On the Air

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THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF INSOMNIA

author
Joshua Azizi
photography
August Bramhoff
illustration
Neetu Dha

 

“I don’t know how my mind works this way.”

I’m chatting with Peter Courtemanche in 49th Parallel on Main Street, and he’s telling me about how he once turned a vine into an antenna, which he then used to stream the environment of a flowering tree filled with bees onto AM radio. Making an antenna out of a vine would be an impressive feat on its own, but Courtemanche didn’t stop there. Using an embedded processor the size of a toonie, the bee sounds were combined with “tones and sound artifacts from bio-electric synthesizer modules” that generated loud static noise from the plants they were broadcasted through.

“The result of that is you get all these weird artifacts and these strange noises in the radio, mixed with the bees,” he says.

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Photography by August Bramhoff for Discorder Magazine

Courtemanche calls this piece “Bio-Electric-Radio,” and it’s one of the many sound art pieces you’ll find on his radio show, The Absolute Value of Insomnia, which airs on Sunday mornings from 26AM. Given that time slot, it should be no surprise that the show is computer-run. However, the music is not a simple mix of pre-recorded songs — rather, it’s all live-produced through a random generator that Courtemanche created himself.

“I’ll record sounds from a particular place or around a particular theme, take the sounds from that and put them in a group in a folder somewhere, and [the generator will] write a little script that animates those sounds and mixes them all together,” he explains.

He estimates that the generator has around 60 to 70 scripts in it, and that each script plays through a select number of files that can vary from eight sounds to over 100.

“It moves through those in a fairly random way. It tries not to repeat itself too often, so it has a memory of what it has done and tries to figure out new ways of working with sounds.”

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Illustration by Neetu Dha for Discorder Magazine

The result is a fascinating, meditative four hours of ambient soundscapes that bounces between peaceful bliss, uncompromising chaos and something in-between. A great variety of sounds pop up throughout an episode: static bursts, droning synthesizers, hovering woodwinds, computer glitch noises, faded vocal samples and all sorts of strange noises make muted but memorable appearances. They stay on for minutes at a time, but the generative nature of the program means that the music is slowly but constantly mutating.

Many of these sounds come from Courtemanche’s thirty-odd years of creating sound art through unconventional means. For instance, one of his signature instruments is a magnetic coil that can convert ELF (Extremely Low Frequency radiation) waves into a static drone that sounds as if it’s transmitting from inside a power plant. He has also created a number of field recordings, including one of Queen Elizabeth Park during a rainfall.

Plenty of the sounds on The Absolute Value of Insomnia also come from friends and collaborators that Courtemanche has worked with over the years. Peters says “about a quarter” of them were made by Bill Mullan, another sound artist who suggested the show concept for Peter and came up with the name. Other featured musicians include Anna Friz, Adam Sloan and Dinah Bird.

Courtemanche himself is a CiTR veteran. He has previously served as the station’s program director and engineer, and helped found the annual 24 Hours of Radio Art on January 17. From 1988 to 1992, his former show — The Absolute Value of Noise — broadcasted 2.5 hours worth of experimental music every Friday, with a half-hour break that made room for Nardwuar The Human Serviette’s show.

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Illustration by Neetu Dha for Discorder Magazine

“[It was] literally the only time of day he could schedule the show,” says Courtemanche. “It was actually a really good way to do a show, to have a half-hour break in the middle where something semi-crazy is going on, which creates a lot of energy.”

Even if tuning in at 2AM isn’t going to be on everyone’s agenda, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the concept of Courtemanche’s show. It brings to mind an image of someone aimlessly fiddling with their radio dial late at night, stumbling across this program and being astounded by what they hear. According to Courtemanche, one listener he knows of had an experience similar to this.

“There was one person who seriously wanted to know exactly what [sound] had played in the middle of the show. They were bugging the station manager over and over and over, so I had to comb through the thing and try to figure out what had happened.”

The sound, as it turned out, was a recording of a NASA rocket launch that Mullan had put together.

