Inspired by the British scientist Elizabeth Alexander, whose pioneering work in wartime radar led to the advent of radio astronomy, this transcontinental collaboration between Romanian sound artist Diana Duta and her Canadian counterpart Julia E. Dyck was created live in 2019 with the protagonists several hundred miles distant from one another.
Alexander’s work led to the discovery of the way in which solar activity affects radio waves at certain times of day, namely dawn and dusk. For this reason, Dyck and Duta scheduled their performance to take place as the sun dipped below the horizon across Western Europe, with the former streaming from Belgium and the latter playing live in Berlin. Dyck was stationed at a former GDR watchtower with her audience’s experience fractured further by their location on the floor below. An experiment in time, place and dislocation, “Wave Debris” pays homage to an underappreciated scientific figure in intriguing fashion, using frequencies emitted by the sun alongside field recordings and poetry readings – a large-scale approach to shedding light on the practically imperceptible.
Conceptually, “Wave Debris” couldn’t be more on point, right down to the choice of poetry. Ron Silliman’s “Sunset Debris” has been chosen not only for its title but also for its author’s interest in the relationships between senders and receivers, and the work’s staccato nature which mirrors well the jolting, abbreviated qualities of the radio communication Alexander will have experienced during her work in the Naval Intelligence Service. For those unaware, Silliman’s poem is made up entirely of questions and runs over 30 pages – not all of it is presented here, but the sections that are echo flatly among ebbing bleeps and bloops like the ghosts of Cold War snoops. The original live version, presented here on Side A, relies more heavily on Silliman than Side B’s studio recording; to have heard it reverberate through the floors at the watchtower must have been positively Orwellian, with questions such as “Aren’t you afraid that we know you recovered?” and “Can you recall if you have read this?” delivered in menacing, interrogative tones. The more nonsensical the questions are (“Could you recognise this as an insect?”), the more unsettling they seem. What alien broadcast have you latched onto?
“Wave Debris” passes blissfully slowly, with the weightless ease of dust motes across shafts of light. Absolutely nothing seems forced – in fact, were it not for the inclusion of the poem, you’d struggle to note human influence on the live version at all. At times it feels so natural it’s as though the warmth of the sun itself is impacting the keys, causing them to swell and reverberate softly against one other; for short spells elsewhere it gets close enough to raze the landscape. If anything, the studio recording ups the intensity a little, increasing the involvement of glitchy electronics and lending the piece a sense of terrestrial interference. Alexander herself is more present here; you can picture her surrounded by blinking lights, driven by fierce surges of static energy and squinting against them to overhear obscure snatches of foreign conversation. Between the two sides, it’s impossible to think of a way Duta and Dyck could’ve created a more perfect tribute.