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Henry Jacobs - Radio Programme no.1

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Artist: Henry Jacobs

Album: Radio Programme no.1

Label: Locust

Review date: Apr. 10, 2003

Cracks in the Concrete

One day, your textbook has convinced you that Pierre Schaeffer invented Musique Concrete in 1948, and the next day, Jerome Noetinger's Metamkine record label releases Walter Ruttmann's "Weekend", a German noise symphony from the 1930's. The ability to radically redefine history with numbers smaller than 50 is astonishing. More importantly than coming first, Ruttmann's 11-minute piece has the distinction of not being French. His work does not reflect the conscience of a French composer witnessing the growing influence of technology on rural countryside. Ruttmann's work shows a pre-Nazi fascination with single-minded progress at all costs; a celebration of mechanical achievements and Nationalism. Of course, Schaeffer himself only acquired access to the technology that defined a genre after being appointed the head of a Nazi-owned organization's audio research division. Add in 1913's Art of Noise manifesto by Mussolini-supporter Luigi Russolo and you can start to make a case for progressive electronic music being entirely routed in fascist nationalism.

It's no wonder a present-day, public avant-garde figure like Jim O'Rourke would see such a necessity in finding an American identity in Musique Concrete. His Rules of Reduction, while still being a fantastic attempt, did not entirely succeed. It was based so much in subverting his highly-personalized view of Concrete clichés that it still remained a bit too indebted to the tradition he was trying to escape. Eureka, of course, might have been the culmination of his ideas. Defining his own perception of Americana through ’70s AM Pop, looking at America's more accessible, slightly gaudy history of technological display. Yet the Locust record label's new release has given new context to U.S.-birthed tape music.

Like Pierre Schaeffer, Henry Jacobs began his work with the intent of radio broadcast. Yet, from what Dawson Prater suggests in the liner notes, the three or four years that led up to Folkways’ 1955 release of Radio Programme no. 1 had more in common with the fictional manipulation of Radio drama, Sinclair Lewis-reminiscent social satire, ethnographic field recording and the open-minded, intellectual bohemian culture of the time. It's hard to believe that these ideas have since devolved into whatever schtick your local hard-rock Morning Guys are pulling. The release of Radio Programme, however, took a step past its already dense beginnings. As the record announces almost immediately, "Audio collage, audio collage, audio collage." Yet, it is the content of the audio collage that is so startling. Jacobs describes this in his original liner notes: "…reminiscences of a hobo, the ravings of an aged schizoid, the comments of a very contemporary 'hipster', and a musical collage of a modern jazz group." Very early in the album, the listener might be shocked to hear what might be the posthumous and paradoxical birth of American Musique Concrete.

This is not to say America hadn't had its share of tape collage by this point. Émigrés Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening were experimenting in the Ivy League, and John Cage's "Williams Mix" premiered in 1953, for instance. Yet, none of these technology-centered first steps really had any sense of American national identity. Perhaps Cage's intellectual pursuits, his somewhat random assemblage of sounds, was American in its lack of focus and its source materials, yet it’s hard not to get the impression that "Williams Mix" was a usual experiment in Cageian formal formlessness, except with non-instrumental source material. Henry Jacobs is different. Radio Programme is for the working class, made to play with the expectations and beliefs of the American public at large. Apparently, irate listeners called the show, insisting that the false interviews that Jacob conducted were factually inaccurate.

Maybe it could be contended that there is nothing more American than several cultures in collision. Jacobs utilizes Indian music. He takes a phony, fairly hysterical anthropological look at the relation between Judaica and Calypso music. He conducts an interview with an "expert" on Chinese music. He includes an incisive cut-up of bebop on the second track that seems to bring to attention the similar threads of popular music twenty five years before John Oswald got his start. The final track has several friends imitating African drumming. There is a stand-out, staged interview with a mock beatnik.

So, there is already an overwhelming amount to be excited about on this release. Sharp parody, American tape collage, warped cultural perceptions, and what Prater pretty accurately sums up as "ethnosurreal incursions". There is, yet, another layer to this work: Where a good portion of Radio Programme plays with the fictional possibilities of radio, there are also some more musical experiments, specifically Jacobs' drum loop collages. Forty years before Mouse on Mars, Jacobs is staggering and speeding up beats. One loop sounds almost identical to the opening beat on 10cc's How Dare You from 1976. In the liner notes, there is only Jacobs humble suggestion he was trying to create a polyrhythmic style in the "musique concrete medium".

It's hard to gauge Jacobs' influence. Or the influence he might've had if he had reached more people with his work. There is a small line of heritage in surreal radio fiction, including Ken Nordine, Joe Frank, and maybe the Firesign Theater. But our current musical environment is so indebted to Jacobs' work, from avant-garde electronics to pop radio, it's hard to believe that up until now, he was doomed to obscurity. Locust Music has once again given the listener a chance to discover a distinctly American avant-garde tradition, something unaffected and fiercely relevant; a chance to uncover some of the underpinnings of why we are the way we are.

By Matt Wellins

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