this album; electric bass, tabla, trombone); John Parker (drums, marimba); and Jamie Clark (composer; guitars). Topology, the Brisbane-based bassed-quintet, are Robert Davidson (the other principal composer; double bass, samples); John Babbage (saxophones); Kylie Davidson (piano); Christa Powell (violin); and Bernard Hoey (viola). Although Dimond and Davidson are the chief composers on airwaves, it is the musical qualities of the 100+ voices — their intonation, timing, emotional context and vocalic content — which has chiefly determined the musicians’ compositional responses. These involuntary co-composers, conscripted into the formation of their own ‘voice portraits’ include (to name just a few) John Howard & Cathy Freeman; Mohandas Gandhi & Jawaharlal Nehru; Gough Whitlam & Paul Keating; Dad & Dave; Lady Diana & Salvador Dali; Bill Clinton & Richard Nixon; Pauline Hanson & Arthur Calwell.

Some of the tracks are simply Voice, unadorned by musical accompaniment, such as Track 73 from 29th April 1937 — Virginia Woolf on BBC radio: Words, English words, are full of memories, echoes, associations. They’ve been out and about, on peoples’ lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. These memories, echoes and associations are reflected even in Track 1, ‘Tuning in’. Just as Varèse’s ‘Tuning Up’ (1947) reiterates differently-clad fragments of many of his earlier compositions, so ‘Tuning in’, despite its brevity (42 seconds of randomly selected stories from ABC news radio in 2001), manages to introduce themes which recur throughout the 20th century. Delivered in the measured tones of reason and authority, these excerpts raise questions about the objectivity and selectivity of news reporting; about individual freedom of choice in the continuing debate on euthanasia and our right to choose a timely death; about ongoing mistrust between Big Powers, in this case China and the United States, summoning the spectre of another engulfing military conflict. And at the same time, on these same airwaves, the topic of Sport is interposed, raising questions about its centrality and its (over)weighting within Australian culture.

Though these are all serious concerns (or major events and problems as Sir John Kerr, in Track 19’s Australia Day Address of 1976, spells out to us in the patronizing manner of someone using very simple words for the very simple-minded) the voice of the music on this disc — acting variously as commentary, as counterpoint and as melodic amplifier — is also testament to the centrality of humour. We have, for example, in ‘That Woman’, (Track 4), the juxtaposition of Bill Clinton’s diametrically opposed (but equally vehement) statements made in regard to his st®ained relationship with Monica Lewinsky. It is fascinating to contrast the different styles of vocal delivery in each of his pronouncements. His initial denial (I did not have sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky; I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never) — its measured, stolid, deep, slow, and direct tones pitched to sound convincing and definite — stand in stark contrast to his subsequent, almost-surprised-sounding correction (Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong) — his voice here more abrupt, higher-pitched, literally more distanced from the listener’s ear (a relationship with the listener, his tone suggests, which he would like to end as soon as possible). This contrast is not a result of the composers’ manipulations: the only alterations to the voices on this album occur where they are looped for increased emphasis by repetition of whole sentences or sentence fragments — vocal timing and pitch remain unchanged. The musical accompaniment for Clinton’s initial statement sounds like a jaunty man-wronged blues, but on his subsequent amendment the band gleefully unlooses a sympathetic aural equivalent of Clinton’s redressed ejaculation. By artful segue the album balances humour with pathos: the following track continues the narrative thread of oral ejectamenta but of a different kind, with Diana, Princess of Wales and her November 1995 disclosure on the BBC’s Panorama of her torment by bulimia, her secret disease.

Yet more dark humour, here admixed with pathos, occurs with the inclusion of the prescient interview of Buddy Holly by Alan Freed just 4 months before his death in a plane crash. The interview is overlaid with Buddy Holly’s own guitar, playing his smash-hit That’ll Be The Day. As it is impossible to really hear his song without also recalling his lyrics, they hover, also prescient but behind the scenes, a ghostly presence, framed in absence:

Alan Freed: We, Buddy, we played … I think we rode every kind of airplane there was … imaginable

Well that’ll be the day

Buddy Holly: We sure did!

