Volume 9/Issue 3
Let Us Lay on Splendid Nights
Wings of Eros, Birds of Prey
Way back in 1951, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard published an obscure little essay titled Radio and Reverie, a gentle manifesto that called for radio stations to hire creative radiomakers. These “psychic engineers” would venture forth into the logosphere and craft sublime soundscapes. Listeners would then experience deep reverie through acoustic immersion in nocturnal worlds of their own choice.
Bachelard writes: “Radio really does represent the total daily realization of the human psyche.” Thus the psychic engineer would enter into the daily flows of broadcast representation, to sound out and give voice to the prevailing spirit of the times, and to offer broadcasts that might bridge alienation while opening up an “axis of intimacy”. Through time, such sound bridges would serve to reconnect listeners, one by one, to the “power of the fantastic”.
Even though much of the rest of the essay becomes lost in somewhat misty ideas of archetypes and the unconscious, I love Bachelard’s conception of a psychic engineer because it implies a creative practice for radio that is as subtle and complex as the medium herself.
First, the idea stirs reflection upon the experience of Psyche, a mortal born with a beauty to rival that of Aphrodite. One day, she is carried away by Zephyr into a dark forest where, that same night, she will become the involuntary but not unwilling lover of Eros.
Aphrodite, wild with jealousy, attempts to put Psyche in her place by treating her as a lowly errand girl, and sending her on what Aphrodite hopes will be a terminal journey into the Underworld. Zeus eventually intervenes, and Psyche then joins that small group of humans who may take a place among the immortals, as wife to winged Eros. Psyche soon gives birth to a daughter, Voluptua, who is and does exactly as she sounds.
I sense the spirit of radio everywhere in Psyche’s story: in the capricious winds; in sparky frictions between erotic possession and the treacherous underworld; in the dull bass throb between mortality and eternity; in the time zone of Night, whose son is deadly Thanatos, who is himself the twin of Sleep; and in the birth of sensual delight, because the art of radio gives nothing, and sustains nothing, and creates nothing, unless it can deliver significant jolts of pleasure along the way. Psyche demands it!
Every Radiocast Cuts Both Ways
The word “engineer” in this context is equally as suggestive, as it descends from the Latin ingenium, a term that invokes both pure mental power and its pragmatic application to the world. Alas, the first engineers were more concerned with crushing heads than with stimulating the imagination. Their first engines were weapons such as ballistas and trebuchets, designed to launch hard and heavy projectiles into or over the walls of cities under siege.
Sometimes, the invading army would hurl rotting corpses into the cities. These were intended to spread disease among the citizens, giving us an early and perversely ingenious incidence of biological warfare.
Radio would seem fully present in this image as well, since the illuminative promise of ingenuity mixes inside every wave with the power of oblivion. For every broadcast that heals wounds and creates community, there is another that foments violence and hatred as shock jocks lob rotting copses into the midst of their grunting mobs, not to infect them, but to feed their rage.
Anyone setting out to make something within the medium must be alert to these crosscurrents, for radiophonic space is as complex and contradictory as the human psyche; one twitch of the finger, and the radio of benevolent community mutates, or mutilates, into a radio of command, control and dispersion. How could it be otherwise, in a medium that gives voice to ubiquity, and a powerful pulse to thin air, vibrations that seem to resonate and replicate with the voices of the gods?
The primal potency of such air born resonance has not been lost on those who fabricate ever more ingenious engines of destruction in the present. Sound waves have been weaponized in a variety of forms, each designed to mess with the psyches of designated adversaries, and eventually to debone them, in every sense of the joint.
One might well imagine an ultimate weapon in the final stages of development in some dark corner of the Pentagon — code name: Joshua. When the word “glory” is transmitted at the proper infrasonic frequencies by the weapon Joshua, a simulacrum of the Voice of God (VOG) explodes onto the battlefield. Exposed psyches collapse into the sucking black hole created by deep vibrations, and the bones of warriors and citizens alike are instantly transformed into jelly.
Sad Songs From Severed Heads
What about casting Orpheus as the prototype for a radiophonic psychic engineer? Orpheus, whose voice and lyre, an ancient acoustic engine invented by Hermes, could reshape the landscape by changing the course of rivers, and by luring trees and stones into nocturnal dances. Even the hardened hearts of the immortals were moved by his song.
