Ignoring all advice to “don’t touch that dial”, our resident archivist tunes into the mysterious world of shortwave radio and the records that have been created using it as the primary sound source
My first experience of electronic music was tuning a shortwave radio and listening to the sounds, which I always loved. I’ve used it on my own music all through the years. When I travel I always record shortwave radio, or whatever the local medium wave radio is. Hawaii is amazing for that. I’d take my big aerial, set it up on the veranda of whatever hotel we were staying at, and get the best recording, because there’s nothing around for thousands of miles, so there’s no interference.
If you ever listened to Radio Luxembourg under the covers in the 1970s, you know the sound of shortwave. I first heard John Foxx’s ‘Metamatic’ on shortwave radio, with the music fading in and out. The bad reception and the interference added to its allure. I would record the broadcasts onto cassette, and I always liked those recordings better than the real releases, because of the shortwave stuff.
So I’ve always loved it, and then I discovered that people had been making music out of it, and that John Cage was the first, in 1951, with ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 4’. He used 12 shortwave radios, all tuned in live. He made some recordings of it, and there’s a live recording on ‘Variations IV’. It was recorded at the Palmer Gallery in LA and released in 1966 on the Everest label. I actually sampled it on the start of Meat Beat Manifesto’s 1996 ‘Subliminal Sandwich’ album.
Another short wave classic is ‘Electronic Panorama’ from 1970. It’s a four-disc set put together by Pierre Henry, and every artist on it is the best of the best. Anyway, there’s a piece on here, Luctor Ponse’s ‘Radiophone’, which is all shortwave radio, nothing else but shortwave, edited together really well. It’s one of the best shortwave pieces, there’s not that many of them.
Another good example is from Klaus Hashagen’s ‘Percussion Und Elektronik’ album. Hashagen composed mainly classical music, this is the only electronic piece he did, the shortwave piece is very good, it’s called ‘…Trip In The Air…’. It’s exceptional, it really jumps out at you. The opening track on the record is called ‘Percussion VI – musik für tonband (1959-1973)’. Tonband is tape, whenever I see the word “tonband” on a record I pick it up immediately.
Then probably, along with John Cage, the most famous piece of shortwave music is called ‘Wireless Fantasy’ by Vladimir Ussachevsky. It’s on ‘Music For Electronic & Older Instruments’ from 1968. It uses these really old tube radios and they give it a completely different sound.
To understand shortwave radio music, you really have to listen to it. These records are quite easy to find, easier than obscure soul and funk recordings with breaks on them, that is. Happy hunting!