Nicholas Zurbrugg at the opening night of the Local Colour group exhibition, That Space, 1986 Photo: The Shared Camera


Nicholas Zurbrugg, academic and poet, born February 1, 1947, died Leicester, England, October 15, 2001.


Nicholas Zurbrugg, who tragically died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 54, made an invaluable contribution to contemporary art and cultural theory, and more specifically, to the study and promotion of the postmodern multimedia avant-garde. Nicholas, as an academic, critic, poet and a tireless promoter of postmodern creativity and thought, was a peerless innovator and contributor to our local cultural and intellectual life


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Artist, Academic, Author


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Sound Art, Stereo Headphones

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Various Private Collections

Nicholas Zurbrugg, Artist, The Billboard Project, 1989-1990 Photo: Anna Zsoldos and Lehan Ramsay

Sound art, radio art,and post-radio performance in Australia


Nicholas Zurbrugg


In 1935 Raoul Hausmann, the dadaist writer, gave a recital of excerpts from his novel. It was a text overloaded with details, precisely described; lengthy revelations; a baroque richness in every sentence … The acoustical emphasis, the foaming waterfall of words, anticipated a literature of phonograph records and of the radio – not yet accepted but in the making.


As Laszlo Moholy-Nagy suggests in Vision in Motion (1947), [1] one of the most significant literary developments of the twentieth century is the emergence of ‘a literature of phonograph records and of radio’. At this point in the late 1980s, it is now possible to look back at the evolution of radio art, and at the same time, to look forward toward those more recent multi-media artforms deriving from radio art, and extending the potential of radio art into new, ‘post-radio’ realms.


What is ‘radio-art’? Defined most simply, radio art might be identified as that creativity predominantly dependent upon radio technology for its conception, for its realization, and for its distribution. In its most pure form, radio art might be thought of as exclusively radiophonic materials orchestrated and disseminated by radiophonic technology. The East German composer George Katzer’s Aide Memoire (1985), typifies many aspects of this genre. 2


As Katzer explains, Aide Mernoire – a composition processed in his own studio, and then mixed in its final form at the GDR Radio studios – is primarily composed of original radio recordings from the Nazi period in Germany between 1933-1945. Katzer characterizes his composition as:


a monstrous collage of phrases, slogans, march music, mass cries, all cut from original sound-documents of the Nazi period and put together to form 7 Nightmares, between which the sleeper can find no rest. 3


At first sight, Aide Mernoire seems the very archetype of radio art. It is produced in a radio studio, and its very materials are fragments of radio broadcasts. In a very real sense, this work could not exist without radio. At the same time though, Aide Memoire’s texture is not exclusively radio phonic. Sometimes Katzer employs purely radiophonic materials, such as specific news items made by radio stations. On other occasions, his composition includes musical recordings and live speech which were certainly broadcast by radio, but which first existed live or on record, independently of radio. Aide Mernoire has something of this mixed status. It originates both from the composer’s studio, and from the studios of GDR Radio, and it exists both as an L.P. record and as a master tape recorded by GDR.


My point then, is that contemporary composers and sound artists frequently work in quite a vast interdisciplinary sonic realm in which radio is just one potential source of material and distribution. To be sure, many conservative writers refuse to combine the signs and the sounds of their art by working for radio, for record, or for tape. As the American novelist William Burroughs reminds us,


Most serious writers refuse to make themselves available to the things that technology is doing . … Many of them are afraid of tape recorders and the idea of using any mechanical means for literary purposes seems to them some sort of a sacrilege.’


At the same time however, many of the more adventurous writers, composers, artists and ‘performers’ of the ’80s have systematically made themselves extremely available to ‘the things that technology is doing’. While composers like Katzer have made complex collages of radiophonic and recorded materials, ‘text-sound’ composers such as the American, Charles Amirkhanian, have turned to television for their inspiration, re cording and re-recording its sound-tracks in new partially musical, partially literary, compositions for tape, records, and radio. Amirkhanian’s composition Metropolis, San Francisco re-orchestrates the soundtracks of a Chinese television program broadcast in San Francisco, [5] transforming this raw material into something which might well be broadcast by radio as ‘radio art’; which might appear on record or tape as ‘sound poetry’, ‘audio art’ or environmental ‘soundscape’; or which might contribute to certain modes of partially live, partially pre-recorded ‘performance art’.