I took that bite / now I might throw up
furry onion you’re very gross
This song is over in less than a minute and it brings to mind the longest one I’ve ever heard. A single piano line on half a notation sheet, dated 1893. French composer Erik Satie, in that first manuscript, directed players to repeat “Vexations” 840 times. Très lent, very slowly.
When John Cage staged the piece in 1963 it took 18 hours and 40 minutes for pianists to complete the work in 20-minute shifts. Dinnertime one day to noon the next. With each tiny, disconsolate arc, something was underlined again. But what? What had Satie meant? To some historians “Vexations” is an obvious parody of tedious piano practice, to others it’s clearly a jab at Richard Wagner.
Scholars unsatisfied with those explanations for such an intense theoretical gesture claim it wasn’t a joke. Around the time Satie committed “Vexations” to paper, the painter Suzanne Valadon finished one of her earliest works: his portrait. The daughter of a single mother, Valadon ended up in Satie’s path after a circus injury veered her toward modeling for money. She took up brushes for herself. Found letters tell us Satie was in love after one night. History tells us Valadon left him for a stock broker. Or was it that the painter simply refused Satie, her too-eager neighbor, and moved on?
We know that portrait of Satie was found next to a likeness of Valadon on the wall of his famously lonely apartment when he died more than thirty years later. The woman he desired never encountered “Vexations” to consider the weight of its possible meaning. Or maybe she did. Maybe Satie showed her that original notation sheet, played the line for a day in earshot of her nearby room. Maybe Valadon said goodbye anyway. Through my headphones there’s a vomiting sound in the Thin Skin track, guttural and immediate; I accept this version of the story.
“Vexations” has been staged in solo and in relay for come-and-go, bring-your-own-pillow marathons at galleries since Cage’s attention. UNT on the Square in Denton hosted one last September as part of an en-masse celebration marking the 150th year since Satie was born. The piece conditions you to get queasy in the moments after the line finishes each time, the piano itself anticipating repetition with a sick dread.
What would it be like to come across this infinite line on the radio? Listeners have tuned in and out of “Vexations” as broadcast or streamed on stations like Seattle’s Hollow Earth. When organizers secured FCC approval for the LPFM license for that station in 2013, co-founder Garrett Kelly used the “Vexations” performance they’d once streamed as an example of the kind of programming values new rules wouldn’t cancel: Freedom for long players. Adventure without offense. Mystery for everyone.
Looks like we got a call right now. Alright. Hello, Hello?
Hello. This is Stephanie.
I used to be your girlfriend.
Ah, I don’t recall.
Well, I know you’ve known a lot of girls.
I never met a girl I didn’t meet.
Yeah, baby. I want you to know you’re the greatest!
No, no. The Beatles were the greatest.
— Daniel Johnston, playing both characters, on Nick Hill’s WFMU show in 1990
When KUZU co-founder Peter Salisbury started experimenting with low-power 1670 AM in 2009, he was listening to a lot of WFMU, thinking about what could be. His friend Nevada Hill donated to the New York freeform station and often credited discoveries to its shows. Some programs heard that year are still running, like This Is The Modern World With Trouble. Its taglines represent well the poetry of summary required by WFMU shows that defy category: “…Rare birds flock together to sing Francoise Hardy as soul hits. A sunset of blips and bleeps fills the air.”
You have to listen to know what it means. And in each world the rules change a little. Ryuichi Sakamoto in the same hour as The Supremes is typical for The Modern World. An episode title referencing a Drake verse in a Rihanna song — “if you had a twin I would still choose you” — is less so, but fits with a certain sweetness. That consistent inconsistency is fertile ground for stumbling-upon. Come for one thing and you’ll get it; leave with something you didn’t expect, too. Salisbury opens the gate for that on the airwaves in Denton with KUZU, which launched last month. He wants the station to be an FCC-abiding, reliable font of quality, accessible by terrestrial radio and online. But its goal is to “educate, not placate” listeners.
The early lineup is sure to make all sorts of worlds bigger. Musica Sin Fronteras gives an hour on Saturday mornings to indigenous music across the Americas. I added the effusively charming Wicked & Wildstyle to my Google calendar when DJ Spinn Mo employed drive-time airhorn with Houston funk heroes Archie Bell & The Drells on Wednesday. KUZU has featured poetry already but not enough rap; board members say they’re working on acquiring more. The lack of gratuitous focus on playing local acts for the sake of playing local acts has been reassuring. There’s an extreme metal show on Thursday and a pop-art-meets-contemporary-composition show on Saturday.
“It’s like a balloon you’re letting go of, and who knows where it’s going to land?”
The most fervent personal request I ever have on occasions like these is to hear The Velvet Underground, and I did, but it was a rare song I didn’t know called “Temptation Inside Of Your Heart” (“you can talk during this,” Lou Reed offered). This reached me via Mariel’s Morning Mix, a Tuesday show run by Mariel Tam-Ray, News Editor at the Denton Record-Chronicle and an alum of Rice University’s KTRU. One song I starred Monday afternoon in my notes as “The Books / Caribou?!!” was actually bygone Denton act Sleep Whale’s “Little Brite.” Sprawled out on a park bench at sunset that evening I watched some clouds move to a selection in my headphones from the soundtrack to Cat People, a 1982 erotic horror film I’d never heard of. Upon searching I found the movie I hope to watch this weekend — the 1942 feature on which it’s loosely based.
