The radio play may now seem like a quaint relic of a bygone age, made obsolete by the ascendancy of television, but there is much potential still to be explored in the form. The novelty of radio initially created opportunities for actors, playwrights, poets, composers, and pulp fiction authors, but as a solely auditory medium it soon became a space for sonic innovation and creativity distinct from the music industry. Radio broadcast presented an alternative to live performance, with its orientation towards the stage, and it is this aspect that is still most generative.
The work of Double Goocher Shop draws on the radio play as privileged medium for sonic exploration. And since the COVID pandemic has largely derailed in-person live performance, this presents an opportunity to reassess the radio as an alternative to the stage. Alvise Vidolin, an Italian pioneer of live electronic music, noted decades ago that “radio had come to be seen as a new stage, or rather a new medium for shows, in which the principal ingredients were voice, music, sounds, and noise” (quoted in the late Joel Chadabe‘s Electric Sound). While we might quibble over the precise distinction between such categories, what stands out to me is how easily the medium lent itself to experimentation, creating institutional counters to the sale of recordings. Eventually the availability of tape and LPs shifted the attention to the composition of fixed works, especially after the advent of stereo sound in the late 1960s, but radio plays continued to be a popular medium in much of Europe throughout the 1980s, particularly the German Hörspiel. While radio plays may now be mostly confined to the margins, revalorized by dedicated artists, the growing podcast ecosystem may suggest potential avenues for the cultivation of new forms and new audiences.
Double Goocher Shop is comprised of Renato Grieco (kNN) and MP Hopkins. Grieco hails from Napoli, where he is a member of Phonurgia, the cultural association that organizes the La Digestion festival. Trained as a contrabassist, he has performed in a wide variety of musicians, from Evan Parker to Valerio Tricoli to Olivier Di Placido, utilizing a range of instruments including reel-to-reel tape, electronics, and voice. His solo debut as kNN, 2019’s Alta moda animale, reveals an artist finely attuned to the materiality of sound, working with long improvised sessions as raw material for studio composition and manipulation in the tradition of musique concrète. Hopkins is from Sydney, Australia, and has released music on esteemed labels including Penultimate Press and Mappa. Hopkins’ work interrogates text and voice via recording and playback, testing the limits of iteration and comprehensibility. For instance, his 2019 piece, Internal Transcriptions, was composed by transforming a text via a kind of feedback loop; responding to his own awareness of himself reading, remediating the text back and forth between his own voice and speech-2-text software. Both artists produce work for recordings, radio, and installation, often moving between these various forms in a similar act of remediation.
What’s a “goocher,” anyway, you ask? Maybe it’s just a nonsense word, or maybe it’s a nonsense word borrowed from a cult ’80s movie. Either way, it’s typical of the kind of phonopoetic playfulness that characterizes their work. The duo met during Sounding Path, a 2018 residency in Syros, Greece, under the mentorship of David Toop, which resulted in their eponymous cassette (2018). Their collaborations since have included work for performance, installation, and radio broadcast. Readers might recall their contribution to Amplify 2020, una grammatica dell’ornamento. That work was based upon an outdoor text/sound/object installation produced as part of “Unlocked Sound,” the 2020 edition of festival organized by Tempo Reale, a venerable center for the study of electronic music in Florence founded by the composer Luciano Berio. The Kaplan Text, released as a single-sided LP by Second Sleep, was instead produced via long distance collaboration, and takes on the quality of a radio play.
The duo has since produced a radio play for Threads, Mouths Wide Close (2020), departing from Molière‘s 1673 drama, The Hypochondriac. Borrowing the play’s three-act structure, Double Goocher drew inspiration from the play to generate their own text reflecting on the theme of medicine, using a combination of English, Italian, and invented word. Similarly, The Kaplan Text departs from North By Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock‘s classic story of mistaken identity, referencing that film’s protagonist, George Kaplan. The script of The Kaplan Text, read by MP Hopkins, was subjected to repeated translation deformations and remediations. So, don’t expect a coherent narrative; the result can be surreal and disorienting, by turns poetic and befuddled. The distortion of meaning pushes the work towards sound poetry at times, while the use of concrète sound and musical phrases anchors the dramatic structure of the piece.
Kaplan was actually produced before the piece for Threads, with Grieco and Hopkins’ roles inverted. For Kaplan, Grieco wrote the text, which they traded back and forth via translation, with Hopkins reading and interpreting the final script for the recording. Rather than manipulating and shaping improvisations, the pair took a more compositional approach. Kaplan opens with just Hopkins’ voice, gradually manipulated and augmented by electronic sound design and some background voices. Like Mouths Wide Close, one might read a three-act structure into Kaplan. While in Hitchcock’s film, perhaps the closest he came to an action film, the third-act reaches a dramatic climax (on Mount Rushmore), The Kaplan Text‘s final third is the most conventionally musical passage, even if it is very much a studio composition. The climax doesn’t so much as explode as the gentle accumulation of elements gives way and unravels. Hopkins sings, while an unamplified electric guitar is accompanied by what sounds like a garden hose. The guitar chords return about a minute later, this time transformed and slightly distorted with amplification, before layering the two versions, building to beautiful abstract climax of tonal elements and noise, before Hopkins’ refrain plays us out.
Towards the middle of the piece, Hopkins asks: “Is the ear hanging in the void?” Like all of the script, these lines are open to interpretation, but I can’t help but think of this as the perfect image of the experience of listening to the radio. Grieco’s father is an amateur radio enthusiast, and growing up exposed to the combination of voices, music, and noise informed kNN’s artistic trajectory. Unlike physical recordings, the experience of tuning into the radio is defined by stepping into a constant flow of sound. Radio is an accessible means of discovery, but it also puts the listener in control, allowing the user to switch between different stations and instrumentalize the flux of sound. While this might not be true any longer when works are available for streaming or pressed on vinyl, radio still presents itself as an important interpretative frame. Grieco and Hopkins don’t limit themselves to radiophonic influence, but their work does suggest one possible means of exploring the audible void. (Joseph Sannicandro)