This Artist Uses Old Phone Equipment to Unlock the Secrets of Music
Brooklyn artist Antenes explores interactions between humans and technology by manipulating a vintage switchboard and soloing on rotary dials.
Photo by Aimee Odum
We humans are curators of space. We sequester it into parcels and then designate it for assignment: liturgical, political, recreational, musical. We appraise space, abandon it, renovate it, communicate through it, and cross it in waves and bounds.
On a recent Thursday in Brooklyn, a small audience waited for musician and synth-builder Antenes (a.k.a. Lori Napoleon) to fill the space at ISSUE Project Room. Napoleon roves two streams of New York City's underground—the erudite avant-garde and the techno warehouse scene—and I've had the pleasure of seeing her in both settings. Her interpretative presentation of analog telephone equipment, though more avant-garde than techno, straddled those two streams, jibing nicely with the vision behind ISSUE's 1926 theater, which is being renovated as a modern event space.
ISSUE's building, once the headquarters for the Benevolent & Protective Order of the Elks—a vestigial faction of the freemasons, has been repurposed as a platform for art's vanguard. The 4,800 square foot Renaissance-revival style theater—with its limestone and terra cotta façade, Corinthian columns, and 40-foot vaulted ceilings—is fit for king's court. But the performance's modest DIY setup—eight rows of black folding chairs and two black-clothed tables—belied the room's grandeur. And Antenes' dark, enigmatic set was much more a preservation of the freemasons' cabalistic roots than it was highbrow frippery.
Before Napoleon appeared, a spectral buzz emanated from four speakers, humming below the pre-performance chatter of the crowd. On the tables sat gadgets, boxes, varicolored cables, and flashing LEDs—a mixture of old telecom equipment (PBX-555 Western Electric switchboard, calculagraph, and rotary dial mic) and more recognizable musical instruments (modified Moog synths, a noise synth, and an analog sequencer).
The performance opened with clicks, gusts of noise, broken conversation, and operators reciting old location identifiers. Gradually, Napoleon began deemphasizing herself as performer, omitting recognizable words and "dancing in and out of visibility," as she told me via email after the performance. "There's a point when I want the machines to simply be an extension or invitation for the audience to draw more inside themselves and their reactions to the sounds."
Pulsing patterns and background tones—heard during waiting periods in an analog telephone network—emerged in great swathes. I closed my eyes, drew inside myself, and let the sounds take me away to a wet foundry. Pipes moaned alongside whistles and horns, and I thought about the time stamps of old industry. Textures grew and changed, and shifts snapped me back and forth between my mind and ISSUE's dark room.
For an hour Napoleon worked with the silent focus of a safebreaker, maneuvering her machinery in real-time to connect her art with us, the way an operator would make sure two people were connected through space and time.
Antenes first became intrigued by telecom equipment when she saw an old switchboard display at a small museum in Michigan's upper peninsula. "I instantly felt that they bore a striking resemblance to the first patching-based analog synthesizers and decided to do a project about it then and there."
Operator switchboards were designed to be the most reliable way to transmit audio, and thus many developments in sound can be traced to telephony. The ubiquitous TRS plug—a standard audio jack—for example, is a "living fossil" of one of the oldest connector designs still in use today (late 1800s). Many credit Robert Moog and Don Buchla with creating the original synth interface—and their enormous contributions to synthesizers and electronic music are not to be discounted—but telecom was the real beginning for audio transfer. Antenes' performance, the first in an ongoing residency at ISSUE. is an appreciation of that origin.
To honor its lineage, she chose to highlight the mechanical qualities of the superseded technology, applying contact and binaural microphones to their surfaces and "pulling new sounds out of antiquated devices," she said. "The underlying exploration is the sound signature unique to the knobs, switches, and dials of this era and how they can be used musically still."
While navigating her hardware, Napoleon also integrated archival sounds from the old telecom network, like background noise one might experience while waiting for a call, or crosstalk pulses that occurred naturally during busy signals. She also enlaced her own field recordings from hand cranks and old telephone bells, processing them through granular synthesis to become the long drones that glued the piece together.
And most saliently, she dove into the arcane world of the "phone phreak," a subculture of pranksters and audio voyagers that loved to "decipher and explore the network," Napoleon explained. These people had "a genuine fascination and respect for the system, an infectious curiosity to figure out its complexities for its own sake, and a sense of poetry and awe over its magnitude and the distances traveled."
For the performance, one of these pioneers shared his field recordings with her, a collection recorded in the late 60s and early 70s when he called various area codes to compare accents from automated recordings. Napoleon blended together all of these inputs, and at some point, the resultant plexus of raw sounds merged in ways that could only be described as musical.
The threshold between the musical and the non-musical will differ for each listener, to be sure, but at moments I felt remarkably similar to the way I've felt during Antenes' DJ sets. She framed analogous strands of rhythmic bass in capacious reverb. She performed a never-before-attempted solo on her calculagraph and rotary dial—proving that even non-musical objects can be used musically. And while entrenched in a ghostly milieu, she explored a sonic palette that examined the infinitude of sound.
To Napoleon, there's not such a big difference between her two modes of performance, or their levels of musicality. "A table full of interconnected electronics and a room of bodies in motion are both extremely nuanced challenges that unfold in real time."
In both situations, everything is connected to everything else, so even minute additions or subtractions can have far-reaching implications on the way things unfold in any given space. Napoleon, as the system's catalyst, must be assiduous as she facilitates movement from inorganic to organic through various phases of musicality.
"I don't consciously decide at what point music begins and ends," Napoleon told me. "My thinking tends to be more in terms of bringing sounds in and out of the foreground in various densities as an experience in listening, playing with context and memory as a way to emphasize or deemphasize certain elements." And truly, all sounds are associated with their original contexts, she explained, where they achieve "permanence in the experience of memory long after the real thing has disappeared."
This rings true for old telephone networks, common musical devices, and every other sound we hear. When we recognize sounds, memories of their origins are revived, and their unique combinations create new sonic touchstones for future reference. Touchstones that will return us to the spaces we heard them in, the people and machines that created them, and the way they made us feel.
Antenes' concept, then—"the interplay of human operators with technology" and "parallels between the musician, the technician, and their machine as a living portal for content to pass"—was a celebration of cooperative histories, an exploration of how sound connects us to our pasts and to the way the world once was, even long after the real things have disappeared.
Antenes plans to release two albums this fall, on The Bunker NY and Silent Season. Her next live performance is July 26 at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn.
Keagon Voyce is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.