The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations

Released: 1997

Static. Faint voices. Seven slow, monotonous tones. A pause. Suddenly, you hear music--one of those wind-up songs played by a child's toy. The melody repeats three times. A pause. Suddenly, you hear a female voice counting off the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0 in German. A pause. She repeats the numbers. A pause. The children's toy melody returns.

So begins The Conet Project, perhaps the greatest collection of found art ever produced. This is not only a monumental work; it is also a monument, a testament to 50 years of Cold War espionage, a living document of the world's most secret agencies. That most of these agencies are still around today merely enhances the importance of this work.

To explain this collection, I have to explain the concept of numbers stations. Numbers stations transmit coded messages through shortwave radio. These messages are transmitted from places all over the world, yet the basic numbers station message is remarkably uniform. It usually consists of a voice (most often female) reading off a series of numbers. On many occasions, this reading of numbers will be preceded by a song--usually familiar (like the English folk song, "The Lincolnshire Poacher") or distinct (the weird children's toy music I mentioned earlier, which is called "The Swedish Rhapsody"), though there are signals without music and signals that simply transmit Morse code messages. Above all else, one thing remains constant: nearly every transmission begins on the hour, lasts between ten and fifty minutes, and is almost invariably repeated several times over a 24-hour period.

What are these messages? Well, no one has ever come forward to prove that these stations are linked to spy networks, but almost everyone who has ever studied the signals believes that they are. But why would a spy network like the CIA or the KGB or Israel's Mossad or Osama BinLaden's Al-Qaeda--with all their money and resources--bother transmitting messages through something like shortwave radio, a cheap technology that would allow anyone in the world to listen in? There are two reasons. First, shortwave is not only cheap but also common, meaning a spy can easily carry around a good shortwave radio without attracting any attention whatsoever. Second, the messages use what is called a one-time pad, which is generally considered the most secure cipher ever created--provided that the sender and the receiver are the only ones in possession of the key to unlock the message.

Knowing that the tracks on The Conet Project are actual messages sent from a government or group to a spy, and knowing that those messages might contain orders that, at one time, probably instructed that spy to go kill someone or dig up dirt on a politician or just stay where they are, makes for a rather enticing listen, to say the least. But the meaning behind these messages will remain a mystery because there is just no way to ever come across a one-time pad key (they are destroyed after use), and though it is fun to speculate about these sounds, that speculation gets tiring after a while for all but the most die-hard listeners.

However, this historical context--the secret agent messages--is not really the point of this work. This is, first and foremost, a work of art, a work founded on challenging our conceptions of history and documentation. The artists at Irdial who selected the tracks and compiled the work did everything they could to choose tracks that were interesting to listen to; the listening experience, then, was more important than the clarity of the signals. As a result, many of the tracks here are filled with static and other noises floating in and around the sounds of voices and music, obscuring the messages to such an extent that it often takes several listens before you can discern which language the voice is speaking. They did not choose these tracks because they were the only ones available--I've heard plenty of clear recordings of numbers stations on other compilations. No, there was a reason to make the music muddled here. They wanted to recreate the experience, the thrill that must have come to those lonely souls who, over the past few decades, discovered these signals and recorded them.

Shortwave radio has never received the credit it deserves for shaping electronic music. Most early electronic musicians--especially those in Europe, where shortwave radio is more common than in the US--will tell you that their early musical education came from trying to sift through shortwave bands to pick up pirate stations all over the Atlantic. No doubt the act of sifting through walls of static to pick up a faint but hip signal can be seen as the inspiration for at least some of electronic music's obsession with distortion, aberration, and noise. A lot of electronic music, in fact, can be read as an elaborate attempt to give shape and purpose to random noise: to turn static into a signal.

If you think about it, number stations are doubly encased in interference. Not only are the signals themselves hard to pick up, but the messages are impenetrable. The artists behind The Conet Project understood both of these mysteries. By creating a work that is not only historically important (being, really, the primary introduction of numbers stations to the world at large) but also musically relevant, Irdial has created a powerful, evocative work that has, in recent years, inspired artists as varied as Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky) and Wilco (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) to tap into some of its power. This is a classic in every single sense of that word.

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