Interview with Walker Downey

My interview with Walker Downey proved too substantive to limit to just one episode of Dangerous History. You can listen to Part One here, and Part Two over here. Walker examines the intersection of “experimental music” and “sound art,” a transdisciplinary, technological practice that evolved over the decades between WWII and Vietnam. Together we discuss works that fall between the purview of art history and musicology, with a focus on the subversive nature of noise as a category of experience. The institutions and figures around which these compositions or performances accreted are considered alongside the determinative nature of media itself (magnetic tape, for example) in an attempt to determine their relative significance. A project about radio-as-art, on the radio, in two parts.

Walker Downey’s current research is focused on a cross-disciplinary network of American artists, musicians, and dancers that used media such as magnetic recording tape, FM radio, and transistor electronics to carry out experiments with electronic sound in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. At this time, new experimental milieus and stylistic vocabularies took shape within underground music studios, city discotheques, and independent radio stations as diverse practitioners converged around the creative affordances of particular media. He is interested in these hybrid traditions of experimental sound that exceed historical categories such as “sound art” and “electronic music.” As Walker’s research explores, these traditions were distinguished not only by their defiance of disciplinarity and medium-specificity, but by a politically driven engagement with understandings of technological “function” and “dysfunction,” “communication” and “interference” central to the intellectual climate of the Cold War.

Walker listening to the trees

Figures mentioned in Part One of our conversation:

  • John Cage (composer)
  • David Tudor (composer/pianist), “Rainforest” series of works
  • Max Newhaus (artist), “Times Square” sound art piece
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen (composer), Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio
  • Pierre Schaeffer (composer), Radiiodiffusion-Télévision Française
  • San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC)
  • Charles Amirkhanian (sound poet, radio producer), music director of KPFA, Berkeley, 1969–1992
  • Anna Halprin (dancer, choreographer), “Furniture Mix” sound art piece
  • Pauline Oliveros (composer), SFTMC founding member
  • Ramón Sender, SFTMC founding member
  • George E. Lewis (composer, electronic performer, trombone player, theorist)
Design-your-room flow chart fromW. T. Singleton, Man-Machine Systems (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1974)

Figures mentioned in Part Two of our conversation:

  • Norbert Wiener
  • Claude Shannon
  • Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
  • James Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (New York: Atlantic Press Monthly, 1986)
  • Man-Machine Systems (W.T. Singleton)
  • Friedrich Kittler
  • Sybille Krämer
  • Bernhard Siegert
  • LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device)
  • Jenny Holzer (artist)