09: Babble Machine (Transcript)

*Audio from headphones of crystal radio set*

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank And this is Everything Sounds.

George Drake Jr. What you heard at the beginning there was a recording from the headphones of an old crystal radio. If you don’t know what a crystal radio is, you’re probably not alone. So, I’ll explain. Crystal radios were some of the first radio receivers and were also some of the most inexpensive. They didn’t need electricity to run. They simply operated by the power received from radio waves via their long antennas and they were called crystal sets because of the crystal detector used in the device. Actually, some are still available today in build-it-yourself kits. My dad got me one when I was a kid.

Craig Shank Right, it could be a fun amateur science project, but just because you can make one yourself and they’re relatively inexpensive doesn’t mean they’re a viable replacement for your current radio. Of course, the signal is pretty weak. The term ‘high fidelity’ didn’t exist when they were first made, but if you came across an original crystal set today you wouldn’t be able to plug in your earbuds either. Original crystal set earphones were often the most expensive part of the device.

George Drake Jr. And super heavy.

Craig Shank Each earphone had a moving iron driver. It’s basically a magnet wound with coils that created an electromagnet. This magnet creates a varying magnetic field. That vibrates the earphone’s diaphragm and creates sound waves.

George Drake Jr. This particular crystal set currently resides at the Science Museum of London, which houses the creation of this guy:

Aleks Kolkowski I’m Aleks Kolkowski. I’m currently the sound artist in residence at the Science Museum in London.

Craig Shank Aleks, spelled a-l-e-k-s, is a fascinating guy. He’s a violinist who’s done work under the experimental composer, John Cage, he’s worked with artists, filmmakers and choreographers in the UK and Germany, but recently he’s spent time collecting, researching and fixing old audio devices.

George Drake Jr. …like that crystal set we heard earlier, along with old radios from various decades, gramophones and victrolas, but in the Science Museum he’s made an installation to go along with the 90 Years of the BBC exhibit that they have. The installation itself is in between the agriculture and materials sections of the museum. You wouldn’t even think it’s part of the museum. After walking up a flight of stairs, straight ahead of you is a door marked “private.” Once you open that door….

Craig Shank He calls it Babble Machine. All around you in this very plain studio space is his collection. Old radios sit on tables…

Aleks Kolkowski These old radio sets…really all from the 1920’s…

Craig Shank …and radio horns are scattered throughout.

George Drake Jr. And all of the radios are playing different clips.

Aleks Kolkowski All of the sound is being outputted through moving iron speakers, really.

George Drake Jr. Some you can understand and others you can’t even identify.

Aleks Kolkowski The idea was that you could actually walk in and actually hear these…what, you know, some of the sounds or a piece inspired by early radio and actually hear some of the technology as well. And so, they’re kind of brought to life, if you’d like, these artifacts.

Craig Shank The name Babble Machine is more than just a clever title. It’s actually a  literary reference to a foreshadowing of radio.

Aleks Kolkowski Babble Machines were referred to in…by H.G. Wells in his novel, The Sleeper Awakes. The Sleeper Awakes was, I think, written in 1899 and he really foresaw radio. He saw these speakers that would spout out propaganda to the workers and so, what we have here in the piece is a kind of punctuated irregularly by these announcements from this Babble Machine.

Craig Shank It relayed news stories, but HG Wells called them something a bit more creative.

Aleks Kolkowski They’d describe themselves as “live paper.” It’s very funny and they made these noises, “Yaha! Yaha! Live paper!” And then it makes an announcement…a news announcement about some atrocities that are happening in Paris…that law and order must maintained.

George Drake Jr. The piece itself actually began with a set of four 78 rpm records that he found in the basement of the Science Museum. They were older records made of shellac, but what was on them is what surprised Aleks the most.

Aleks Kolkowski These records were actually produced by the Marconi Company for their service engineers and dealers and these records were just of radio interference. These were published in about 1933, I think it was, but it was just recordings of radio interference…different kinds of radio interference caused by a tram or a sewing machine or a bell and things like that. So, a lot of the sounds that are heard, especially the music, are original recordings of radio interference from the early 1930’s, I think, late 1920’s.