Like Psyche, Orpheus survived his journeys through the Underworld, protected, it seems, by the resplendent tonal quality of his resonating chambers. As companion to Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus served as a sort of sound cancellation machine, neutralizing the dangerous transmissions from the island of the Sirens, who, like so many radios, promised wisdom and delivered oblivion.
Later, Orpheus, his own psyche severely damaged by the loss of his beloved Eurydice, refuses to sing in praise of Dionysus. During the frenzied climax of a Bacchic ritual, a Thracian girl gang known as The Maenads tear off his head, and toss it in the river, together with his lyre.
The head continues to sing as it floats down river to the island of Lesbos, where it was pulled from the water by another girl gang, The Nymphs. They place the head at the center of a shrine, where I would like to imagine it still sings, at least when the wind is right.
A few years ago, with Orpheus in mind, I imagined and then documented an exclusive social club in New England, founded during a Gilded Age previous to the one that has recently imploded. In the course of excavating for the club house, workmen had unearthed two buried Mohawk skulls. During the summer season, these skulls, given the nonsense nicknames “Mahkenoose” and “Pompynoose”, were placed upon the end stakes of the croquet court, a macabre trophy tradition that was then passed down from one generation to the next.
When players strike the stakes with their balls, they shout out the names of the two skulls, to the great amusement of those watching from the veranda. When such sounds float through the late summer evenings of this elegant nihilism, my psyche longs for Orphic narcosis.
Why American Noir Is So Fantastic
In 1962, when nobody except his own parents had ever heard of Jean Baudrillard, Daniel Boorstin, who would later become head librarian for the Library of Congress, and could never be mistaken for a fashionable theorist of the simulacrum, wrote that “the American lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, the solace of belief in the contrived reality is so thoroughly real.”
I have inhabited the Grand American Delusion for my entire life: a country where evidence is routinely fabricated to justify grave and frequently lethal actions by corporations and governments; where private and public securities are exposed as elaborate Ponzi schemes; where public discourse and reportage become ever more subordinate to entertainment and obfuscation; where everybody is a star in their very own reality TV show; and where any idea of transparency begins to sound quaint, which was, as you recall, the same word used by a former United States Attorney General, regarding the provisions of the Geneva Convention as they pertain to prisoners of war.
The fact is, in order to build our perpetually shining City On A Hill, we have created one bewildering blood bath after another, with the killing invariably executed in the name of God, for we are nothing if not righteous. That is our psychic core. What sort of radio casts forth from such a dark idealism? And what sort of radio casts forth when events force us, without warning, to face our bewilderment?
Consider the case of world famous hedge fund manager Sir Harry Hammersmith. In the summer of 2007, he announces a legacy gift of one billion dollars to his Alma Mater, an elite private college south of Boston called Plymouth Mather. He plans to deliver the fabulous gift in person, arriving by parachute to land at the dead center of the college quad.
Local dignitaries and the global media gather at the appointed hour. Harry does indeed fall from the sky, but there are a few little glitches: he has no parachute; he is stark naked; and he has no head. Within minutes of his body striking the turf, global markets crash, and the world plummets into the Greatest Depression. In this scenario, “pleasant iridescence” becomes terribly hard to come by, as you can hear in the voice of the Plymouth Mather president, Dr. Walter Woodworthy.
Night Birds Know How to Hunt
Returning to Bachelardian reverie, my favorite passage in the essay proposes “that if our psychic radio engineers are poets concerned for the welfare of humankind, tenderness of heart, the joy of loving, and love’s voluptuous trust, then they will lay on splendid nights for their listeners.”
Possibly I am so attracted to this idea because I first fell in love with radio during late solitary nights as a twelve year old boy, with a cheap transistor under my pillow and the great Allison Steele, the Night Bird, on the air. It could be that I was still unaware of the beauty of the medium and was simply in love with her voice, and her irresistible invitation, “come fly with me”. The Night Bird, whose splendid flights of fancy, delivered with cool precision along an axis of intimacy, provided welcome adventures for my adolescent ears.
