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World Radio Day, John Cage & Cognitive Radio

February 13, 2013

Apparently today is World Radio Day. I had actually never heard of it. The official website is here.  It seems UNESCO passed a resolution to create World Radio Day and it is actually the second World Radio Day  in fact. And there is to be a World Radio Day prize issued on the 13th of February every year starting from this year. Though it is not really clear what the prize is for! I was wondering if I could apply for the prize – because we here in CTVR just love radio!!!

My initial excitement around the idea of celebrating radio was somewhat dampened though when I read on  to find that WRD seems to be about Radio Broadcasting in the most traditional sense only? ?? I would rush to add that listening to the radio is one of my favourite activities. But it seems such a pity that, from the limited material on the website in any case, that radio would not be celebrated in all its glory (all its forms and the legal and illegal aspects).

The timing of this day though coincided nicely with an event we had here last night as part of the Engineering Fictions writing workshop that is currently being run here by Jessica Foley.  People meet to write and the writing is seeded by some topic that is connected to Engineering in a strong or  not so strong way. Last night I seeded the session  through talking about Cognitive Radio and the composer John Cage. Let me explain —

When I wrote a book on Cognitive Radio I ended the book with a few sentences that speculated on the future. They went as follows:

“How ‘cognitive’ the next generation radios will be, remains to be seen.  During a discussion in our research group about our aims for our research, one of the team suggested that we should aim for a radio that is so cognitive it gets bored. Whatever the level of academic folly in this, cognitive radio is never boring. ”

So this is where the jump to John Cage came in.  John Cage was a very famous composer. Among his huge body of work are four pieces composed for radio – i.e. in which radio is the instrument. In 1951 he composed Imaginary Landscape No. 4. The piece is  is scored for twelve radios. Two per­form­ers  play each radio – one dial­s the fre­quency, the other changes the vol­ume and tone.  The piece of course is very indeterminate as what you hear when one of the operators dials a specific frequency from the score depends on what station, if any, is on that frequency and what is actually playing at the time. There are three other pieces for radio namely,  Speech (1955), Radio Music(1956), and Music Walk (1958). The score of Radio Music is shown below –  it includes a list of frequencies that are to be selected, dashes indicating silence and the total time for the piece is 6 minutes.

Anyway, in my head I imagined our cognitive radios getting bored and deciding to collectively perform a John Cage piece for their own amusement and subsequently possibly composing something themselves as they get braver.

One of the intriguing things about the John Cage pieces is that the frequencies selected by Cage are ones that are in the AM radio bands. In many places around the world, AM radio is being turned off. So if you look at some of the performances of the pieces such as the one here in NYC, the performers will have mapped the frequencies to those in a different band. In the example here they use the FM band knowing that they are more likely to hit active radio stations. There of course is also an argument to be made that the Cage pieces can no longer be played once AM radio turns off for good.

This discussion led us all to ponder not just on the algorithmic framework that Cage created but also on the ‘lost’ radio stations – and pine for some form of ‘radio archaeology’ to unearth them.  

I think all of these topics and many more make for good thoughts on World Radio Day!



From → Art, Cognitive Radio

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