With his Radionics Radio project, composer Daniel Wilson creates electronic music from an unexpected source – thoughts. Tom Howells learns about an occult pseudoscience that deserves a place in the canon of avant-garde electronics.
I’m standing in a rusted water tank in Deptford to witness two men in lab coats tweak waves of static and rudimentary electronic flutter from the makeshift PA. Behind them, a projection of a low-res infinity tunnel – redolent of that early Windows ‘maze’ screensaver – fills the tank wall. Lines of text fade into view, jostling at the front of the tunnel before diminishing. Some stick around longer than others. ‘No more itching!’ reads one. ‘BRAINF**KING LOW FREQS’ demands another. A lot are in Spanish; many request money, or cosmic wellbeing. ‘Leon increases bitcoins.’ ‘Cut off all psy vampires.’ ‘I am magnetizing abundance.’ After 15 minutes, the music shifts, obtuse noise segueing into chiming bell tones. It’s not a tune, as such – it’s too stumbling for that – but it’s melodic. The visuals change to a scrolling sequencer, the text above reading: ‘Peter send me the money so I can fix the boat you promised’. The music fades, the crowd applauds, and the projection is again replaced with the words ‘Radionics Radio’ around two jagged waveforms and a dial reading 0–100.
On the surface, the performance is an outré experiment in drone, bizarre electronic pop and randomised semantic nonsense. But it’s not that simple. Radionics Radio is the collective name for a musical project, album and radio show that harnesses a mid-20th century medical pseudo-science with an occult bent to create electronic music. Using the strange diagnostic techniques of this science, dubbed ‘radionics’, the musician, writer and instrument builder Daniel Wilson has produced one of the finest electronic records of the past year. His source material? Human thought frequencies. Sounds weird? It is.
I meet Wilson at Resonance FM’s London Bridge studios a week before the tank performance to discuss the history behind Radionics Radio: An Album of Musical Radionic Thought Frequencies, and the strange space it occupies in the pantheon of avant-garde music. A stalwart of London’s experimental music scene, Wilson is perhaps best known as a member of Oscillatorial Binnage, a group also featuring Toby Clarkson (the other performer in the water tank) Howlround’s Chris Weaver and sound artist Fari Bradley, who create abstract noise from found objects and metal attacked with electromagnetic forcefields.
He’s genial, slightly foppish and extremely smart. The Radionics Radio project is an easy one to sum up cryptically, but much harder to detail in any sort of concise way, and the breezy peppiness of much of the record itself (released via Sub Rosa) belies the academic level of research behind it.
In any case, the album itself is glorious. There are a few ‘difficult’ drone-based electro-acoustic experiments reminiscent of Wilson’s live performance, but for the most part (particularly on tracks like ‘Our Westchester Pizzeria is a Huge Success’, ‘Social Media (More Friends)’ and ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’) it’s like a meticulous smooshing together of Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, the sultry samba of Daphne Oram’s ‘Bird of Parallax’, woozy IDM, old BBC science show soundtracks and a smattering of skronky ‘80s chiptune. Just how this surreal electronic opus was conceived and constructed is where things get odd.
Radionics is a fringe science founded on the idea that all living things have defined vibrational frequencies
The original Radionics Radio project comprised an experimental app “designed to turn your thoughts into frequencies” in conjunction with a show on Resonance FM, the south London arts station where Wilson had a residency, sponsored by the organisation Sound and Music. This was designed to resemble a stripped-down version of something called the Delawarr Multi-Oscillator, a sound-generating device built in the 1960s by the pioneers of ‘radionics’.
The history of radionics is complex; a rabbit hole of strange scientific thought developed in an era that was flush with new-fangled spiritualist research. It is now overwhelmingly considered a pseudoscience – albeit one that still attracts many followers. The pre-amble to Wilson’s radio show offers a succinct explanation. First established in the early 1900s by the American physician Albert Abrams, radionics is a fringe science founded on the idea that all living things have defined vibrational frequencies. Dial-covered boxes were thought to be able to detect the specific frequencies of different illnesses and psychological conditions, which could be reduced by the box into a series of numbers. Contentiously, radionics practitioners claimed these boxes could also treat illnesses, by directing these numbers back at a patient with the corresponding condition, in the form of a kind of healing energy. The devices weren’t electrically powered, despite being covered in complicated looking dials and wires. Instead, as Wilson explains, “they were said to operate on unknown energies, or the power of the mind”. It was – and still is – as confusingly cryptic as it is unlikely.
