Alien Soundtracks

Gary Steel tunes in to a transporting audio aberration that turns out to be a sonic solution.

Numbers station anonymity
Numbers station anonymity

I WAS DRIVING home in the rain listening to some glitch-hop on 95bFM when it happened. I started getting into the textures and rhythms of the vinyl crackle that permeated the sound spectrum, and which I felt added innumerably to the clinical clicking and hopping of the track, when on came the announcer. The rich textures of the vinyl crackle continued, and I thought: clever guy, he added the crackle to the track, and now he’s keeping it going because as far as he’s concerned, his announcement is part of you know, an artistic presentation, part of the creative act.

Deep listening
Deep listening

I’ve heard literally hundreds of records that use the sound of records to add to the atmosphere, so vinyl crackle is nothing new, but this was, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I noticed that the crackle was continuing through a segment of ads and onto a power pop song and then continued through a more conventionally alt-rock number, although by that time my attention was almost totally on the mesmerising sweep, the volcanic sweeping and surging, of the interference. And that’s of course what it was. I was driving in the rain in the middle of nowhere, reception was ropey at best, and it should have been obvious, because I always get annoying digital detritus when I’m driving through “the sticks”.

“It’s not some fat-necked sweating freak blowing up a storm on a saxophone.”

Guitar ejaculate
Guitar ejaculate

Except that this time, it wasn’t the standard digital shit flinging itself through the air of my economy vehicular transport, but a beautifully organic/digital synthesis that had me practically in a trance. Actually, I tell a lie. Trance is a stupid description for what was really a state of sublime deep listening, where you’re totally relaxed and also totally engaged with nothing but the intricacies and eventful modulations of the sounds percolating through the air and saying “hi, here’s something you can really get into so you don’t go mad with the omnipresent road noise and the burning hunger.”

It’s true, I was hungry, because somehow I’d missed lunch and I’m not good when I miss lunch, so it’s possible that I was just tripping on the lack of food. Possible, but not likely. The thing is, this experience in sound reminded me of exactly what it is I love about music, and it’s not some dude with a guitar or a fat-necked sweating freak blowing up a storm on a saxophone. In fact, I don’t even need a human interface to give my relationship with the universe of sound its meaning.

The experience also reminded me of a boxed set that became my de facto sonic transporter for about three years – an album called The Conet Project, which was a collection of mysterious transmissions from shortwave numbers stations. I guess these were nominally produced by human beings, but they were never intended as music, and their anonymity ensured that the listener approached the thing at face value. I didn’t have to picture some guy putting on the vinegar stroke face when he played an ejaculatory note on his geetar; instead, my auditory system sparked my brain into the domain of pure imagination, because there was nothing visual to hand that I could match with these strange, hallucinatory sounds.

“I didn’t have to picture some guy putting on the vinegar stroke face when he played an ejaculatory note on his geetar.”

Sweaty sax
Sweaty sax

I’m not saying that listening to humans play musical instruments sucks. I have thousands of CDs and LPs and digital files that argue the opposite. But I don’t need music to have human authorship to give it meaning, and most of the time, that bespoke tradition is just a fucking bore, an unnecessary code that actually inhibits the supposedly transporting effect of music.

It’s sound that’s great, and sometimes the way we organise it is great too, but it already exists, whether we want to manipulate it or not. You could argue that the minute we chanced across a system of radio transmission that allowed interference to make itself audible, we “created” a new sound medium.

I’m all for that. More on this later. GARY STEEL

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