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Making music with grandpa's old gadgets

Is the telegraph an old, dusty device? Absolutely not. Back in the days it was used as an old telecommunications system. Fast forward to today, and the device can serve an artistic purpose. Gregory Markus, project leader of RE:VIVE (a Sound and Vision initiative), explains how the telegraph can be used to make electronic music nowadays.

Lori Napoleon makes music using telecommunications. Still from 'Intercept Tone/Vacant Level by Lori Napoleon (NYEAF 2013)' (HARVESTWORKS - Digital Media Arts Center, YouTube)

On 9 April 1877, American inventor Elisha Gray presented, Music by Telegraph, at Lincoln Hall in Washington D.C.. For the first time, music played hundreds of miles away on Gray’s musical telegraph was broadcasted to a room full of curious audience members. The review from the National Republican read, “At the conclusion of the exhibition the judgment of all present was highly flattering to what may yet be numbered among the greatest inventions of modern times.” Translated to modern language: it killed. Almost 141 years later, electronic musician Lori Napoleon aka Antenes debuted her performance Telegraph Music at Korzo Theater in The Hague during Rewire Festival, reconnecting the once intertwined world of telecommunications and electronic music.

Lori Napoleon performs her experimental work ''Intercept Tone/Vacant Level'' op het New York Electronic Art Festival 2013. Bron: HARVESTWORKS - Digital Media Arts Center (YouTube).

Telecommunication and electronic music

Produced by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision’s RE:VIVE initiative, Telegraph Music explores how electrical telegraphy – i.e. the transmission of textual or symbolic messages without the physical exchange of an object bearing the message – can be integrated into electronic music composition, exploring new possibilities for the transmission of thoughts and ideas while reuniting electronic music with its telecommunications heritage.

The intersection of communication devices and music, more specifically, electronic music, goes back longer than we might think. In 1823, English electrical engineer Francis Ronalds published Descriptions of an Electrical Telegraph and of some other Electrical Apparatus, setting into motion the technological revolution for information transmission and receival. Ronalds wasn’t alone in his breakthrough. Volta, Ohm, Franklin, Ampère, Faraday, Bell, Edison, Hertz, and Tesla, all added the necessary building blocks to get electronic music where it is today. Inspect any schematics for synths, amps, computers, mixers. They all exist because of these great innovators.

For Lori Napoleon, this connection became very apparent several years ago in Michigan, she writes: “Within its quiet walls stood the town's telephone exchange. There, alone and in awe, I found that the elaborate banks of switches, rows of patch bays, and cloth cables bore a striking resemblance to the some of the first synthesisers which I had been recently experimenting with, such as the Buchla 100. This moment sparked the desire to breathe new life into this long-silenced apparatus and explore where switchboard operation and musical synthesis overlap.”

The result from this eye opening trip resulted in Lori’s project, The Exchange, in which she saved and revived old telephone equipment into her very own modular synthesisers and analog sequencers.

Samples from the sample package by RE:VIVE.

RE:VIVE

Last year at Rewire 2017, RE:VIVE ran a workshop on re-sampling the sounds of The Hague. The sample pack provided to participants was composed of archival sounds and films from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. Within that sample pack was the seed that led to Antenes’ Telegraph Music commission.

The Hague is one of the most important radio and telecommunications hubs of The Netherlands. Not only is the headquarters of Dutch telecomms behemoth KPN in The Hague, but so was the ever important Scheveningen Radio, an outpost on the coast that connected ships in the rough North Sea with the mainland. As well, Hanso Idzerda broadcast the first Dutch public radio broadcast from The Hague on 6 November, 1919 at 20:00, using his homemade radio sender making history as the first commercial radio broadcast ever.

The key sample was just a few second of beeping morse code that opened up a new world of possibilities.

The old Dutch news channel celebrates the 100th anniversary of the telegraph and shows how it works. Polygoon Hollands Nieuws. 28-7-1952.

''Online'' community

It’s worth understanding that telegraphs and morse and the ladies and gentlemen that lived on these wires actually lived on these wires no different than we live online today. In his 1994 book, The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage writes, “collectively, the world's telegraphers represented an online community encompassing thousands of people, very few of whom ever met face-to-face.” Operator’s morse transmissions were, to trained ears, as distinct as human voices. Bored operators would gossip and chat just like anyone would today with their cell phone. They even played checkers against one another over the wires. Romances were born online and instances of this are well documented (see: Ella Cheever Thayer’s Wired Love). It’s with this knowledge – that telegraphs and morse weren’t strictly just for business and meteorological reports – that the idea behind Telegraph Music began to unfold.

During the process of developing Telegraph Music RE:VIVE and Antenes worked with members from the Radio Holland Heritage Foundation and ex-radio operator Bernard Grijpstra, who gave us a first hand look into their worlds. Their tales were like those of those internet pioneers and phreakers. Morse code was more than just a code, it was a musical language and something special they all shared. More surprisingly though was that due to the volatility of communicating over FM waves radio operators were keenly aware of climatology, meteorology and even the impact of solar flares on the earth’s atmosphere. Like the caricature of a Native American putting their ear to the ground listening for buffalo, telegraph operators could feel in the air any interferences that would affect their transmissions.

These personal experiences and circumstances which surrounded the lives of radio and telegraph operators quickly changed the project of Telegraph Music from a technical exploration into a celebration of how wires and circuits impact us as humans and how the tools whether they be a telegraph or synth allow us to open new doors and reach out into the unknown, invisible and distant realities.

On 8 April, Antenes positioned herself and her one-of-a-kind modular rig on the receiving end of a newly re-engineered telegraph key, flanked by Bernard Grijpstra operating the telegraph key with a stack of messages delivered by the audience and Dara Smith who managed visual accompaniments. Together they turned these personal words into music and filled Korzo Theater with swirling ideas and emotions.

Telegraph Music is an ongoing project with more to come in 2018. Stay tuned.

If you’d like to integrate morse code into your own music or creative projects you can download a sample pack of freely reusable morse code recordings from RE:VIVE here.

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