A little bird told me…


Some news from the Uhrwald, where cuckoos nest at night: I’m very pleased and honoured to have been awarded second place in the Prix Palma Ars Acoustica 2014 for Collecting Clocks and Losing Time (2013), a feature-length radio art composition created in 5.1 surround sound for ORF Kunstradio, on the Austrian national public radio.

Collecting Clocks and Losing Time is part of a body work I’ve been developing over the past four years of iterative experiments with radio and timekeeping, and includes Studio Time (2013), 5 Times (less a hundred) (2012), Measure the time taken (2011), For the time being (2010), and the ongoing project Zero Hour. This piece has some special emotional resonance for me, as it was composed around recordings of my late father’s cuckoo clocks, one of which was broken in such a way as to eternally cuckoo until the escapement runs out. In addition to the individual eccentricities of these clocks, the work features manipulations of the atomic clock, or coordinated universal time as broadcast globally on shortwave frequencies. It would be fair to say I’ve been obsessed with broadcast time since the mid-1990s, and since making Collecting Clocks and Losing Time, I have continued my focused manipulations of clocks in longer form works for overnight broadcast, particularly the 5-hour work Uncoordinated Universal Time (2014).

Collecting Clocks and Losing Time


I have a new radio art/work premiering this weekend: Collecting Clocks and Losing Timemade in 5.1 and stereo (2012-2013),  44:00. It premieres on Sunday, 8. December, 2013, at 23:03 CET or GMT +1, on ORF Kunstradio, Vienna, Austria. If you’re in Austria, tune in live to Ö1 on the radio to hear it in 5.1 or stereo, or stream from their website. You can also listen to the archived (but lower-quality) mp3 stream on Kunstradio any time after.

Developed as part of a suite of iterations about radio and timekeeping (includes the broadcast and performance work For the time being (2010), the compositions Measure the time taken (2012), and the installations 5 Times (less a hundred) (2012), and Studio Time (2013).

The first version of Collecting Clocks and Losing Time premiered at the Tsonami Festival de Arte Sonoro in Valparaiso, Chile, on November 26, 2012, and was then performed in 8 channels at the Deep Wireless Festival of Radio and Transmission Art in Toronto, May 2013. The present 5.1 version of the piece, which premieres on ORF Kunstradio, is the final version of this cycle.

Here’s the description, which, though cryptic, is really what it’s all about:

An aural expedition across zones of hard and soft time, to where cuckoos nest and errant robotniks bungle the machinery of atomic time.

Once upon a time there was a house in the countryside which housed a hundred clocks. Once upon a time the clocks in every home ran on their own time, and all the trains and hotels and shops counted their own time. One day time was made universal, divided into zones, and propagated around the globe. One day microwaves were fired at a cesium-12 isotope, and the rate of electron loss dictated the most standard time of all. Still there were digital devices that did not understand which time zone they lived in. Still the clocks slowed, dragging the seconds and minutes and hours behind them. Still everyone was late.

My father collected cuckoo clocks, which I inherited when he died. He left 5 clocks behind. Once upon a time there were 26. I have come to learn that there are much larger clock collections than this. I have also learned that coordinated universal time is a legend told among the cuckoos in the clock forest on a rainy night.

Recorded in Vancouver and Chicago.
Mixed in 5.1 at Ö1 studios, Vienna, Austria.  Martin Leitner, teknik.

Tuner, live on Kunstradio

Sunday, December 4, 2011, 23h (GMT+1)

I’ll be performing live in the studios of ORF Kunstradio, the long-running radio art program heard weekly on Ö1, the cultural channel of Austria’s national public radio. The live stream will connect from the home page here, and the show will be documented and streamable afterwards from the show page here.

It’s a brand new series of studies on radio and timekeeping, called Tuner:

A radio receiver, designed for mass production and consumption, invites a small narrative reflecting some aspect of radio’s changing cultural reference over the past century: I am the future, I am mobile, I am young, I am a connection with the world, I am a safety precaution, I am cheap, I am common, I am invisible, I am obsolete. Likewise, the graphic design of each dial represents an ideology of the radio spectrum, proposing time in frequency, and space in territory. Some dials are linear, filled with the names of cities, while other dials are perfectly round, referencing radar and precisely regulated atomic time.

Tuner is a suite of short pieces, performed live, which uses the graphical design of radio dials as music and event scores. Radios have been used as instruments and played in works such as George Brecht’s “Candle Piece for Radios” (1959), and offer a strong element of indeterminacy to brief performative moments. What will a radio reveal when used to generate the score itself?

Acting as frame and theme for this round of Tuner pieces is a sample from WWV,  a station devoted to broadcasting time signals since 1923, and Coordinated Universal Time (Greenwich Mean) since 1967. Based in Fort Collins Colorado, near the laboratories that maintain the U.S. national standards of time and frequencies, WWV currently broadcasts time according to a cesium atomic clock, or time as dictated by the regular decay of the isotope cesium-133.

This time around I have chosen to interpret the dials or tuner plates of one vacuum tube radio (1953) and two transistor radios (mid 1960s) as scores. Not accidentally, these radios are products of the post-war economy, whose design promises precision, safety, and a little technical sophistication for the domestic sphere. The pieces I will perform based on these dials are improvised studies contributing to a larger body of work on radio and timekeeping, so for this set of works I read and interpret the radio dials as referring to frequency, or, the rate of something happening.

But even against the precision of atomic time, events wander away from regularity, and musicality is hiding both in the accompanying tones and in the landscape of static which threaten to consume all sonic details at any time. How to read the radio dial? Someone is counting, someone is keeping score: something happens, and then something happens.

I won’t be using the beautiful Hallicrafters radio dial (shown above) in this set of pieces–but it’s my next project in the series. I love the shortwave radios with the names of cities and countries; I especially love the incongruence of “USSR” and “Edmonton” placed cheek to cheek on the dial. That dial is a symphony of craziness to decode, though, and I’m maybe not up for doing that one live yet. I’ve opted instead for simpler numeric dials for the first time out, but chosen ones which are still demonstrative of Cold War/atomic era wireless architecture.

This work supported by a post-doctoral fellowship from Fonds de recherche sur la société et la culture Québec.