George Drake Jr. Now, it doesn’t only consist of radio interference. The babble machine recordings are his own and he also put other recordings in for a bit of texture.

Aleks Kolkowski There’s one story about basically a haunted radio…a voice that haunts a radio, the voice of an opera singer. And in the early part of the piece it’s something like a radio drama, really. So, you…the other horns are playing relating to the story that’s being spoken. And there’s another story about a woman, Ethel Berta, who thinks she’s a radio and there’s a thriller as well. So, this has kind of a text collage.

Craig Shank When you’re in the installation you’re encouraged to walk around to each device and experience each sound individually or you can just stand in the middle and let wash over you.

Aleks Kolkowski But I also wanted to create the actual feeling that maybe you’re inside some kind of radio set that you’re hearing all of this…you’re in the ether and you’re hearing all of these voices and all this noise and different…coming from different directions…all this radio traffic, if you like. It’s quite dimly lit with sort of an amber glow, which… hopefully emulates…well, the idea is to emulate the warm golden color of a vacuum tube, if you like. And also creating certain shadows on the walls as well of the signet horns and suspended objects.

George Drake Jr. Aleks says that people who enjoy the Babble Machine the most are those of older generations who feel nostalgia when seeing the antiquated devices, but even more so are the kids who come in. When he was making the piece, he wanted the highs and lows of the piece to be a bit jarring.

Aleks Kolkowski I tried to create a kind of a waveform so that you have like, moments…peak moments of a lot of activity and then a trough where there’s not much happening, there’s just one single radio or a voice or something like that so it has that kind of…tried to kind of have that kind of waveform or classic waveform structure.

George Drake Jr. He said those fluctuations combined with the huge horns ultimately frightens the kids, but in a good way.

Aleks Kolkowski They find these speakers or these horn speakers very exotic so when one is on or off they’ll rush away or they get scared by them and they like that.

Craig Shank The room isn’t just old radios and those big horns. What attracts the most attention is actually hanging from the ceiling. It’s a brass tea kettle with a speaker inside of it, which is a reference to Harry Houdini.

Aleks Kolkowski In, I think it was 1922, he wrote an article in Popular Wireless or Popular Radio about, I think it was called Ghosts that Talk by Radio and it was an expose of the tricks of mediums who used radio in seances to trick their clients by hiding radio receivers in domestic objects or behind pictures. There’s a famous…there’s a lovely picture of Houdini listening to the spout of a kettle and there’s an illustration of some coils inside and a receiver.

Craig Shank When it’s on, it doesn’t play the sound so much as it creates an entirely different sound. The rattling of the kettle almost stands out above everything else.

Aleks Kolkowski I think maybe we wanted it to be maybe more disturbing *laughter*. I think we all…we all, I think, from the three of us that worked on this had different expectations. I think I wanted to get something across of the sound of early radio and…but obviously in a modern…in a sort of modern reworking, if you like.

George Drake Jr. You can learn more about Aleks, his work at the Science Museum and with own work with antiquated audio devices along with pictures of the Babble Machine installation from our website, everything sounds dot org.

Craig Shank Also on our site, find information on how you or your business can support Everything Sounds.

George Drake Jr. This is an independent production. It’s literally Craig and me. Everything you hear is researched, produced, edited, and funded by two guys who want to bring you unique stories on sound.

Craig Shank If you enjoy the program, consider supporting our show like other listeners have by becoming an Everything Sounds “Audiophile.” You’ll get access to bonus material when it becomes available.

George Drake Jr. And you also get the satisfaction of knowing that each time you listen to Everything Sounds, you helped make it happen and besides, how cool does being an “Audiophile” sound?

Craig Shank Find out more at everything sounds dot org slash support.

George Drake Jr. Until next time, I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank and this is Everything Sounds.

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