Essay Thought

Imagine you're dead. After many years of exile, you're permitted to cast a single glance earthwards. You can see a lamp-post, and an old dog lifting his leg against it. You're so moved you can't help sobbing. Paul Klee

I don't know how serious he was, but M told me the other day that he wants volunteers. He wants disorienteers. He wants to spin you around blindfolded and headphoned then release you into the wild to fend for yourself in an artificial landscape of deliberate errors and synthetic terrors. If you volunteer to be a disorienteer, he'll use taped voices and noises to disorient you, and he'll tease you with strange and unreliable sounds. You'll be in a dense Asian city, or lost in a forest, or stumbling about Prospero's Island. The action will take place in your mind, in your headphones, between the left channel and the right channel.

I guess he must have been serious about it. M is in his studio today, turning 'Summerisle' (the Wicker Man-inspired project he recorded earlier this year with Anne Laplantine) into a sort of horspiel, or 'ear play'.

When I say 'studio', of course, I mean his bedroom. The puzzlemeister is slumped on a futon with his back to the wall, whispering lines of poetry into a fat black tube mike connected to a hard disk recorder. And what better place for an imagineering disorienteer to be? His crumpled, lumpy duvet becomes, under such circumstances, an island landscape complete with hills, vales and caves. His blue fitted sheet becomes a troubled sea. Hear the electronic gulls wheel and cry! Hear the electronic foam rattle up the electronic shingle!

Unreliable Narrator

M is wearing navy blue track suit pants and a pale blue T shirt, reversed and seamy, with yellow and pink Fashion Flesh badges pinned at the neck. He's taping stuff he tapped out on his laptop last night. Weird, random sentences designed to bamboozle you, to spring you from the trap of rationality. If I can catch any I'll pin them down here, scatter them down the page. I can't promise they'll be exactly what he said. I'm a bit hard of hearing, you see, so I make stuff up.

That might not be true, actually. I'm an 'unreliable narrator', you know. That's why M likes me. He's always loved unreliable narrators.

Lying on M's desk there's a CD from Hypo in Paris with a letter telling him to sing over any track he likes on the forthcoming Hypo record. He's going to turn his attention to that later. He's quite excited about it, because that's pop, and horspiel is so unpop it whets your appetite for pop even as it offers a complete and total escape from it. So the Hypo commission is well-timed. He'll probably sing a pop song with relish in the middle of all this disorienteering. And in Hypo's Anthony Keyeux -- a man M last saw scratching with a gold laser disk -- pop touches both the sublime and the ridiculous. Disorientation is guaranteed.

Now, I may be wrong, but it sounds like M just enunciated in a fake Gaelic accent (actually that would be his real accent if he were his own great grandfather) the following:

'You sang the periodic table accompanied by a miniature cheese mandolin'.

It could have been 'Chinese mandolin', but I could swear it was actually 'cheese'. It could be a Tom Lehrer reference.

M was once talking to me about stories, and the distinction he's always made between being told stories and reading. Reading is lonely and cerebral, thinks M, but being told a story is a sensual and communal experience, whether it's your mother or a system of electronics that's whispering into your ear. M's mother used to read him Kafka as a bedtime story.

That explains a lot!

Lit Teeth

'A grocery store,' narrates M into his black mushroom microphone, 'is all a man needs to remain misty.' Can that be right? Misty?

M doesn't seem terribly convinced that pop music is the best way to mesmerise. He told me recently that he wants to start a choir like the one his uncle conducts, the John Currie Singers. Well, not quite like that, because they stick to a fairly classical repertoire. More like a Fluxus choir, like the one Tomomi Adachi conducts in Tokyo, or the kind of choral singing you can hear in the sound poetry of Ernst Jandl, the Viennese sound poet who is M's current hero.

M finds things he doesn't quite understand mesmerising. He has to feel disoriented and spellbound before he'll leap into the lap of a shady narrator. He likes not to know what's coming next. He remembers the weird vocoder voices of Laurie Anderson's early 80s characters and how spookily mesmerising they were, with her violin scraping and howling under their lit teeth.

