John Duncanís experimental music: an oasis of disturbance
"The ear knows how to lose track." -- Michel Serres
The ear attends to its distraction, is distracted by its attention. Erring amid the distant glitter of asperities and aspersions, it seeks out a port of call, however unfamiliar, only to discover that the more stable such reference points appear, the more they are in the end like obstacles, interference in the desire for what lies beyond their shores, unmoored, farther out. An unspeakable frisson in losing contact, sucked back into the heave and surge of roiled surf, lured by half-drowned voices and alien storms. Such are the pleasures of listening to (or playing) the shortwave band. And yet at the same time there is the nagging feeling that one is constrained to abandon each passing citadel of sense, already under siege and crumbling at the edges, to move on like an aural refugee, and that what appeared to be desire was nothing more than a tactical reversal of impending loss. Time in its autophagy.
Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event. This is what technology does. It peels back the shadows and redeems the dazed and rambling past. It makes reality come true.
Don DeLillo in his novel Underworld defines what has become a predominant feature of much contemporary art practice, which bereft of a meaningful 'event' horizon seems to have turned to a metaphysics of the real, seeking the 'soul' of phenomena no longer in some platonic beyond, but within the very cracks and folds of their proteiform im/materiality. In a recent work, Phantom Broadcast, one of a number of pieces he has made using shortwave transmissions, sound artist John Duncan sampled a single broadcast of a utility signal which he then subjected to a number of digital processes that tampered with its physical structure, reconfiguring the original source as an imperceptibly shifting soundfield of virtual projections and spectral voices: an inner beyond. From the insistent bell-like clamour of its opening, Phantom Broadcast proceeds by a series of phenomenological 'resurgences', with each successive modulation in the soundís shape already gestating in the womb of its passing present. The metallic bells smear into a distant, unearthly choral haze which after several minutes is swept up in a jet-engine like glissando that on closer inspection results to be an anamorphically time-stretched human voice mouthing some indecipherable phrase (the only 'foreign' body in the work). Throughout the discís 47 minute duration a single, shimmering, ecstatic note appears to be 'held' suspended in, and suspending time, producing an unresolved tension between flux and stasis, identity and multiplicity. Most remarkably, no matter how loud one plays it, Phantom Broadcast appears to retreat from hearing like an aural hallucination, a fringeless cloud that drifts tantalizingly out of reach, lost in its own inner distances. 'Our nature lies in movement', says Pascal, 'complete calm is death'. Duncanís work moves beyond this dialectic to suggest a subtler more involutive sense of being in time: an oasis of disturbance.
American artist John Duncan schooled himself in the shock tactics of Viennese aktionism, before becoming fully immersed in exploring the sound properties of phenomena ranging from particle accelerators to suboceanic tidal currents, and the psychic states they produce. Phantom Broadcast, the most recent of Duncan's works using shortwave radio, transforms a recording of a utility signal, made in Sweden, into a sprawling 'choral' work of tonal minimalism that hovers around the key of E major before modulating imperceptibly to B major, a process repeated several times over the piece's 47 minute duration.
Graeme Thomson, Cluster
At one point in an artist's life there's a sort of revelation, something telling him all the routes took so far have finally fused in a single course, lightened by a "north star" indicating all his next choices and moves. In John Duncan's case, I feel his continuing exploration of frequencies' manifestations has lately yielded a music that reaches a calm detachment, even when emotionally charged at its most. Now, what do I hear in the 47 minutes of "PHANTOM BROADCAST"? The answer is: powerful harmony (both in musical and "inner self" sense), shifting orchestral chordal streams, a stretching tubular bell sound, male and female voices, a trembling cello in the realm of low notes, a couple of jet engines during a slow transit towards somewhere I could not figure out, a pumping, massive breathing by all human beings remaining alive despite ongoing tragedies; all in all, I felt wrapped in sound and protected. Were all these things really there? Of course not, as this record was made with modestly treated shortwaves only - just like that, but it's maybe one of the best, if not THE best among Duncan's "static" releases. I'm afraid I'm forever trapped in your radio frequency, John - but please don't show me the way out.
Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes
While attending Cal Arts in the mid '70s, John Duncan discovered the transient frequencies of shortwave, and made it his tool of choice in transferring his knowledge about the psychological implications for specific colors to the realm of sound construction. Instead of merely rehasing the Marshall McLuhan's 'medium is the message' tropes, Duncan's use of the shortwave is marked by his ability to transform the sound device into an externalization of profound (and sometimes disturbing) psychological states. Throughout his impressive back catalogue of recordings, the textural grit and grim electrical tonality of shortwave has repeatedly surfaced in any number of contexts, whether that be the poisonous aggression of RIVER IN FLAMES or the architectural hauntings of PALACE of MIND. The same can be said for this album, as Duncan used nothing but a single shortwave transmission augmented by minimal amount of processing in composing the 47 minutes found within PHANTOM BROADCAST. Instead of the darkened references mentioned earlier, Duncan has extracted a sublimely powerful and uniquely transcendent series of sounds from what is just a utility signal containing something banal like air traffic controller data but could be something sort of shadowy like a RTTY radioteletype (a fairly sophisticated form of encryption; although not impossible to crack like Numbers Stations). These electrical sounds -- originally noxious striations of aural code -- have been smeared into quasi-harmonic, gaseous states and articulated as gasping reverberating drones. Right from the beginning of the album, these sounds do appear as from shortwave but as an epic piece of '60s Minimalism or Ligeti choral and caralon composition. Such references do not disappear over the "Phantom Broadcast" composition as organic cycles and fluctuations move throughout. It's simply breathtaking and beautiful. While there were a number of great albums in 2002, Duncan's "Phantom Broadcast" is firmly planted at the top of my list for record of the year.
Jim Haynes, Aquarius Records
Rises up like the morning bell of a cold sun, mid-ring, shimmering in a smog-thick sky, with menacing string sections rubbing at the edges of its heavenly shape. The light is almost a ghost, barely present through the haze, that globe almost indiscernible. Neither rising nor setting, the piece just is this immovable whole that hovers and simmers. Comprised of a single, captured shortwave transmission, this is a hypnotic, airborne entity, barely processed by John Duncan. Compared to the act of automatic writing, this is a spontaneous recording, a singular moment in the ether, elucidated here in such a way so as to make like the sun, and at the same time, like a similarly shaped hole that emits such radiation through. Spherical object or spatial rupture? Regardless, its plasma quivers with the divine.
Andy Beta, Incursion.org
In sound art, there often is a discrepancy -- intentional or not -- between what the artist explains and what the listener hears. In many cases, there resides the main interest of a work. PHANTOM BROADCAST follows that path. John Duncan reveals in the press release that the piece consists of a single shortwave transmission, recorded and processed with minimal modifications. Surfing the shortwave band, you can hear an amazing range of broadcasts and utterly strange sounds in-between frequencies. Yet, what goes on in PHANTOM BROADCAST is difficult to associate with the shortwave realm. First, the piece sounds completely clean, not at all like a received signal. Second, its persistent soft drones and slow-changing textures, as beautiful and striking they can be, don't relate to the world of radio. Duncan may have filtered out more of the original signal than he discloses, in order to reveal these sounds -- a bit like Konstantin Raudive used to filter and amplify radio signals as he looked for the voices of the dead. The piece sounds closer to the works of Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren (who do like to dress up their works in hoax concepts) than to a transmission, but in the end all that matters little. The piece works. Its shimmering textures and gently fading drones inhabit the room when played back on loudspeakers, enrapturing the listener. It is not as strong and unforgettable a feeling as with PALACE of MIND, but still worth investigating.
François Couture, All Music Guide
The shortwave radio spectrum is dappled with anomalous crackled repetitions, pulsed datastream grit, and other synthetic transmissions of encrypted information. Far less sensational than the thoroughly disturbing phenomenon of numbers stations, these strange sounds are often referred to as utility signals, as they may be used to transmit information from remote weather stations, specify GPS co-ordinants, or communicate between air traffic controllers. Yet, without the proper equipment to translate and analyze these broadcasts, utility signals are unintelligible garblings that leave their origin, recipient, and meaning up to the listener's wild speculations.