In 2003, partially in homage to my first encounters with a quietly seductive disembody, I imagined a young psychic engineer from New England. She spends time as an intern at WGBH, but soon becomes frustrated by the byzantine rules of a game she neither anticipated nor wanted to play. So she packs her bags and heads out west, where she starts a one person low power pirate station called WDOA, in the naked state of Nevada, the W and her pronunciation of “Nevada” emblems of her stubbornly rhizomatic New England roots.
Her name is Ava Ravenella, The Hungry Raven, live to air on WDOA: Dead On Arrival, Deserts Of America, Degenerate Or Artful? The choice is yours along Route Five Zero, as Ava flies into the tense borderlands of the American psyche, over and out into the desert night, a flight that swoops down into the final verse of The Loneliest Road theme song, as performed by The Books, who are themselves remarkable psychic engineers:
A Hungry Raven in the sky
an injured rabbit, slow to die
Bones piled in the sun
America has all the fun
Note on sources:
The Bachelard essay is included in his book, The Right to Dream. For more about the power of the fantastic, find a copy of the extraordinary little book by Allen S. Weiss, Phantasmic Radio. The audio excerpts are from Bring Me The Head of Philip K. Dick (2009); Project Jericho (2005), produced in collaboration with Mark Burman; The Club (2006); The Day King Hammer Fell From the Sky (2008);The Loneliest Road (2003).
For all its endless talk of diversity and innovation, public radio has become shamefully monotonous. Intellectual, aesthetic and artistic standards are painfully (embarrassingly) low, while egos and political ambition have become paramount. Here where I live, the regional public broadcaster (Northeast Public Radio) has permitted itself to be nailed up into a soapbox for a self-righteous monomaniac, whose own ubiquitous whingy voice is surrounded by a shockingly dull array of fast food modules and formats, each one a weaker echo of the last. How did this perverse fate come to pass? Why do we let it continue?
The condition of our public spaces tells us very much about who we are as a society, and as a culture. At present in mid-2009, I believe all of our public spaces are in crisis, and indeed the very notions of “public good” and “public service” are under tremendous stress, and threatened with foreclosure. Without healthy public spaces, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to conjure credible ideas for the future. Without healthy public spaces, collective imagination shrivels and dies, and before you know it, we don’t know who we are, or where we came from, or where we’re going. In short: we’re lost.
At the risk of sounding like a man stuck in the desert trying to get his dead horse to suck water from a saguaro, I believe a first giant step towards bringing the public airwaves back into vibrancy would require an investment of a mere one percent of station revenues. One percent!
With that one percent, each participating station could hire an artist (or artists) in residence, charged with the task of creating moments of surprise, paradox, joy, provocation, trouble, resistance, celebration and wonder, not shunted away in the “art ghetto” on a sunday night, but featured throughout the schedule. I know that listeners are hungry (starved) for such moments, and would respond with strong support. I also know that there is abundant unused talent out there — literally hundreds of young (at any age) voices with training, ideas, passion, chops — and no place to take them. What a massive waste of potential and possibility!
Everyone would win through this very modest investment: listeners, stations, creative radiomakers and even corporate sponsors, who are desperate to seem hip, and “socially responsible” and “innovative”, and sometimes they even mean it. Why not offer them a chance to help celebrate the communicative possibilities of a medium still in relative artistic infancy?
In the years to come, we will need to re-imagine and reinvent the American dream: how we produce and consume food; how we transport ourselves through space; how we create and use energy; how we live. Somewhere in the mix will be public radio broadcasting, crying out for its own renaissance and rejuvenation.
It’s an exciting prospect, if we are brave enough to drill through the darkly encrusted cynicism and face the future with open ears and open hearts, in the spirit of “love’s voluptuous trust”.
About Gregory Whitehead
Gregory Whitehead is the creator of radio plays, documentary essays, voiceworks, castaways, soundscapes and acoustic adventures that have roamed the American psyche for the past twenty five years. He is the co-editor of Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-Garde, and the author of numerous essays that explore radio dramaturgy, poetics and philosophy. He is presently at work on a major project exploring voiced memories of the American dream, and on a number of plays for radio and live stage. For more information: Gregory Whitehead