2002 AQ 03
CD released by Allquestions.
Composed by John Duncan with Edvard Graham Lewis.
Processed and mixed in Stockholm and at Scrutto by John Duncan.
Mastered at Scrutto by John Duncan.
Photo © Giuliana Stefani.
See also: Ensemble Phoenix performing live acoustic versions scored and conducted by Duncan in 2008.
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