Throughout his career, sound artist John Duncan has often manipulated shortwave radio broadcasts (especially these utility signals) in order to exacerbate the psychological condition which renders the unreadable other as alien, antagonistic, conspiratorial, and haunted. However, his recent investigations into the chromatics of shortwave have taken a noticeable conceptual turn away from confrontationalism and towards an electronic transcendentalism, where Duncan has replaced fear of not knowing with the recognition of the potential for beauty to emerge from such sounds.
Duncan composed PHANTOM BROADCAST from a single shortwave transmission, not giving any specifics as to its nature because they were neither clear nor relevant. As with all of his shortwave explorations, he has announced that he has worked on PHANTOM BROADCAST mostly through contextualization rather than electronic signal processing (although some reverb and downpitching are self-evident). This is a little hard to believe as the album opens with a magnificent ringing that appears less as radio noise telegraphy and more as a heavenly choir of baritone vocalists modulating between a small range of sustained notes behind an equally endless metallic bell tone. Throughout the 48 minute piece, Duncan unveils gradual shifts appearing as reverberating masses of air that elegantly rise and fall with an occasion flickerings around the edges. PHANTOM BROADCAST should stand as one of Duncan's greatest pieces, rendered as a majestic reflection of the Minimalist orchestral timbres found in Ligeti's Lux Aeterna.
As seen in the collaboration with the classically trained German ensemble Zeitkratzer, Duncan has speculated that his work may be shifting beyond the scope of electronic composition and towards chorale productions. Judging from this successful transformation of shortwave into such a production, his future as a composer looks bright. My vote for best record of 2002.
Jim Haynes, The Wire January 2003
Following the records made in collaboration with Francisco López and the instrumental ensemble Zeitkratzer, John Duncan returns to solo work and to exploring further the sound source he's always preferred, shortwave. We know nothing about the actual radio transmission that Duncan picked up on 18 April 2002 in the course of a single recording that gave life to this work. Only shadows remain, taking on the aspect of bells, resonating into infinity, together with reverberations and apparent choruses that stretch into emptiness. In some sections it seems as if you're listening to the ghost of a choral composition, a complex construction cut off from our senses with only a reflection given to savor, which alternately thins out and becomes dense, almost like breath. Duncan's ability to accumulate tension and energy is striking, even without dramatic passages or resolutions; PHANTOM BROADCAST could be read as a paradoxical, infinite extension of a single climactic moment, because the climax itself has force and incisiveness, unravelling in an infinite series of declinations and minimal tonal variations. The use of sounds trouvé (the reference to Surrealism is taken from Duncan himself, who compares this work to a process of automatic writing) seems to urge us to explore that which passes by us instead of ignoring it, and with extreme delicacy manages to discover folds of irridescent sound. (7)
Daniela Cascella, Blow Up January 2003
people who know absurd for long know my love for some certain people & their work, especially john duncan who recently issued a new masterpiece under the title "phantom broadcast" which was actually the title of the same titled performance he handled last september at fylkingen, stockholm. constructed using shortwave solely and within one day, as a kind of "automatic writing" as john mentions this one is one of his most thrilling works. where the recent releases of the last few years such as "tap internal", "phantom broadcast" were showing a more constructed, subtle & unique face of his, or the recent "fresh" collaboration with zeitktratzer showed us his work under a "composer's" disguise let's say, "phantom broadcast" is a total blast that reminds his earlier works, at times am having the feeling that am listening to a more frenzy & intense, noisy version of "river in flames" or a more "ambient" version of "riot". the other stuff that comes in mind upon hearing it is only recordings of the minimalists of the 60's, or the more "rock" oriented version of them (such as recordings of angus maclise, john cale, etc), as regarding its construction and sound, is minimalistic (not "minimal") and blasts you since its very first second to let you after nearly 50 minutes in a trance like state w/ your brain totally burned (& traveling), AN AMAZING MASTERPIECE!
Nicolas Malesitsis, Absurd