Transmissions

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From the journals of Alan Bishop

As a kid in Saginaw, Michigan, I used to work in the family business, an Army-Navy store. Over time the store went from selling military surplus from the Vietnam war to just about everything you’d find in a department store — from foam rubber and spray mace (the canister was labeled “Chemical Weapon”) to Italian stilettos.

My dad acquired a box of portable radios when I was eight, from a Lebanese dealer down in Detroit, a family friend on my mother’s side. I already had a transistor radio, and my parents had a large tabletop hi-fi, but these were different. These brightly colored radios were about the size of a shoebox, and they had multichannel settings for weather, police, and shortwave bands. The shortwave bands had strange titles — “world,” “maritime,” and “tropical” — and I obsessed over the idea of receiving stations from beyond Saginaw. What little I could pick up on the shortwave, though, was limited to the BBC, Radio China, and the Voice of America’s overseas network—mostly news.

It was on a sultry evening in Marbella, Spain, on a hotel balcony, that I first tuned in to Radio Tangier International. I was twenty-four, and it was my first extended trip abroad. My baggage consisted of a change of clothes, a cheap alto saxophone, a notebook, and a shortwave with a built-in cassette recorder. The first three tracks I heard were by Farid al-Atrache, R. D. Burman, and Miles Davis. This was everything I’d daydreamed about as a kid, without knowing it: a radio station mixing bebop, Arab pop music, and Indian film soundtracks. I started making tapes.

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From the journals of Alan Bishop

At first the idea was just to document what I was hearing, with the idea of perhaps incorporating some “found sounds” into my own music. But I became fascinated by the juxtaposition of languages and the diversity of audio possibilities. I started recording commercials, DJ bumpers, and other non-musical miscellany: frequency jamming, station IDs, and shards of pure white noise, along with peripheral rhythmic static. Three weeks after arriving in Spain, I was on a boat to Morocco, where I kept at it for two and a half months. I came home with twenty hours of tapes.

In Morocco I also played with local musicians and recorded those sessions; wrote stories, songs, and poems; and collected local cassettes. I was traveling on a shoestring and had nothing but time on my hands as I drifted from town to town. It was in places like Tétuan, Fes, Essaouira, and Marrakesh that I discovered the template for what would eventually become one of my life’s works: locating, documenting, and collecting music from well beyond Saginaw, wherever the culture interested me — primarily North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Back in the States, with access to multiple cassette decks, I began assembling sequences from my radio sessions into an audio collage. Elements from that tape began making their way into Sun City Girls songs. Many years later, when a friend and I started the Sublime Frequencies label, one of our earliest releases was Radio Morocco, that first radio collage I’d made back in 1984.

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From the journals of Alan Bishop

Recording and collaging radio broadcasts became an inseparable part of traveling. A similar impulse led me to create books. Anytime I go anywhere I cram all my ideas onto blank pages. Sometimes the end result is primarily text; sometimes, combinations of found images. Some of them are elaborate and flamboyant; others, quite simple and modest. There are fifty-four of them now, going back twenty-five years, and each remains fully intact and in place, ready to confound any who may care to experience them in the future. Sometimes friends suggest that I publish them or do a gallery show or find some other way to get them out there. But I actually like the idea of digging a hole somewhere and burying my library of unique artifacts. Besides, I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’d prefer to keep it that way.