Radionics Radio takes its cues from the later acoustic experiments of the Delawarr Laboratories, founded in Oxford in the 1940s by George and Marjorie de la Warr. They believed that electronic sound could be a tangible basis for radionics treatments, an attempt, Wilson says, to “bring out this phenomena, which was so far invisible, into the physical world.”
The result was their Multi-Oscillator thought–to-frequency converter, invented in the 1960s and of which Wilson’s Radionics Radio app is a 21st century recreation. This was a nine-dial box wired to a unit with an amplification board, a rubber ‘friction pad’ and nine oscillators, through which the frequencies of physical and mental conditions – even completely abstract thoughts – could be changed into sounds. Earlier radionics machines were hooked-up to vials of diseased tissue or blood for detection purposes, but the de la Warrs’ version operated purely on the idea of something. If it was being concentrated on in the operator’s mind, they reasoned, it could be detected.
“Radionics was a precursor to what electronic musicians would later do when sitting behind a brand new synthesiser”
The user of the Multi-Oscillator would think of an illness or a concept while stroking the rubber pad and listening to an oscillator tone. When the sound corresponded to the thought, they would detect a point of friction, or ‘stick’, on the pad. They’d note down the frequency and repeat the process with the other eight oscillators, resulting in a dense run of microtones related to that particular thought. (Microtones are musical notes set apart in distances smaller than a semi-tone, which is the basic interval on a musical stave.) Over the course of their research, they collected thousands of different sequences (or ‘rates’) of tones, each corresponding to different illnesses and thoughts.
The Radionics Radio app functioned as a stripped-back, digital version of the Delawarr Multi-Oscillator, accessible by anyone on the internet. Any thought, concept or idea is first entered into a ‘thought box’ as text. Modern radionics theory, Wilson explains, says that any thought can be reduced to numbers and frequencies – it can even be a desire or a wish. In the tutorial video, we see Oscillatorial Binnage’s Chris Weaver type in ‘cardboard box’. (The peculiar names of the songs on the album – ‘‘Peter send me the money so I can fix the boat you promised” – are all thoughts that real people entered into the box.)
The user then circles the thought with their cursor while rubbing a smooth surface with their other hand. This causes an oscillator tone to play, gradually increasing in pitch. Concentrating on the thought, an intuitive ‘stick’ is eventually felt on the smooth surface – the radionic correspondence with the thought box. The frequency at that point is added to a list in the app and the process is repeated up to six times, working up through the sound spectrum. The oscillators could be switched into higher frequency ranges if more piercing tones, up to 4,000Hz, were favoured. When complete, a button combines the frequencies as clusters to be sent to Wilson for broadcast on his weekly Radionics Radio show, with some of them later worked into tracks for the album.
The de la Warrs never saw what they were doing as musical – only medical. Even so, their method of converting thoughts into frequencies has interesting resonances for today’s experimental music, says Wilson. In the late 1940s, before the invention of the Multi-Oscillator, Delawarr Laboratories built an amplified, three-oscillator box for demonstrative purposes. The lab devised frequency clusters related to the mucus membranes of the larynx, which they played as a demonstration to the British Society of Dowsers in 1949, with the result that members of the audience reported having dry throats. Convincing? They thought so. At this event, the de la Warrs played three tones, insisting these be amplified via three separate loudspeakers rather than one – the interaction of the frequencies in the air supposedly increasing their effect.
Wilson suggests that this demonstration was the first example of radionics’ irresistible parallels with avant-garde music, and a precursor to New York’s minimalism scene a decade later. Specifically, he cites La Monte Young’s Dream House, an immersive installation of fluctuating sound and light waves in which the movement of the spectator alters the pitches. The parallels with Young’s work, he suggests, can be seen in the way he too began using “very harmonic tones and hearing these frequencies interact in the air through separate speakers”. That the de la Warrs were inadvertently acting as composers is an element that elevates Wilson’s project from musical curio to something more profound. Sonic tinkering it may be, but Radionics Radio is effectively right at the centre of a bizarre scientific-spiritualist-avant-garde Venn diagram.
Prior to George de la Warr’s death in 1969, Delawarr Laboratories applied to the General Post Office to broadcast their frequencies direct into the homes of the public as an attempt to treat the physical and mental malaise of the nation through the radio. The application, perhaps inevitably, was rejected. But with Radionics Radio, Wilson has picked up where the de la Warrs left off.
