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.
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.
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.