After acquiring a portable tape recorder with a built-in radio in 2006, Aki Onda’s cassette memory archive gained a new category. Thereafter he made a ritual of listening to the radio late at night whenever he was traveling, capturing interesting moments on tape, especially those where he was able to receive multiple signals simultaneously. Transmissions From The Radio Midnight consists of two compositions, straightforwardly “Part I” and “Part II,” drawn from Onda’s favorite selections from this archive. As with his Cassette Memory series, Onda waited until he had amassed a wide enough collection, and gained some distance, before selecting his favorite moments and collaging them together. Absent any signal processing, manipulation, or layering, the cadence of voices in different languages blend with static and noise, what Onda aptly describes as “something akin to sound poetry.”
All too often radio gets left out of conversations about new media, seemingly relegated to an earlier era despite continuing to claim audiences larger than that of social media. The impact of radio is especially significant in the origin stories of many artists. Both communal and intimate, radio can be a source of comfort and discovery. It transcends physical boundaries while remaining rooted in a particular place. Luc Ferrari attributed his education in contemporary composition to the radio, first coming across by chance as a ten year old dial surfer, Honegger’s Pacific 231, a composition that recalls the mechanical rhythms of a steam train. “It’s strange to have as one’s first musical memory an orchestral music imitating noise.” But even without Pacific 231, there’s always something of the machine in radio, in the apparatus of the radio receiver and in the waves of static.
Modern ways of hearing began with the radio, so it’s no surprise to find radios and radio stations as decisive influences across the history of 20th century music. Pierre Schaeffer famously developed a style of composition known as musique concrète, manipulating vinyl recordings of trains and other sounds contained in his French radio studio in 1948. He coined the term radiophonic to describe how the use of such sonic abstractions had gone beyond the conventions of standard genres of radio play or documentary. Radio broadcast established itself as a unique mode of performance, not just for the performer but in freeing listeners from the constraints of the stage. It was on live radio that John Oswald, originator of plunderphonics, had the epiphany that he could play multiple records at once, and that there was something creative in juxtaposition and montage. And where would Negativland be without Don Joyce‘s long running radio show, Over the Edge? Others turned to radio as a source of samples. Can’s Holger Czukay collaged Canaxis (1969) out of tapes of shortwave radio. Aki Onda himself describes coming across the Art Ensemble Of Chicago while listening to late night radio in Japan as a teenager in the 1980s as a formative experience.
And that’s to say nothing of all the artists who were inspired simply by turning the dial on the radio, imaging new sounds as much as discovering them. Not all experimentation with radio needs to happen in its production. Reception can be active, too. “Radio is a mysterious object.” In a thoroughly deterritorialized world, the medium of radio remains stubbornly local, talk radio in particular. Transmissions From The Radio Midnight largely eschews music, instead focusing on the human voice. Listening can be an act of composition, and the repetition of voices without understanding the meaning affords new modes of listening beyond the semantic.
Some of the material on this LP had previously been released on tape in 2013 as Voice Studies 17. Onda took the opportunity in 2022 to rework that material, adding previously unheard recordings and those made since the release of that tape. Being frozen on wax makes the work feel more fixed, the tape quality of the recording less ambiguous. Thus free to listen to the sounds without distraction, even the steady change in language ensures that most any listener will understand little of what’s being said. This differentiates Transmissions From The Radio Midnight from the radio collage of Sublime Frequencies’ Radio compilations (Java, India, Palestine, etc), which maintain a focus on a single country. In weaving together recordings made in different places, Transmissions doesn’t have to attempt to represent anywhere in particular, and instead invites the listener to get lost.
New York-based Aki Onda is a multifaceted artist who began as a photographer and textile artist, becoming a field recordist, cassette musician, performer, composer, and improviser. His collaborators include Akio Suzuki, Annea Lockwood, Paul Clipson, Alan Licht and Michael Snow. (I first encountered him through his cassette remix for the post-rock band Mono, on their New York Soundscapes (2004), which was surprisingly minimal and used field recording in a way I’d never heard before.) He has long performed cassette concerts, mixing and manipulating recordings he’d taped throughout his world travels. Onda’s titles are often quite straightforward and unpoetic, and yet conceptually rich all the same. Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking To Me. Un petit tour. A Method To Its Messiness. His performances are always unique and site-specific, whether he is manipulating portable cassette players and effects pedals or bouncing marbles around the hallways of a museum. Onda channels the memories of the location he’s in at least as much as those captured in his tapes.
Transmissions From The Radio Midnight has a similar feeling to Onda’s Cassette Memories series, but the source material is restricted. As a result, the recordings have something in common, and the texture of radio pervades the LP. Onda never rests on one recording for long, keeping the record dynamic and engaging, and often literally disorienting. Michael Snow’s Two Radio Solos remains a touchpoint for Onda’s approach to radio, and while the end results are very different, Onda’s description of Snow’s work applies equally to his own: “The compositions collaged the frequencies from different corners of the globe, and that was maximising a characteristic of the medium.”
Since Onda acquired the Sony TCM F59 at a point in his career where he was traveling widely as an artist and curator, its portability and built-in radio seems to have manifested the ritual of late night listening abroad, and thus is an important agent in the creation of this record. We hear Swedish, Arabic, Spanish, Polish, French, Korean, and some English, too. The portable cassette recorder functions as a diary of sounds, and while memories can be linked to a particular place and time, listening to recordings divorced from their origin frees the listener to form new associations. For Onda as much as Snow, “radio was a tool for expanding… aural imagination rather than for investigating the usual vocabularies in any pre-existing genre.”
Years ago, when visiting a small village in the Dominican Republic in the mountains along the Haitian border, a brownout left me confronted with the darkest sky and brightest stars I’d ever seen in my life. Walking in the dark, before long my friend and I heard a man listening to a small radio, and I felt as if I’d been transported into the future. “The sense of magic remains.” Transmissions From The Radio Midnight captures that feeling of mystery, demonstrating that even old media can still surprise us. (Joseph Sannicandro)