Thousands of frequencies were submitted by users of the Radionics Radio app, some of whom were radionics enthusiasts from around the world, particularly the West Coast of the US. The complete list of submissions, edited to remove useless 0Hz tones and some of the more profane messages, runs to almost 400 pages spanning a huge range of topics, from single words to berserk ranting. As seen at the Deptford concert, a lot deal with cash. Many concern sex (“I will penetrate Professor Giovanni”, “A strong leggy 6’2” woman to appear and engage in many things”); health (“Elly the dog’s foot is fully healed now”); and chakras. Some are more disturbing, evoking death magic and personal retribution – the frequency and number of submissions demanding revenge on a woman called Deborah are genuinely unnerving.
It should be stated that Wilson is not a true believer, describing himself instead as a benign skeptic – though he refers to the de la Warrs work as a “potential labyrinth of self-deception”. Highlighting the compositional potential of the de la Warrs’ dormant technology was the main attraction, he insists.
The 15-minute broadcasts on Resonance FM became more complex and more musical as the series went on, with Wilson fashioning the frequencies into arpeggios, octaves and sub-octaves, creating melodies. The later shows flit between discordant chiptune and clattering robotic electronica in among the minimal hums and bell tones.
To start constructing songs from the many submissions, Wilson built a cabinet containing six speakers – one for each of the app’s possible frequencies – and a suspended microphone to record their output. Collecting the user-submitted sounds, he programmed an application that would diffuse them over a 16-channel sound card, supplying raw material that he could then harness any way he liked. To create a sense of movement – plain oscillator frequencies are pretty dull, after all – he would shift the speakers around the cabinet. To construct rhythms, he generated clipped little blips of sound.
“I had an email from a lady who said, ‘”Heal Chakras” isn’t healing my chakras!’ I said, ‘Don’t blame me, this isn’t a treatment record!”
He then made octaves and sub-octaves from the collected noises, creating the same notes in different pitches and fashioning scales, treating each thought as its own key. “There’d be a key change and you’d be in a different thought. Each scale would have its own harmonic mood that would radionically correspond to the thought.” This gave him a huge amount of sonic material to work with. “It’s an interesting method of composition,” he continues. “What I was doing with Radionics Radio is purely random, arbitrary frequencies. Well, if you believe in radionics it’s not random, as they do actually relate to the thought. I don’t believe in radionics, so I can safely say they’re arbitrary frequencies and they don’t have any harmonic relation to each, other unless someone decided to troll me.”
And was he trolled? “I was actually – someone sent me the chord of D major!”
The crowd-sourced frequencies are like “virtual found objects”, he says. “You’ve got up to six frequencies that represent a thought. If you just stuck with those six frequencies that’s immediately a restriction, and those kind of restrictions give you a focus.” Most modern artists, have a dizzying level of freedom through digital software, he notes, so these boundaries meant new approaches to writing had to be found.
Reactions to the record itself have been divisive. “Whenever you search radionics now, [the project] contaminates web searches,” he sighs. “I had an email from a lady who said ‘[her submission] ‘”Heal Chakras” isn’t healing my chakras!’ I said, ‘Don’t blame me, this isn’t a treatment record! This is actually a musical experiment.” Meanwhile, fans of microtonal and electro-acoustic music – his expected audience – were suspicious of the pseudo-medical bunkum. Promoting it, he implies, has been a little arduous.
Delawarr Laboratories knew that being forced to listen to single and compound tones would be painfully dull for the patient, no matter how effective, so George de la Warr had in fact suggested that making them into tunes could make for a more tolerable experience. In a way, Wilson’s remit for Radionics Radio was simply to create music that wasn’t as boring as the radionic treatments were. “In that respect I was aiming for a kind of easy listening, or something quite upbeat that would in theory be listenable but that also had a kind of relentlessness that would make them more like a treatment as well – approachable, popular song almost, [but] done with electronic thought frequencies. Sugaring the pill.”
Wilson believes there are almost endless possibilities for composing with the “new vistas of microtonal harmonies” that these unconventional tunings present. He’s also interested in adapting traditional instruments to play the scales he built from the frequency clusters. “It’d help drive home my original argument,” he explains. “That is, what Delawarr Laboratories were doing – with their efforts to find frequencies that ‘corresponded’ to thoughts in a mysterious way – was essentially composing on a very elemental level. It was a precursor to what electronic musicians would later do when sitting behind a brand new synthesiser, while also harking back to Mozart who, it is written, channelled music from elsewhere.” A pause. “Not that Radionics Radio’s humble offerings approach such composer-ly levels!”
For Wilson, Radionics Radio’s most important achievement is to bring the Delawarrs’ long-forgotten Multi-Oscillator and its bizarre theories into the pantheon of electronic music history where it belongs: “I hope that I’ve helped a little in this osmosis.”