When you say good-bye

Alan Freed: Those DC3s were really something.

Yea that’ll be the day
When you make me cry

Buddy Holly: Ah, the ones with the “hmmp hmmp” – ha ha!

You say you’re gonna leave

You know it’s a lie

Alan Freed: Oh boy oh boy! Without the seat belts we would have been right through the top, that’s for sure

Buddy Holly: Sure would!

’cause that’ll be the day

When I die




But it would be an incorrect and myopic reduction to characterize this album simply as a series of jokes: the presence of humour is an essential ingredient to leaven what might otherwise be indigestible in its density, unspeakable in its horror. Re-sounding throughout the album are interwoven and recurrent themes, major events and problems that are the particular pre-occupations of the 20th century. A narrative thread can be drawn, for example, commencing with John Howard’s refusal to offer an apology to Aboriginal Australians (Track 2, ‘Year 2000’); Pauline Hanson’s indignant assertion of her land rights (Track 6); the 1964 speech of Malcolm X Whites can help us, but they can’t join us (Track 28); Martin Luther King’s 1963 impassioned song-speech, I have a dream (Track 29); ALP leader Arthur Calwell’s any attempt to mix races is a bad thing (Track 29); the vituperative and shameful interviewees on ‘White Australia Policy’ (Track 30); Thomas Dodd reading Franz Blaha’s affidavit at the Nuremberg trials 1946 (‘It was common practice to remove the skins of dead prisoners’, Track 64); tying, finally, with Track 85, King Burraga (1933) It quite amuses me to hear people saying “I don’t like the black man”, but he’s damned glad to live in the black man’s country all the same.

In some of the broadcasts there is a heart-rending poignancy, the voice naked and exposed in the cracked strains of human vulnerability and grief, as in the plea broadcast by Radio Beijing on Track 11 (‘Tiananmen Square’): Please remember June the third 1989, and again in Track 44 from All-India Radio, 1948, with Jawaharlal Nehru’s tremulous mourning of ‘Bapu’, Gandhi: the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, a sadness amplified by Track 45, Gandhi’s Spiritual Message, delivered at Kingsley(!) Hall in 1931, sounding his personalized and poetic rewording of the Shanti Mantra: in the midst of darkness, light persists.

There are innumerable other narrative strands in the overall fabric: technology and scientific discovery in aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s triumphal trans-continental flight (with the incidental resonance of Marconi’s achievement paralleling her own, and the additional conceptual resonance of her role in forming The Ninety Nines — not the 99 tracks to this disc, but a group intended to support female aviators); in Rutherford’s explication of atomic anatomy and Einstein’s recitation of his infamous equation; in Crick’s assessment of what made possible his working dynamic with Watson in their joint discovery of DNA (It’s useless working with somebody who’s either much too junior than yourself or much too senior, because then politeness creeps in, and this is the end of all real collaboration in science); in Armstrong’s reflective words on his lunar landing, and further, through to the current time, with the now very real possibility of human cloning. This motif, the technological and scientific, is inextricably interwoven with that of another: the development of nuclear technology and its misuses — hear, for example, Patrick White in 1981 (Track 13), his funereal voice perfectly matched by an instrumental accompaniment reminiscent of rusting Hills Hoists swinging in a depopulated landscape, the voice sounding eerily as though it were itself already swathed in the contaminated shroud he warns will mantle our planet in the event of nuclear warfare. And on track 49 from August 6th 1945, following Frank Phillips’ BBC announcement: Scientists, British and American have made the atomic bomb at last. The first one was dropped on a Japanese city this morning, President Truman announces the bombing of Hiroshima, a military base, and in the next sentence adds, We won the race of discovery against the Germans, managing in a mere dozen words to knot together the themes of sport, race, technology, propaganda and warfare, all subjects central to airwaves.