Technology of all sorts can be mesmerising, that's something Laurie knew. If M isn't going to be his uncle, mesmerising an avant-choir, perhaps he can be his father, pushing the buttons in a language laboratory. That's what his father did for a living, until he retired. He ran a 'language foundation' with a 'language laboratory' in the basement. M worked there in summer holidays. Sitting in that lab with those robotically-enunciated tapes could be either tremendously dull or rather mesmerising, depending on how tired you were.

M used a language lab to learn Anglo-Saxon when he studied English Literature at university. He remembers being mesmerised by the sensual, drowsy sound of the girl who'd used the tape before him. Instead of erasing her answers, he played them back furtively in his headphones, relishing each click of her saliva in his ears. That was mesmerising.


Mesmerise is an interesting word. I (Unreliable Narrator, Knowledge Navigator and, I blush, Furtive Masturbator) flip up the lid of my iBook and tap 'Mesmer' into the Google window in Safari. This is what I find.

Mesmerism is the ancestor of both modern psychotherapy and the seedy hypnotist acts one sees performed in provincial theatres. A disciple of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) , the Marquis de Puysegur, described his hypnotic cure as 'the perfect crisis'. He induced a 'nervous sleep' in his patients by seducing them into sleep, often by means of his voice. What seems interesting from our point of view is the capacity of certain sounds to create this 'perfect crisis', to lead us into this 'nervous sleep' in which all sorts of cures and resolutions may be found.

You are listening to my voice, you sense your arms and legs beginning to feel heavy, your eyelids are heavy, you are falling into a deep...

Wake up! I'm the Unreliable Narrator, remember? You really don't want to entrust your sleep to me! Who knows what cacophonies I'll fill it with! I might even invent Trance!

By the way, I was just joking when I said I was a 'Furtive Masturbator'.

The Isle is full of Noises

Cacophony! That's a nice word! Because I'm the Knowledge Navigator and Unreliable Narrator, I Google it. Cacophony, disorganised sound, I type. I come up with Megaphonics, an essay about noise.

While M continues his disorienteering, I stop to listen to the linked radio programme. The speaker has a friendly English voice, so I trust him. (But I'm a Scot! And what about Culloden?) Anyway, I decide to trust him because he's on Radio 3 and not Radio 6, which is inherently untrustworthy because the number is too high. I trust him so much that I listen to programme two as well. I learn that in the early days of radio some believed that the voices of the dead could be heard in the static between radio stations. That makes me shudder, pleasantly. The programme was recorded in 1997. I wonder if this man with the trustworthy voice is already dead? Is the voice I'm hearing now nothing but an 'ectoplasmic apparition' seething between stations? What would happen if one allowed oneself to be mesmerised by a dead man? Are you reading this while I'm alive, or are you reading it when I'm dead? Are you falling under my spell, even though I'm dead? If so, am I leading you inexorably into the underworld, the realm of no return?

Never trust the narrator! Don't listen! Turn back before it's too late!

'The disappearance of the principal suspect was probably the result of sundry cloud dragons' whispers M in the other room.

There's an Elephant in the Garden

The German term Neue Horspiel refers to ear-plays that neither adapt live theater nor create the illusion of it but, instead, exploit the unique possibilities of radio (audio) to create something that can exist only in sound. The pioneering anthology of such texts is Klaus Schoning's Neues Horspiel (1969). This book includes Max Bense and Ludwig Harig's Der Monolog der Terry Jo, which presents only the thoughts within the mind of a hospitalized woman whose recovery of consciousness is portrayed in her progressing from nonsensical oral sounds to articulate speech, and Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayrocker's Funf Mann Menschen, which compresses fourteen stages of a man's life into fourteen vignettes, each dominated by a characteristic spoken sound.

Richard Kostelanetz 'On Anthologies' (1999)

M and I had lunch together yesterday. We walked down a leafy avenue of trees to the Kosmos Cinema and stood eating noodles out of foil trays in front of the catering caravan belonging to the Vietnamese lady who parks there three days a week. Around us were market stalls heaving with fruit and cheap clothes. M began telling me the history of his love of a certain kind of sonic disorientation, which he has recently learned to call 'horspiel'. He was narrating to me, in a way, the Bidungsroman of a Disorienteer.

His father, as we've mentioned, is a linguist, so young M was often tape-recorded telling stories and making music. His father would use these recordings in books called 'Acquiring Language' or 'Discovering Language', or include them in his PhD dissertation as 'Exhibit A'. Sometimes young M felt like the primitive savage to his father's anthropologist.