“He edited them and put some effects on all the sounds,” explains Courtemanche. “It’s very eerie.”

However, there’s a certain appeal in the mystery behind what these sounds are and where they come from. The Absolute Value of Insomnia is filled with sounds both lovely and striking, but it’s the show’s unpredictable sequencing and ungraspable, alien nature that turns these compiled sounds into an otherworldly, transcendental experience. And it happens every week, broadcasting through the lonely air of the night while Vancouver lies fast asleep.

 

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Tune in late Saturday / early Sunday from 2-6AM to hear The Absolute Value of Insomnia, or listen to show archives at citr.ca/radio/the-absolute-value-of-insomnia.

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SAMSQUANCH’S HIDE-AWAY

author
Sarah Wang
photography
Erin Fleming
illustration
Presidio Lua

Anita Bee, host of Samsquanch’s Hide-away on CiTR 101.9FM, inherited her timeslot around 2003, having previously shared it with another show. The name, Samsquanch’s Hide-away, was inspired by Trailer Park Boys (specifically, an incident involving the character Bubbles and the sighting of a large furry creature most people refer to as a Sasquatch). For a long time Anita played all Canadian music, but, as of late, she has allowed herself some freedom with that. Her show playlists focus on indie and punk rock, both current and older, though you will also hear the occasional track by Cadence Weapon, the Righteous Brothers or Bruce Springsteen.

Anita just read Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, and loved it. “He writes very poetically,” she says. “It’s not in the genre of CiTR, but I’ve listened to so much indie rock, punk rock, I’ve [gone] full circle; now I’m listening to like, Bruce Springsteen, and I love Tom Petty – he’s my favourite.” Some of her top all-time albums are the Pixies’ Bossanova, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse, and Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary. She’s been into the newest album by A Tribe Called Quest, too. Among local bands, Anita is a fan of Fashionism, The Evaporators, Slow Learners, Brutal Poodle and Viewmaster. The latter three all include Vancouver musician John Johnston – “he’s really amazing.”

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Photography by Erin Fleming for Discorder Magazine

Anita splits her time between Vancouver, where she teaches grades 9 and 10 Social Studies, and the Windsor-Detroit area, where she grew up. “I bought a house [in Detroit],” she says, “I go [there] in summers.” She can be ambivalent about Vancouver at times. On one of her shows last spring, Anita lamented the tearing down of interesting old buildings and rapid redevelopment here, and the loss of the city’s past. Detroit, she thinks, is in many ways the polar opposite of Vancouver: “You have relics, buildings just standing, from forever […] It’s so different. It’s really gritty, obviously.” Anita continues, “I don’t want to diss Vancouver too much, [but] there’s an artificiality about the city, that gets me down. All the money, the excess.”

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Illustration by Presidio Lua for Discorder Magazine

Nonetheless, she acknowledged the great culture here. Anita, a lifelong baseball fan, has been playing in the East Van Baseball League (EVBL) for the past few years. Many people in the league are musicians, or involved in local arts, including present and past CiTR staff and radio producers. One of her Samsquanch highlights was interviewing Isotopes, a Vancouver baseball team punk band, which was how she got involved with the EVBL.

She plans to continue the show in the present format, though she has considered shifting the music focus to stuff from the Pacific Northwest – Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alberta, in addition to BC. Anita’s interest in broadening her music range was solidified during a solo roadtrip she took to Boise, Idaho last year, driving through parts of Washington and Oregon. It was the first time she had been and the terrain came as a surprise. “It’s full on desert Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon. You’re driving and it’s serious nothing, nothing at all.”

For now, she will keep the ‘mostly Canadian’ theme, and every so often give herself room to play other things. Lately, that seems to be music from either side of the border, and revisiting old favourites, be it Springsteen, Modest Mouse or Motown. “I try to listen to new music,” says Anita, “but I always seem to go back to the old stuff.”

 

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Samsquanch’s Hide-away airs on CiTR 101.9FM every other Wednesday from 6:30-8PM. Show archives can be found at citr.ca/radio/samsquanchs-hide-away.