It is significant to note the presence of two other composers on airwaves. The first is Darius Milhaud whose 6-part 1923 jazz-inflected ballet, La Creation Du Monde, forms the basis of the music accompanying Tracks 84–89. Its significance lies not just in Milhaud’s recombination of jazz idioms with avant-garde classical music, in clear parallel to the music of Loops + Topology on this album, but also in the work’s title, pointing to the airwaves collective broadcasts’ intentional re-creation of the worlds of the 20th Century. The second composer whose music is used as a substrate, in this case backing Tracks 25 (‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’) and 26 (‘Revolution’), whose subject materials are drawn from the 1960s, is Terry Riley, and his 1964 minimalist composition In C. In an immediate link to Marconi, In C commences with a single series of reiterated piano notes, recalling Marconi’s Morse C-Ode. Mathematically, In C can also be translated as In 100 — a reference to the 100 years this album spans. re-sound, in the liner notes to their recorded version of IN C (move records, 2002) write: IN C corresponds, to some extent, to a rotating kaleidoscope. The shapes inside a kaleidoscope remain the same while their relative position changes. IN C uses the same principle in the temporal domain: the relative positions of musical motives change over time. So here is yet another correspondence, this time to the variously recurring themes, threads and strands stitched into the skein of the broadcasts. In this Digital Age, simply fingering the infinity-shaped icon marked ‘shuffle’ makes it possible to change the relative positions of these 99 tracks, their multitudinous and kaleidoscopic voices, shifting into (as far as life and listening span are concerned) an effectively infinite number of rearrangements. By this manouevre I have been treated to fortuitous juxtapositions of Sigmund Freud on the unconscious and Lady Diana on bulimia; Heavens Gate Leader Marshall Herff Applewhite and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, each warning of the imminent ending of Planet Earth; and Einstein on pacifism, coupling oddly with George Bush’s jazz discharge on Iraq.

Were I a teacher of 20th Century history, I could think of no better place to start than with this disc. But any historical record also inevitably involves a process of selection and editing, not just to determine which stories are included but also to decide which are to be excluded. Marconi’s own history is as complex and interwoven as that of the century in which he lived and died: he was placed in charge of Italy’s military radio service in the 1st World War; in later life, he joined the Italian Fascist Party and was subsequently appointed by Mussolini to membership of the Fascist Grand Council. The covers of the airwaves CD booklet, from LOVEHATE Design, are a semi-transparent gold metallic sheeting through which, as though blurred by the distances of time and space and received history, appear sheened images of Marconi, handsome and occupied…

Thus, a Sum + a Gloss:


Another In C

A gasp of wonderment escaped our lips – so gorgeous was[1]

1907 when music was first sent out by radio phone[2]

Remember those whose lives were given that we may enjoy[3]

Possibilities for education and amusement the radio broadcast would possess[4]

In December 1901 I was able for the first time[5]

To transmit and receive telegraphic signals right across the Atlantic[6]

That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap[7]

Made before a world of indifference, a world of skeptics[8]

And it’s pretty exciting to see it become a reality[9]

We give thanks to Almighty God for a great deliverance[10]

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[1] Track 70: Howard Carter, 1924, BBC, Tutankhamen
[2] Track 69: Lee de Forest, 22 September 1939, Worlds Fair, New York City
[3] Track 50: Ben Chifley, 15 August 1945, V-P Day
[4] Track 69: Lee de Forest, 22 September 1939, Worlds Fair, New York City
[5] Track 97: Guglielmo Marconi, 1901
[6] Track 97: Guglielmo Marconi, 1901
[7] Track 27: Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969, Moon Landing
[8] Track 69: Lee de Forest, 22 September 1939, Worlds Fair, New York City
[9] Track 2: Peter Costello, July 1 8.00AM, 2000
[10]Track 47: King George VI, 8 May 1945, V-E Day