As anyone who has turned the knob of a shortwave radio knows, it’s at once an act of improvisation and discipline. Even if you have a pre-determined frequency in mind, chances are you’ll become fascinated by the cacophony of competing sounds and voices that become sharper and clearer with each slight touch of dial. If you have some time on your hands, you can also play the radio like an instrument, immersing yourself in the static, overlapping foreign voices and music, wow and flutter oscillations, Morse-code blips, the ghostly wave transmissions, and ubiquitous thundering evangelists. Electro-acoustic composer and former film and TV editor Tod Dockstader has long been fascinated with this fractured netherworld. He collected 90 hours of late-night recordings as source material and then manipulated these otherworldly tones into drones and ambient textures which, when the third disc is released, will form an epic conceptual trilogy.
What is remarkable is how nuanced and carefully constructed Dockstader’s designs of these re-contextualized wave forms are. Some like “Orgal” and “Babbel” retain the silvery, fluttering slipstream character with which we’re all familiar. On others, Dockstader’s manipulations are more explicit: the heated Stockhausen keyboard resonances of “Omaggio a Fellini” and “Pipes,” the disembodied voices on “Yaya,” the wavering highway-underpass bass tones on “Clocking,” the submerged string-like vibrations of “Feeder” and “Beating,” and the gargantuan roaring waves of “Surfer.” In contrast to these disquieting overloads, “Low Roller,” “Spindrift,” “Wire,” and “Still” are placid respites. Amid these densely, layered, swirling sonic miasmas, Dockstader has shaped some of these aperiodic sound patterns into rhythms, especially the metallic riffs of the psychedelic “Piccolo” and the locomotive shuffling of “Knock.”
More abrasive and grating than its mellow predecessor, Aerial #2 is self-contained enough to stand on its own or act as a compliment to #1. While this will likely be heard on stereos, computers, and MP3 players, the most natural place to discover it, of course, would be emanating from a shortwave radio. You shift the aerial, and it’s still there. Is it Aerial or the unfettered sounds of the shortwave? Who knows?