Radio as a broadcast medium
and the drum set as a musical instrument began their American evolution
during the first decade of the twentieth century. Before 1910 there
were drums, cymbals, etc., each used by one person. With the beginnings
of improvised music in the South it became permissible, even economically
necessary for one performer to assemble several odd drums and sound
makers. As the jazz form coalesced, one drummer took the place of
Between 1905 and 1930, the drum sets that evolved were genuinely eccentric
and unique: examples of ingenuity and attention to sonic detail. The
early Dixieland and big band drum-sets came out of individual fantasies,
combinations of drums, cymbals, wood, and metal organized around the
body-size, image, and style of each drummer.
Broadcast radio, too, flowered at this time. Its beginning gave rise
to all sorts of fantastic expectations: "a revolution in communication,"
"instant access," "the fulfillment of Democracy". Radio stations were
conglomerates of the wide-ranging possibilities. A station could play
records, broadcast 'live' air checks, carry a presidential message,
speak the news, advertise, deliver messages in times of emergency,
convey the feeling of being at a baseball game or any event. There
was a revolution in storytelling-- the story was disembodied, repackaged,
and reborn. Before radio, people experienced an event with outwardly
tuned senses. After radio, people could sit in a room with eyes closed,
absorb mood or information, and create their own inner world of meaning.
Radio was the first universal storyteller of the industrial age: Homer
reborn, only this time it was the audience that was blind.
The evolution of the drum-set and the radio diverged, at least in
terms of cultural muscle power, yet they continued to exist in an
odd synchronicity. The drum-set became an object of defined parameters
-- stylized, mass produced, with more limited expressive possibilities.
Radio quickly became a one-way street for conveying information considered
economically viable. The drum-set had rules of operation, roles in
performance, even advertising painted on its surfaces. It was normalized.
Radio developed rules (licenses, formats, networks), its place in
the car and the living rooms, structures for performance, and jingles.
Radio and the drum-set, the brain children of eccentric inventors
and artists, became codified, self-referrent icons of American culture.
'If it's on the radio, it's real'; 'If there's a drum-set on stage,
it must be American pop music.'
For 25 years the drum-set and the radio assumed their places in the
"American dream." The drum-set guaranteed us the pulse of popular
music and radio was the transmitter of that pulse. As always, there
was "subversive" activity along the fringes. Rock drummers started
building jungle gyms of chromed equipment, jazz innovators and contemporary
composers began experimenting with added textures, objects and the
possibility of a non-pulsatory, sonic role for percussionists, and
soon synthesizers and computers began to chip away at the very physicality
In the radio world, a few successful formats evolved and rigidified.
Of course, the edges bubbled with late-night talk shows, jazz in the
evening, and non-commercial radio (like NPR -- living and dying with
classical music and an inherent, unspoken nostalgia), and college
radio tested the border with live dramatic programming, free-form
music shows, and non-standarized political content.
In the 1960s the artists moved in, and the fringes of sound art began
to infiltrate, inhabit, and subvert the radio waves. It was a crucial
moment with a logical rationale: if radio was a symbol of normalcy;
and if music/art from the edges was normal, then it was part of everyday
life. Getting on the radio was a way around the "art" dilemma. Artistic
work made for radio could reach people as part of their everyday lives.
Perhaps they would be shocked, amused, mesmerized, or informed by
these other events and unexpected sounds.
This is what I thought and hoped for years: that radio was a perfect
medium in which to propagate subversive artistic activity. Its normalcy
would function as a culture dish for art bacteria -- it would grow
an audience. Sound art music would enter and alter the mainstream
of American life.
After 70 successful years in the wallpaper business, however, radio
has mainly the power to flatten, smoothe-out, disembody, and trivialize
the information it conveys. In the 1990s "new work on radio" is a
contradiction in terms. Radio is dead. Long live other information
As a percussionist, I have worked to redefine and mutate an old format.
There are other percussionist-composers who love the bonded intimacy
of object and sound, the moment of attack/caress, and have worked
to invent a new set-up. The drum-set is dead. Long live other rhythmic
Many drummers, musicians, sound artists and radio producers work on
the fringes, where it is still possible to touch someone, to have
an effect. Here at these extremities, with a reinvented drum-set,
a computer, or just our voices, contact can be made, and momentum
can be generated to satisfy that essential audience demand: "Take
Sadly, American radio has relinquished its power to transport its
listeners. Of course, it is still worthwhile to put sound -art new
music on the air. There will always be a new listener, a receptive
ear. And I'm always happy when radio surprises me. But as the reruns
of the "Jack Benny Show" crowd American airwaves along with NPR's
new "Marketplace," the very familiarity we crave betrays us.