Bassbin Book Club: Justin Patrick Moore

In this edition of Bassbin Book Club, we’re off to Cincinnati to speak with radio wizard Justin Patrick Moore about his fervent fascination with Shortwave Radio, the Transmission Arts and his new book, The Radio Phonics Laboratory.

Mysticism seems to crop up in your practice across radio and writing, what role do they play in your study/work about electronics and electronic music?

Radio remains a continuous source of magic and mystery to me. There is just something special about being able to tune in to sounds and voices from far away. Even with everything we now know about physics and science, the fact that someone can talk into a microphone and that signal can go out over a device with an antenna in one part of the world, and then be picked up by a device with an antenna in another part of the world, still incites a sense of wonder in me and others who love the medium.

The ancient idea of the aether has also appealed to me for a long time, which is why I favour the older spelling of the word. Aether was considered the fifth element among the ancients and in mediaeval science. Later physicists proposed aether as a space filling substance that light and other types of waves are transmitted through.

The natural radio waves emitted by charged particles from the earth and in the atmosphere have likewise fascinated me since I first learned of their existence. Lightning strikes emit high-frequency radio waves during thunderstorms that radio listeners can sometimes hear on certain frequencies. Astronomical objects such as planets and stars emit radio waves, and to me this lends credence to the age-old concept of the Music of the Spheres.

All of the waves have been around since long before we had any means to detect them with our electronic instruments. Now that we have the equipment to be able to work with these invisible forces is something I find to be inspiring.

As for electronic music, all electrical machines give off small amounts of radio waves, so in a way, all electronic music, when it is being created, is giving off these very small transmissions. We don’t normally hear that part in recordings or at shows, but it is there, and those waves pass through people’s bodies. All of these mysteries exert a powerful hold on my imagination.

Was your The Radio Phonics Laboratory book a long term project/ambition? Or a natural continuation of your radio show and essays featured in other publications like Skybird Notes?

The Radio Phonics Laboratory was a long term project. It started as a seed a few years after I stopped hosting the radio show ‘On the Way to the Peak of Normal’ in 2014. I had wanted to focus more on my writing, but I found radio was a hard habit to kick, and ended up getting my amateur radio or ham licence the following year.

I love the decentralized nature of amateur radio as an alternative communication system where people can talk to each other directly over the air, but it requires a bit of technical know-how. As I studied the science of radio, I started looking at all the connections it had with the history of electronic music and in 2016 I started writing some columns for the newsletter of the amateur radio club I had become a member of (Oh-Ky-In Amateur Radio Society).

After a while I realised there were enough leads to follow that I could form the material into a book. I ended up writing more than could be put into one single book, and had to break down the material into different parts. One section of all that work is what has become the Rad Lab.

The shortwave transmissions I’d done as The Radiophonic Laboratory on Free Radio Skybird came a bit later, from the great community that gathers itself around the shortwave listening and the amateur radio hobbies. I’ve made a lot of great friends through being involved in radio.

From my friend Robert Gulley I was introduced to Thomas Witherspoon who runs The Shortwave Listening Post. From Thomas I met Pete Polyank in London who introduced me to Frederick Moe in New Hampshire. Pete was already contributing segments to Frederick Moe’s Free Radio Skybird shortwave show. Then Frederick asked me to step on board.

Around the time of the pandemic, Frederick got the idea to do a bit of a prank on the radio, as is tradition on the shortwaves, and this evolved into the Imaginary Stations program, which I am still happy to be a part of, though it’s Fred’s baby. Fred is an old school ‘zine maker, community and shortwave radio DJ who has a serious passion for alternative media.

It’s a privilege to work with him on any of his projects. Pete does all our graphic design work for putting out on social media, which has helped add a whole other layer of interaction with the radio community.

Does the radio scene in the states feel city-specific due to the distances between cities, or is the community tight-knit across the US?

On the one hand you have college radio stations and community stations, these being where I got my start, but there aren’t many college or community stations left. Both are dwindling. It’s a real shame, because those were the stations you could count on to hear independent music that wasn’t bland corporate dreck. But you could think of community and college radio as one scene.

Then you have the shortwave listening scene and that has a lot of overlap with people who are also hams and amateur radio operators, communicating and talking with each other over the air. Hams are a tight knit bunch, with many clubs devoted to the hobby. Also overlapping with shortwave listening is the pirate scene on shortwave radio, which by its very nature, is somewhat clandestine. A lot of shortwave listeners are happy to hear pirate broadcasts though, because they tend to be very iconoclastic!

There is pirate FM radio in the US, but that tends to be concentrated in places where there are large immigrant and ethnic communities who don’t otherwise have access to the airwaves, in places like New York City and Miami. These kinds of stations have been documented by the great work of David Goren, but sadly, we don’t have much of a pirate scene in Ohio on FM (at least that I am aware of), though I did participate in one such station, Anti-Watt at Antioch College.

That came about because students really had no access to getting any experience on the local community station WYSO. Though I don’t have personal experience of it, there were more pirate FM stations in Colorado where there was also a dearth of access to airwaves.

People need to have access to the radio spectrum, which is like any other natural resource. It shouldn’t just be carved up and given to the highest corporate bidder, but unfortunately that is often how it has gone down.

Do you have any upcoming radio shows or regular slots our readers could listen to?