His father worked in, then later founded and ran, various language colleges. In the evenings and at weekends, M played in the 'language laboratory', usually a subterranean lair of booths and two-track tape recorders. (When he started a band in the early 80s, their rehearsal space was a musty room in a sub-basement next to one of these TEFL labs.) Young M looted cassettes from huge piles of tapes imprinted with oddly-stilted dialogues designed to instruct foreign speakers of English. M would fill these tapes up with his own spoken and played improvisations, sometimes taking the florid exercises already on the tape as his cue. One of them, to which M added synthesiser and guitar, was based around a dialogue which began:

A: (Woman) There's an elephant in my garden. There's an elephant in my garden, and it's trying to get into the house!
B: (Man) Well, don't let it get in!
(Space for student to repeat 'Well, don't let it get in!')

Recently, at the Boxhagener Sunday market near his home in Friedrichshain, M bought a tape recorder and a stack of old reel-to-reel tapes. One contained a Jacques Brel concert, and another a comical English language learning excercise. You can hear an excerpt here. M told me he felt right at home with the stilted, wooden, utopian, flat world represented by the language exercises. That outrageous synthetic world is where he comes from.

The Rustling Sun

Rather than pop music, M was always most impressed by narrative soundscapes that were tricky to categorise. There were those interactive language lab exercises, of course. Then there were records M encountered at home and at school. 'Peter and the Wolf', in which various characters have their own theme tune, or 'The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra', in which an instructive voice makes the instruments of an orchestra sound one by one so that the listener can understand their functions. M wasn't very interested in orchestral music, but to hear an orchestra following a talking voice, that was interesting.

Then somebody, a music teacher at school, played young M a recording of 'Facade' by the Sitwells. M had never heard anything so wonderful, so atmospheric and so odd. It was around the time he was buying his first pop records, 'Space Oddity' by David Bowie and 'Ride A White Swan' by T. Rex. 'Facade' seemed like a more refined, more otherworldly version of the eccentric landscapes created by M's favourite pop dandies, Bowie and Bolan. (M loves that word 'otherworldly'.) He went out and bought a copy of 'Facade'. He liked Walton and the Sitwells' game: pastiche and originality combined, fragments of 20s pop music juxtaposed with landscapes from ancient mythology.

Besides the blond lace of a deep-falling rill
Through glades like a nun
They run from and shun
The enormous and gold-rayed rustling sun

Here was some of the deeply satisfying disorientation, the livid imagination he would later discover in Brecht and Weill, in works like 'The Threepenny Opera' and 'Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny'. Here was speaking and sound in the service of strangeness. It was the same sort of dreamlike disorientation he would soon learn to relish in Kafka and Laurie Anderson.

China Will Come to You

M's next revelation came later in his teens, when he tuned into and taped a BBC Radio 3 Radiophonic Workshop-scored documentary about Paul Klee, a Piers Plowright production of a series of Edward Lucie-Smith poems about Klee, featuring sound compositions by Malcolm Clark, synthetic sonic interpretations of Klee's microscopic, biological, whimsical, spiritual world. (Klee reproductions hung on the walls of M's family home, and M's first love, half-Spanish art student Paula, had proclaimed Klee her favourite artist. So Klee became M's favourite artist too.)

'Going For A Walk With A Line' (the title of the BBC Radio 3 Klee horspiel) became a template for M, a touchstone, a deep well of refreshing strangeness. The way Malcolm Clark created a mosquito, a Tunisian landscape, a dancing girl, a donkey, a 'twitter machine'! The way the sound, thin and artificial, became so organic! The way a storm approached and a clattering rush reminiscent of Peking Opera opened the sound out into full stereo, with treated voices swirling in a kind of dust cloud inside your headphones!

I told M the good news that BBC director general Greg Dyke has announced that the corporation will soon open its entire archive to the public, free of charge, for personal use. Agreeing that many such revelations await us in the future, we lifted two foaming cups of spiced gluhwien high to Mr Dyke.


