Sound Train

Sound Train was a live pirate soundscape broadcast on 14th February, 2012, an activist take on soundscape which took place on a train journey between Canterbury and London, using a FM transmitter which was used to broadcast the internal soundscape of the train journey as it happened in real time, from the train to the surrounding area; a reach of approximately 17km was covered as the high speed train passed through the countryside. This was an unedited live soundscape with content that was mundane and everyday.

However, this ordinariness was ruptured as its very broadcast was a subversive and illegal performance act. I was interested in producing a soundscape work as a form of radio art. I wanted to explore radio art’s relationship to soundscape and was excited by the idea of soundscape compositions which have moved away from a static soundscape merely played on the radio to an expanded form which embraces and explore the particularities of the medium.

I wanted to examine and produce soundscape when it is produced as a form of radio art. My starting point was my case study, Hildegard Westerkamp, as discussed in Chapter Four. Her Sound Walking programme had allowed her to experiment with the recording of diverse sound environments and how she communicated with her listeners, engaging them and contextualising the environmental recordings via quietly spoken, soft, contemplative, intimate and meditative commentary. It was relatively unusual to hear environmental sounds or soundscapes on the radio at the time and, as she stated

This type of radio making presents the familiar as though artificial, through a loudspeaker, second hand, framed in space and time and therefore highlighted. Daily life is thus presented from a new acoustic angle. Such radio can assist us in listening to our everyday lives, to who we are as individuals and as a society. (Westerkamp, 1994: 90)

Her pioneering work helped to push forward new understandings of soundscape and many soundscape radio shows have followed in its wake, such as Framework, playing works of all durations. Since the 1970s, under the influence of Klaus Schöning, German producer, academic, curator and researcher from the Ars Acustica group, a vast array of Neu Hörspiel radio productions have been produced using soundscape that incorporates verbal ‘text or reportage’ (Iges, 2000). Ars Acustica and Kunstradio have been at the forefront of broadcasting and encouraging artists to develop real-time projects using new media technologies that can be understood as a form of ‘expanded radio art’ or ‘transmission art’. If radio art can be understood as an acoustic media art constantly shifting and evading fixed definition, then ‘transmission arts’ have been drawn from radio art’s expanded movement across media as a hybrid practice that seeks to address the particularities of transmission technologies and their effect on processes of mediation.

In direct contrast to the more high tech approaches of Locus Sonus, my own radio experiments examining soundscape through expanded radio practice have embraced an affordable, community-arts and low-tech approach; and a strong DIY ethos has driven my radio actions. Westerkamp stated ‘simply to broadcast environmental sound will not work for radio’ (1993) as context is crucial to reception of her work. Making explicit radio’s capacity to intervene in the temporal and spatial dynamics of everyday life, Chris Cutler’s year-long radio intervention Out of the Blue Radio (2003) – or the Hole in Time – was broadcast daily for one year from July 1st 2003 at the same time 23.30–00.00 on Resonance FM. 104.4 FM in London.

Each programme will consist of an unedited real-time recording of this slice of the day as heard through one person’s ears somewhere on the planet. All the recordings will be made in real time and not edited. All clock zones will be covered and as many geographical locations as possible. These broadcasts are not intended to be approached as conventional listening radio but more in the way of an open window. (Cutler, 2003)

This was an participatory project, but pre-recorded and aired in real time as an event specific to the FM medium. I wanted to play with this notion of soundscape and live radio and did so in an action drawing from Westerkamp’s notion of the radio’s framing device presenting the familiar as artificial. In this work, I sought to share, draw attention to and render uncanny the sounds of everyday travel. This unedited live soundscape aired in real time transmitting sound content that was mundane and every day, however this ‘ordinariness’ was ruptured as the very broadcast of the soundscape was a subversive and illegal art action act which made explicit the controlled environmental sounds of high speed travel. The action was mostly likely to have been experienced by the unwitting participants who may have briefly heard the broadcast as a form of radio interference as the train passed through their broadcast area.

This work can be understood as a reversal of Max Neuhaus’s first sound installation Drive In Music from 1967, a radio installation which used four radio transmitters installed at regular intervals along a road to broadcast seven sound components which were:

situated in spaces where the physical movement of the listener through the space to reach a destination is inherent. They imply an active role on the part of listeners, who set a static sound structure into motion for themselves by passing through it. (Neuhaus, n.d.)

Through a reversal of this transmission process as broadcast action, Sound Train still also allows people who chance upon the work (as was Neuhaus’ intention) ‘to find the works in their own time and on their own terms. Disguising them within their environments in such a way that people discovered them for themselves and took possession of them, lead by their curiosity into listening’(LaBelle, 2006. p.151). Sound Train can also be seen to draw upon the activist approach of German radio art collective LIGNA through broadcast actions which test the limits of the law and legal broadcast to public gatherings in privately owned public spaces. LIGNA use radio to create situations which draw attention to stratifications of power through their denaturalisation of perceptions of space.

Sound Train’s illegal transmission of soundscape draws attention to the control and ownership of time and space and how this is experienced on a phenomenological level. Broadcasting controlled transitory non space and making it the subject of the broadcast meant the journey itself became broadcast action which used the timetable of the trains journey as the fleeting points of reception and thus challenged excepted rules of broadcast and schedule. The space felt secure and sounded controlled but I was able to carry out my broadcast unnoticed, which gave a sense of freedom in defiance of the heightened security which seemed already to be looming in preparation for the imminent Olympics of that year. Through this work I made strange the often perceived dull soundscape of modern train travel through a live transmitted soundscape which crossed the boundaries between radio arts, transmission arts and soundscape and represented daily life from a new acoustic angle.

This was conducted as a radio action which happened in real time; appropriately, I discovered that the file of the recording had corrupted so no document remains. This auto destruction of the work means this fleeting live broadcast harks back to the original reception of radio and for me that completes the work as there is no trace.

I wanted to reflect on the idea of people in the future being able to broadcast on FM whatever they want, as they can do now on the web, to an unwitting audience who happen to tune in, bringing the Duchampian idea of chance into the work’s reception (instead of restricting that chance to its composition).Again there is a certain resonance with the declaration in the Kunstradio manifesto that ‘[t]he radio artist knows that there is no way to control the experience of a radio work.’(Adrian, 1998).