Arcoparlante has its origins in a series of fragments of distorted radio broadcasts that I collected over the course of the last few years. The common trait of all of these fragments is that each one contains a voice. Because of the poor quality of the signal, it is impossible to understand what the voice is saying or what language is being spoken. The quality is sometimes so bad that even the gender of the speaker is unclear. The only thing certain is that these are human voices. The recordings were made in various places, from my short wave radio receiver, an aviation radio receiver, and several HAM receivers.
In March 2009 I had a chance to retransmit those fragments for several hours over the middle and short wave frequencies of the German national broadcasting station in Berlin and to engage in a game of « Telephone » with the different listeners who tuned in. “Telephone” is also known as “Stille Post” (“Silent Mail”) – in German, and also known with the slightly (or plainly, depending upon how p.c. you want to be) racist names of « Chinese Whispers » and « Telephone Arabe » in English and French. In this popular game, a sentence is whispered into the ear of the next player who subsequently whispers what he or she believed to have heard to the next. Usually the phrase transforms in very unpredictable ways.
The broadcast opened with the announcement « Guten Abend. Wir spielen ‘Stille Post’ im Äther. » (« Good evening. We are playing ‘Telephone’ on the air. ») and then we began airing fragments of the distorted radio material. Listeners were periodically invited to transcribe or imitate, in a recording of their own, what they believed to understand from our fuzzy broadcast and send it back to us. Many responded by sending newly written transcriptions by email or chat, while others read them over the phone or sent recordings in mp3 format over the internet. Cd’s and additional audio files arrived via the post during the following days. A few friends in Berlin also organized radio parties in connection with the project, and a taxi driver/musician friend offered free rides to anyone willing to play the game during the ride when he would have his radio on.
Throughout the night, I broadcast the original fragments along with their transcriptions, which were read by Michael Meilinger, a professional moderator from the radio station. Michael usually lends his official, low pitched and perfectly articulated voice to the station’s newscasts, announcements and weather reports, and in this case he applied the same tone to the absurd, chaotic material we received from the listeners. Each time we received a new transcription of a fragment, we fed it into the broadcast, announced the fragment to which it referred and withdrew the original fragment from the program. A series of transcriptions soon began to accumulate for each one of the fragments, increasingly more removed from the original.
Producers Marcus Gammel and Ingo Kottkamp from the radio station worked as a team, assisted by two radio technicians, answering phone calls and editing incoming recordings, while I triggered the audio fragments on a simple max/msp sampling patch I had arranged on my laptop. The whole process became quite frantic and we barely had time to speak to each other; our communication consisted of complicit glances while each of us ran back and forth between the two studios trying to keep the game in motion.
For Michael Meilinger, the moderator, it was an exhausting tour de force. He endeavored to read hours of apparently meaningless texts without giving up his official radio tone. I wasn’t sure if he was enjoying it or not. I didn’t ask. He had to work hard in making such a drastic deviation from his daily practice. At the end of the whole process, when he came out of the speaker’s booth with a big smile on his face, I felt relieved. Exhausted, we opened a bottle of pro secco to celebrate and I went home with approximately four hours of interesting audio material.
After that night, I found myself atop a mountain of chaotic recordings and texts, all originating from the fragments I had collected at the outset. I started diving into a reality that I had never before experienced: it felt like a kind of artificially and collectively generated memory. I experienced a strange sense of Sehnsucht – of longing – while walking this hall of mirrors that the piece was gradually becoming.
I was surprised by how many narratives, however only sketched or incomplete, were emerging. I would have expected the message to progressively deteriorate,
rot, fall into pieces of complete abstraction. I would have expected a triumph of entropy. But meaning was coming back naturally to this collective process, people from faraway were holding hands, holding ears. A nine-year-old kid – fascinated by science – once asked me: « What if entropy is your friend?” I had to think of this again and again.
A completely chaotic mass of phonetic debris would have been easier material to work with as a composer. Abstract and fuzzy textures of static interferences. But something slightly more engaging was happening here :
… a beautiful line between sense and nonsense, sound and meaning [is] occurring, which I understand is important for you, or at the heart of the work. And also, how media, radio and language function as kinds of filters, to generate or stimulate this process, this poetics.
Arcoparlante – the resulting piece – is a three-dimensional object. I tried to make this tri-dimensionality evident and audible in the time-based design of this work. Some fragments of meaning made it to the surface while others remain forgotten, buried under the other layers of translation. I tried to create a sense of perspective from it. Not just a spatial perspective, but also a micro-historical one, arising from the progressive deformations of older pieces of information. It was a continuing metamorphosis, as fragments and meanings drifted away, forging themselves into artificial memories. There is something beautiful and at the same time, desperate in our compulsive need to make sense of abstract patterns, in deciphering the undecipherable, hearing voices in the sounds of nature or in the electromagnetic static noise of radio. We often hear voices where there are none. They seem to come from nowhere.
Somebody emailed me the following after listening to the piece:
… fragments of realities, chaotic and meaningful at the same time. Every person contributed a part of him/herself. Packages of life hanging in the words and existing beyond them. Those are the ones we can hear, like sort of ghosts, and that’s what’s being revealed by your piece, the stories become one story, realities one reality that’s soon exploding again with some new mysteries you bring into it … you built a labyrinth and got lost in it. How appropriate …
I became lost several times in the making of Arcoparlante. The hall of mirrors, the labyrinth swallowed me up and spit me out repeatedly.
» il n’y avait plus de pensées. je nageais, dissous, dans le délire dansant, effleuré de parfums, de sons, de soupirs, de mots, caressé de regards, allumé, entouré de`visages, de lèvres, de joues, de bras, de genoux, de seins, lancé et rejeté comme une vague au rythme de la musique. »
(Herman Hesse, « Der Steppenwolf », also quoted in an email I received.)
Did I succeed in making a 50-minute radio play without saying absolutely anything? Or am I just giving a precise as possible account of some semi-hidden but nevertheless pre-existing events? Sometimes I felt like a mere compiler, managing the fragments and the feedback, and having them unfold and reveal themselves with no further intervention. I allowed them to show their inner connections without doing much else. Other times, I felt like an intentional facilitator, allowing images, phrase constellations and sequences of sounds to connect and solidify in my imagination according to my poetic sensibility. Once again, I had created a piece based on the principle of Stille Post, i.e., by mirroring and filtering my message through other people, other ears, other bodies. Apparently I cannot just sing my song – I have to send it through this chain of misunderstandings and pretend not to be the singer. But still, I am striving to create. To sing. To tell.
I am not safe inside this story, and yet, I want it to have something to do with me.
Berlin, July 4, 2009.