For two Saturdays now KUZU 92.9’s been findable on the FM dial from spots in Lake Dallas all the way to pockets northeast of Little Elm, as explorers tell it on this map posted in the Facebook group for the station’s unofficial fan club. Most of the users in that group have been around at least since KUZU first started raising money. For the first time Salisbury truly can’t picture who’s listening outside the main base.
He could look right at a co-host, though, for a bit. Erin Findley, a fellow KUZU DJ behind the Monday night Cue Music film score show, and a station board member/founder, dreamed up a show they could host together for the launch called “Sticks And Stones.” Different pairs will hold court each time. They’ll always be partners of some sort who know each other well. Lovers, sure. Or roommates, or collaborators. The hosts are in essence playing songs for one another, cheating out to the audience. So Salisbury drew a bit of a blank later when Findley wasn’t at the mic with him.
“We played ‘Equally Damaged’ by Blonde Redhead, for example, which is just one we both really like, you know, like one person could play a song that jogs a memory for the other, or a song that you heard on vacation together. We kicked it off at first, and it was so fun, and it came around to my [reggae] show and I didn’t have a partner, and it was less fun,” he laughs.
The shows are still materializing as planets unto themselves. Right now the majority of music comes from libraries donated by board members and a few others, automated on rotation. Listeners at this moment are at a threshold of broader randomness that’ll be crossed soon as the station acquires more volunteer DJs.
“We talked about this idea of who’s listening, earlier with 1670,” Salisbury says. “It’s like a balloon you’re letting go of, and who knows where it’s going to land?”
“Is that a cat, purring?”
“What you’re listening to is my cat purring.”
— Tuesday, Jul. 25, 8:15 p.m. // Listener, aloud to the radio; then Tiger D host Sarah Alexander, KUZU 92.9
“Junior, you know what you gotta do — you’re gonna have to tighten up.”
— Wednesday, Jul. 26, 5:04 p.m. // DJ Spinn Mo, quoting his dad, KUZU 92.9
There are more than 2 billion playlists on Spotify, belonging to about 140 million users, as of last month. For each of those users Spotify creates a Discover Weekly playlist of 30 suggestions, purportedly based on playlists the listener has created or the music they’ve sought out the week prior. Through my own ill-advised research, I’ve found the user profiles you view — the users you interact with that week — very likely come to bear on the songs that appear on this weekly roundup. A long-running and popular exclamation on social media: no one knows me better than my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist.
That feeling the algorithm could read my thoughts is ultimately why, before KUZU launched, I confirmed to a Spotify rep in a chat window that, yes, I would like them to please delete my account, and no, I did not want them to move my music to another one. The psychic containers of public Spotify playlists became too strange a comfort and too dangerous a timesuck. They made a way to sort feelings neatly, to track their evolution, to whisper words that weren’t mine to someone I hoped would be influenced by the borrowed verse. Songs Grace Jones or Leonard Cohen wrote could have been a way to imagine another’s experience or sit with all the possibility that makes poetry sacred. A new Real Estate single could have been a sigh of relief in itself. Instead they became characters in an obsessive code.
What happens to a song when it’s played on the radio?
Passive communication — or more specifically, the preferred term of poet Ariana Reines, forged correspondence — works both ways. You can write your own name in the blank address form that is unspecified public domain. That’s what can make something built to be social so isolating. You can imagine something is for you when it is not. You can see what someone is listening to and try to decipher whether they identify more with the narrator in the song or the person being described in the lyrics. You can be satiated by this perceived extraction of truth. You can need it that much. Maybe you don’t do this, maybe you don’t need it. Maybe it’s just me. Spotify made it too easy to exist in a closed loop of mind control. I stopped experiencing music.
It’s been more than a week. I checked Thursday to make sure my profile was gone, that my claim of deletion wouldn’t be empty, and as of that night it was all still there: hundreds of hours’ worth of searching and careful alignment and painstakingly considered transitions since 2011. Only my username was missing at the top. I laughed a little, at this deserved correction. Then I logged out for the last time.
I only miss the access when there’s a melody in my head that would only rest in being heard. Wave-tossed lullabies from Lotte Kestner’s The Bluebird of Happiness are what’s come again and again this week in moments of silence. I buy the digital album, for later.
I know that door / that shuts just before / you get to the dream you see
— The Byrds, “Everybody’s Been Burned,” Sunday, Jul. 30, midnight, KUZU 92.9
What happens to a song when it’s played on the radio? The physical dispersing of sound waves through a transmitter: that’s lightness; ephemera, and it’s in such short supply in the world. What’s been sold to us as freedom of endless choice is actually a monopoly in which we all can anticipate our own experience.
There will be a time, months down the road, to listen to KUZU with a critical ear, to measure how much a mirror of the community it’s become and assess who the station serves. Right now it’s a wealth of space — one of only about 100 freeform outlets in the United States, most of which were born of college radio stations.
I’m thinking about the way light prisms when it passes through the glass bricks in the walls of the small building in which the station’s housed, south of the Square. There’s already material original to the station being played on the air; mashups and field recordings like the ones Salisbury heard on WFMU. He remembers hearing a guy ask people on the streets of New York City questions like, “What happens when you die?” The wonder for Salisbury wasn’t in the guy’s asking. It was because people answered him so willingly, so eager for his prompt to imagine.