The Transistor Radio of St Narcissus

The Transistor Radio of St Narcissus for flugelhorn, live electronics and tape 1982-3

The Transistor Radio of St Narcissus was commissioned by John Wallace with funds made available by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and first performed on the Arts Council Contemporary Music Network Tour undertaken by Electronic Music Now early in 1983. It was awarded first prize in the mixed music category of the Bourges Electro-acoustic Awards in 1984. The piece requires two performers, one playing flugelhorn, the other operating the tape and live electronics, and balancing the sound.

The idea of using the flugelhorn came partly from the experience of recording some arrangements with Equale Brass for Nimbus Records the previous year, and partly from a long-standing fascination with the rich and languorous sound of many of Miles Davis’s early recordings where the flugelhorn is featured. Its lyrical fullness of tone is matched by an extraordinary range, from the lowest pedal tone on the B flat below the bass stave to the F sharp or so above the treble stave. First experiments involved recording lip glissandi on six fundamental tones, yielding six series of overtones. From these series four basic ‘matrix’ chords were derived, each of which comprises eleven to thirteen notes stretched out like an overtone series. Mirror images of the ‘matrix chords’ extending below the range of the flugelhorn were created using the Fairlight CMI. These new ‘synthetic spectra’ provide the harmonic framework as well as the timbre-world of the work. The idea of the mirror image either in pitch or time dominates the work, relating to the title which refers to a passage in Thomas Pynchon’s book The Crying of Lot 49. The heroine is reminded of her first sight of a printed circuit-board by the layout of a new housing development in San Narcisco, Southern California.

‘She drove into San Narcisco on a Sunday, in a rented Impala. Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, on to a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth, and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang to her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narcisco, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind roatating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken.’

Moments of ‘revelation’ or heightened understanding occur at nodal points in the work where different sets of frequencies interlock to form some larger structure. The key nodal point lies at about 19 minutes, where the tape falls silent just before the coda. Here the flugelhorn melody is derived from cyphers in Pynchon’s book. The bass line is a mirror of the melody, and the harmony is created by live digital transposition of the melody. It is the performer who triggers these events, enhancing and extending electronically the resources of his instrument.

The shape of the work also reflects the idea of revelation in a process of changing focuses on a journey down through the layers of the sound spectrum. It starts with the noisiest distortions of the flugelhorn, concentrating on the upper reaches of the spectrum. The work moves down through the simple and more complex sound mixtures of the middle regions, to the euphony, consonant harmony, and regular rhythm of the lowest region in the coda which is a microcosm of the whole work. The sound of a transistor radio being tuned in, the emergence of the four ‘matrix chords’ out of the static, morse signals, bass line and percussion, and finally the flugelhorn melody lead to the point of arrival, a perfect cadence based on the flugelhorn’s B flat fundamental tone.

The tape for The Transistor Radio of St Narcissus was produced at the Clockhouse Studio, Keele University, with the assistance of Cliff Bradbury, and at the composer’s studio in Cambridge, OdB Sound.

The following equipment was used in the realisation of the tape part.

  • Fairlight CMI
  • Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizer
  • Roland MC4B micro-computer
  • Roland Vocoder Plus
  • Serge Modular System analogue synthesizer
  • Lexicon Prime Time digital delay line
  • MXR pitch transposer

In the original live performances, the digital delay line, pitch transposer and Serge Modular System were used.