It came from the Mid-Valley: Fischkopf Sinfoniker and Austin Rich on KMUZ

by J. Daugherty

Since the early 1900s, geeks and weirdos of all stripes have had a fascination with radio. Long before they were the medium of choice for talk shows and pop music, radio waves were considered a strange and mysterious phenomenon. Scientists, audio engineers, and experimenters devised countless new ways to harness their power. Perhaps it is fitting that this technology plays such a central role in the creation and propagation of experimental music today.

Many of my performances feature samples recorded from various radio programs as well as live synthesis involving voltage-controlled radio receivers. Manipulating these sounds and applying delay and reverb can create interesting organic textures, a technique that I feel adds more depth to some of my performances. Additionally, I developed an interest in performing on college and community radio stations after my set on KPSU some years back, which I still feel was one of my best sets to date. However, I made a lot of changes to my live rig since my last radio appearance, and it was time to see how the new setup would work out.

This particular story begins on a Friday afternoon, where our protagonist sits at work with radio on the brain. I was getting out early to take a professional licensing exam, but I also had another motive for leaving: I was scheduled to play a set in Salem on KMUZ. Specifically on Mid-Valley Mutations, an experimental radio show hosted by Austin Rich, DJ and weird musician extraordinaire. It’s a two-hour freeform show featuring live and recorded music along with interviews, talk segments, and various other bits here and there. I was particularly excited about this opportunity because I was very impressed with Austin’s work and besides, I hadn’t had a chance to visit Salem in almost a decade.

My shift ended without much fanfare and I rushed through my exam, eager to hit the road. I made a couple of quick stops to pick up my gear and some provisions, loaded up my trusty old Bonneville, and made a beeline for the nearest on-ramp. Once on the freeway I made good time through four counties (Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, and King) thanks to that supercharged Pontiac engine, but trouble arose somewhere in southern Pierce, as it tends to. A young hotshot and his Ducati got closely acquainted with the grille of an 18-wheeler, and the resulting pileup turned a 5-hour drive into a 10-hour one. This caused no small amount of concern, being that I was on a fairly strict timetable.

Luckily for me, by the time I reached Tenino the road had opened up considerably. There were few other cars, and even fewer highway cops. Given these conditions, a heavy right foot got me past the state line with some hope of making my connection in Oregon’s capitol. By the time I got to the radio station parking lot, it was pitch black, I was an hour late, and the streets were empty. I wondered if I was in the right place and left my engine running in case I needed to make a quick exit. However, my doubts were put aside when Austin unlocked the studio door and ushered me inside.

I set up my rig as quickly as possible and Austin tossed me a pair of RCA cables. As soon as I managed to patch in to the board, we were on the air. After a quick introduction, I began my performance. I worked on this set for months, but there hadn’t been a good time to test it out live until this moment. As is the case with any new set, some improvisation was necessary. I started with some dark atmospheric textures, which slowly gave way to violent waves of electronic noise. I pushed each element farther and farther until every channel on my mixer redlined, and after the crescendo I faded each element out until only the primal ambiance I started with remained.

After the set was over, Austin interviewed me about the performance. We had a good conversation about the hardware and compositional techniques I used and talked a bit about experimental electronica in general. To my surprise, after the show ended he asked me to perform a second set for the Mid-Valley Mutations podcast. I was caught completely off guard, since I had no more material prepared. However, I wasn’t about to disappoint my host or the audience, so I took a few minutes to come up with some new patches and tore into it. I tried to keep the general feel consistent with my previous performance, but other than that all bets were off. I pushed my system to its limits, diving to previously unexplored sonic depths. It was  chaotic and unrehearsed, but somehow it was working. The energy of the set came to a head, and as suddenly as it began, it was over.

We concluded with another short interview and locked up the studio. It was pitch black outside and everything was closed. Being as late as it was, I figured I should sort out some form of accommodations. It was a few days til payday and I didn’t have sufficient cash for a hotel, so Austin was gracious enough to let me stay at his place for the night. We spent probably two hours catching up and discussing music before I turned in for the evening.

The next day I didn’t have a lot of time before I had to head back to Bellingham, so I tried to see what I could see of Salem prior to leaving. I visited a couple of music stores and had an excellent burger at a place downtown. Exploring the surrounding area took the rest of the morning, and it was soon time to depart. I was pleased to see the beautiful Oregon landscape from the freeway, which I had missed on the drive down due to poor illumination. As I passed through Portland I reflected on my short but eventful trip, and I thought to myself, “I should do this more often.”