I am still on the air from time to time on WAIF 88.3 FM. That’s where I used to participate as a rotating host for the avant-garde and experimental ‘Art Damage’ show, and the more eclectic ‘On the Way to the Peak of Normal’ for over a decade. These days I fill in and sub for my friend Ken Katkin on his underground music program ‘Trash Flow’ Radio. I am slotted to be in the studio on June 8 from 3 PM to 5 PM ET. You can listen live online if they like.

For people with access to a shortwave set ‘Imaginary Stations’ currently beams to Europe every Sunday from the Shortwave Gold station in Germany at 0900/1300 hrs UTC on 6160 kHz and then at 2000 UTC on 6160 kHz and 3975 kHz. In America, ‘Imaginary Stations’ program is transmitted on shortwave from WRMI in Florida. Our time slot on WRMI has moved around a bit lately, but at the time of this writing it is airing on Wednesdays at 0200 UTC on 9395 kHz.

On those shows you’ll get thirty minutes of music from DJ Frederick and about fifteen from One Deck Pete and fifteen from me, which always keeps things diverse as we explore a different theme in each show. These are archived on our archive.org for downloading and streaming, or on our Mixcloud page.

Is there much existing writing out there about Transmission Arts, or are you breaking new ground with Radio Labs book?

To aficionados of electronic music history there are going to be a number of familiar names and people in the book, but also some who don’t get talked about as often or as much and who deserve to be better known and listened to.

There are also a number of electrical engineers and scientists who I discuss whose work isn’t normally as touched on in music histories: like Fumitada Itakura in Japan who was one of the people who discovered Linear Predictive Coding, a method of audio signal processing now used in our cell phone networks, but was used by early computer music composers like Paul Lansky who used it to make beautiful and strange speech based music.

For the familiar faces I’ve tried to foreground their various connections to telephone, radio, or speech synthesis, or otherwise find different details about them to highlight. The main thing I have tried to do is weave together the engineering side of things with the musical, and show how these areas which might have been thought about as separate, are actually joined together.

What’s been on your reading list recently?

I am about finished reading John Szwed’s Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Everett Smith. It’s a fascinating biography that just came out last year for the centennial of Smith’s birth. He was the guy who was responsible for putting together the records that became the Anthology of American Folk Music that influenced the folk music revival of the fifties and sixties in the states.

But Smith was also an experimental filmmaker who influenced the animation style of people like Terry Gilliam and many others. He also was an anthropologist and started documenting Native American folkways when he was a teenager, recording the First Nations people of Washington state as a young man.

At heart Smith was a collector, one of the earliest and most serious crate diggers. Information on him has been somewhat scattered and scant until this biography came out. Szwed also wrote about another true American original in his book Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, which I consider essential reading.

For fiction, I tend to go for the pulps, and just finished the collection Killer, Come Back to Me by Ray Bradbury. It had some great stories.

Any zines or publications or newsletters that you’re into at the moment?

Any zine that I get from Frederick Moe is great. His Tin Can Telephone is always a treat, if people can track it down. The west coast distro Antiquated Future sometimes has copies of his work.

I also always look forward to Scanner’s monthly newsletter, because I find his work ethic incredibly inspirational and its nice to see what he is working on, listening to and reading.

The Tone Glow Substack and newsletter reliably has interviews with very interesting musicians, some I’ve heard of, but many who I haven’t, thus getting me to tune into new music I might not have heard of otherwise.

The jazz, music and culture writer Ted Gioia also has a very nice newsletter, The Honest Broker, which I like for his take on things such as what he calls “dopamine culture” the endless clicks, scrolls and reels that have people going from one thing to the next.

Kim Cascone’s blog on the Silent Records Bandcamp page is also a reliable antidote for spending too much time online, and ways to keep genuine creativity intact when faced with the corporate world’s plethora of manufactured distractions.

What are you listening to on rotation at the moment? Any new tracks, old or both?

I’ve really been digging the latest album from Matmos, Return to Archive, and wrote a feature on it for Igloo Magazine. Dave Seidel has a really wonderful new electronic piece, Homage to Hennix, that is really out there too, vibrant and wonderful.

For old music that I’ve come back around to, I’d have to put Harvest Time by Pharaoh Sanders high up on the list. It has become a new jazz favourite.

Ambient is the genre I probably listen to the most anymore, though it does vary according to the mood and moment. The ambient country outfit SUSS has been a real inspiration the past few years. My maternal grandpa and his family were all born and raised in Kentucky and grew up playing music together.

My grandpa went on to play country rock music locally, while his brother did the same on a more regional level out west, and their sisters were all avid guitar players and singers. At family get-togethers, especially on Thanksgiving, they’d all go down into the basement and play together and it was great hearing music like that growing up. The mixture of pedal steel guitars with synthesisers and other instruments used for ambient electronica with country western as mastered by SUSS really resonates with my roots.

One album I can also to over and over again without getting bored is Structures from Silence by Steve Roach. The first track, Reflections in Suspension is a particular ambient favourite.

Looking ahead, I’m very excited that Vicki Bennett will have a new People Like Us album out called Copia. Her radio show ‘Do or DIY’ on WFMU is one of my favourite programs to listen to, ever. In one of her recent episodes she played a track by Welsh rapper and musician Ren, who we in the states seem to know a lot less about, but I really enjoyed his stuff. It was a bit mental, as my friends across the pond might say, but fun and creative.

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