The sounds of science

British electronic musician Scanner's illicit phone taps examine the technology of communication and the vanishing border between public and private space.

Published August 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sitting on a bench next to a bag of records, Scanner flips through his date-book in an unnaturally natural corner of New York's Washington Square Park. The British electronic musician's head is exceptionally large around the brain part, the exceptional largeness of which lends a certain authority to his already authoritative musings on the "invisible sounds of technology." Having made a career out of working with these sounds, he's an expert on the matter. And having a head as large as his, he looks the part of the expert. His fingers flip past pages of calendar dates and phone numbers until they reach a small chart matching cities from Barcelona to Zurich with numbers beside them. The numbers look innocuous enough, but, representing electronic frequency ranges used around the world, they serve as Scanner's secret codes.

Using an extended shortwave radio scanning device, Scanner, or Robin Rimbaud, mines the ceaseless airborne signals of cell phones, fax machines, microwave ovens, urban power grids, police communication channels, satellite transmissions and the like for sounds ranging from human voices to oddly musical tones and crackles. In his work, these sounds act as phantom reminders of electronic music's alienness. "I like the impermanence of these sounds," Rimbaud says, as a park-goer strolled by with a handheld radio, seemingly on cue. "There's a magical quality to it. It's almost like ... hearing ghosts."

Rimbaud bought his first scanner as a teenager from a friend. He is profoundly British, so his telling of the story involves issues of class: His friend was a rowdy lad -- a saboteur, Rimbaud teases -- who made sport of disturbing upper-class fox hunters clad in stately red and white and perched atop horseback and lofty social constructs. His friend used the scanner to out-fox the police by intercepting their communications and fleeing accordingly when they were called to the scene. Such use was at least related to the machine's intended function. In Rimbaud's hands, however, the device became something else altogether.

In the 1950s, experimental musician and theorist John Cage wrote somewhat cryptically, "Mostly, right now, there is painting and sculpture, and just as formerly when starting to be abstract, artists referred to musical practices to show that what they were doing was valid, so nowadays, musicians, to explain what they are doing, say, 'See, the painters and sculptors have been doing it for quite some time.'"

The '50s are long gone. When it comes to art forms addressing technology as a subject, music is back on top. By using the actual sounds of technology, Rimbaud injects himself under its silver skin, mapping its obscured nerve endings and exposing otherwise private forms of communication in ways visual art never could. Scanner albums, including the recent "Lauwarm Instrumentals" (Sulphur Records/Beggars Banquet), have beats. But his more fittingly fleeting public works -- BBC radio plays, countless art installations, a recent sound-design commission for a new digital wing at the Science Museum in London -- are snatches of an environment, both physically and metaphysically.

"I find it quite intriguing, the way we approach sound now," Rimbaud says. "Think of the Walkman: When it first came around in the late '70s, if you listened to music you listened at home in your bedroom, or at a concert. Nowadays we use sound a lot of times to avoid situations. I wear a Walkman on the train to avoid talking to other people, to pass the time of the journey. You listen to a radio in the car to block out the sound of the car's motion."

It's fitting that a man more fascinated by the sound of engines than by the FM station drowning them out would make music explicitly about the act of listening. He first made a name for himself as Scanner by manipulating bits of sampled phone calls plucked out of less than thin air. His scanning device allows him to pick up what he lovingly calls "sonic debris" in real time within a one-mile radius of the machine. As a former student of literature, he uses these snippets of conversation, oftentimes one-sided, as a blank narrative construct to which we almost instinctively attach a narrative arc.

"There's a great term, 'repaired indexicality,' which sociologists use for replies to unasked questions, where people repair a thought," he says. "It's a phrase I like to apply to sound. If you take beats and cut them up so there's nothing where the next beat should fall, you repair it in your head automatically. You know where it should go. That's what happens with the telephone calls. If you can't hear what the other person is saying, you repair the conversation."

It's nearly impossible to hear, as listeners at a recent Scanner concert at the Knitting Factory in New York did, a digital voice intone, "You have 100 voice-mail messages" and not wonder a thing or two about the caller on the other end. Where has this person been? Is everything all right? These disconnected voices, caught literally and figuratively in between stations, command a conflicted human response despite the fact that they're just sonic antimatter. The messages suggest Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: The closer we get to them, the more constructed our narratives become, the more likely they are to slip out of our hands. Take, for example, Rimbaud's description of a phone call sampled on the first Scanner record:

I found a man talking to a woman, and he starts off saying, "How are you?"

She replies, "Oh, I've had a nice, easy day today. I'm just watching the movie channel. I have some tickets to see a concert tonight."

It goes on like this for quite a while and I'm imagining this nice boyfriend and girlfriend couple talking after work. Then all of a sudden the man says, "Well, are you sexy? What have you got on?" And in a very cool way, so he must have done this quite a few times before. The reality of the narrative you're constructing this way is constantly changing. And it's happening in real time all around you.

There's a certain sense of dread surrounding Scanner's methods. By accessing spaces traditionally considered private, his work evokes questions about piracy and motives and intent. And the alien electronic undercurrent to it all isn't exactly soothing. At a show in New York last year, Rimbaud said he quickly turned the channel when he realized he was broadcasting a discussion of funeral arrangements to an entire audience. His methods certainly are voyeuristic in nature, and potentially illegal, and his sounds are a far cry from sweet soul music. Rimbaud acknowledges this, but he also speaks romantically about the subtle subversion in using technology as a creative means.

"These questions are important to ask. Freedom of information is an important issue outside music that the work touches on," he said. "And it suggests the vulnerability of these kinds of systems, of technology. You'd like to think as technology continues to develop, it would be more secure, when in fact, it just gets easier to break into. And my work plays into that. The important thing is that we're allowed access to these tools that watch us and listen to us, that acknowledge who we are. It's when they're held in the power of somebody else that they can be quite scary."

By Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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