In the 80s M bought records which continued his interest in 'betweenscapes', somewhat uncategorisable mixtures of sound and speaking voices. There was Laurie Anderson, whose 'United States I-IV' box M considered the best soundscape of the decade. There were Wire spin-offs Dome, Gilbert & Lewis and Cupol. There was David Bowie and Brian Eno paying tribute to Kurt Schwitters and his muttering, chattering Merz-language in songs like 'Kurt's Rejoinder' and 'African Night Flight'. And there was Eno's ambient music, of course, and 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts'. There was Holger Hiller, whose 1986 release 'Oben im Eck' became one of M's favourite records, leading him, later, to track down Hiller's radio work: his wonderful 'Little Present' documentary, an audio portrait of Tokyo made for his Japanese son, or 'KeiSchlaHuWe' (literally, 'No Sleeping Dog Wake' or 'NoSleDoWa'), a parody -- made for Hamburg Radio -- of the German post-war tradition of art radio or Horspiel.

(Perhaps, if you were to click an obscure comma somewhere, you might find the introduction to 'Keischlahuwe' online in its entirety in mp3 format. Clicking on a second comma might lead you to the main part of the work, and on a third, to the coda. I only say 'perhaps'. Don't trust me, I'm only the narrator.)

Classics of Disorientation

An ardent, diligent student of otherness, M placed orders at his local Aberdeen record shop for classics like Schoenberg's 'Pierrot Lunaire', with its sprechgesang (half-talking, half-singing) of Belgian Dadaist poetry, purchased the 'acousmatic' music of Berio, with Cathy Berberian's voice spattering chopped phonemes across electronic squeaks and squalls. There was Mimaroglu, there was Cage with his 'Fontana Mix' and Stockhausen with 'Kontakte'.

Bored to death by Britpop, M went in the 90s to Paris and found his eyes adjusting (when he wasn't composing Japanese bubblecore pop) to the exciting subaquatic half-light of acronymic avant organisations: OULIPO, IRCAM, INA/GRM. There was France Culture, with a strong commitment to experimental radio. And there was -- on tape -- quirky 60s TV cartoon series Les Shadoks, with electronic music made at IRCAM. The Shadoks seemed to share something of the sensibility of that revelatory Radiophonic Klee document of 1978.

The Future of Play

In the early 21st century, M told me, he would sit often in the cheap seats at the Ginza Kakuki theatre. Unable to follow the plots, he focused instead on the textures produced by the actors with their exaggerated declamatory style and the musicians in their screened boxes to left and right, creating a real-time accompaniment with claves, flutes, biwas and kotos.

M formed an ambition. He wanted nothing more than to be responsible, one day, for a horspiel. For a 'hear play', for ear play, for Lautgedichte or 'sound poems'.

By the time the new millenium arrived, M continued (we were sitting on the grass by now, somewhere under an oak) there seemed to be an explosion of interest in sound art, soundscapes, experiment, new combinations of text and texture. A new radio station in London, Resonance FM, featured a regular open 'horspiel' space called 'Clear Spot'. More and more visual artists -- Christian Marclay, Vito Acconci, Dominique Petitgand -- seemed to be making sound pieces, releasing CDs and getting their work distributed over the internet through resources like the magnificent Ubuweb. (Ubu also features the radio work of Scanner, a man steeped deep in the disorienteering tradition.)

M told me how he'd listened three or four times this week alone to Vito Acconci's horspiel The Bristol Project, fascinated by the recovering apocalyptic urban landscape it so calmly and obsessively and precisely creates. M had actually fallen asleep while Acconci's deep, rich voice droned through its Robbe-Grillet-like descriptions, but he attributed this not to boredom but the work's mesmeric qualities.

In fact, I was beginning to feel sleepy myself. As M continued to talk about his long life and all the records he'd ever borrowed from the library, I curled against an oak root and before long began to slip into a drowse. Soon I was in the other world, the world of dream, that place of recuperative disorientation. I dreamed I was in a cafe in London, and John Fashion Flesh had organised a performance by some naked girls out in an alley at the back. The street was cordoned off with red striped tape. I picked up a magazine and discovered a two-page advertisement, placed by John, in which he announced his plans for an ambitious new album and added his thanks to M. The odd thing is that I knew this dream was M's, not mine.

I woke with a start. M was poking me in the ribs. 'Hey Narrator,' he said, 'I've just thought of a motto for Disorienteers!'

'Oh yes, what's that then?' I asked.

'Get lost!' he said.

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