a conSPIracy cantata

2 voices, piano, electronics.

a conSPIracy cantata is an electronic cantata which juxtaposes two forms of cryptic message communication :the clandestine world of spy number transmissions on the shortwave radio, and the enigmatic uttering of the ancient oracle of Delphi. Both mediums were/are used as forms of political machination.

So-called ‘number stations’ sprung up on the shortwave radio in the early sixties at the height of the cold war. They are used to transmit coded text messages in numbers, phonetic letters, morse or noise. They are operated by the world’s intelligence agencies (such as CIA - MI6 - BND - Mossad - UDBA - KGB -) to relay messages to their agents in the field in an anonymous and undetectable form.

The messages which are transmitted at regular times on certain frequencies on shortwave radio are encrypted with the ‘one-time pad’ system making them almost impossible to decipher for anyone except the agent in the field who has the particular random set of numbers which are used only once per message. Although anyone in the world can receive these messages, it is impossible to deduce the destination of the messages nor anything about the content. Many different languages and forms are used depending on the agency that has sent them. They vary from simply morse to synthesised voices reading phonetic alphabet strings. These transmissions usually begin with an introduction such as a single letter of the alphabet in morse or a fragment of music played for several minutes (the identity of the sender). The first numbers called are usually a three digit number (the recipient’s identity) and there is then a call to attention (bells, gongs, tones or spoken “attention”,”ready”.) A ‘group count’ giving the number of message elements that are to be sent is then transmitted, followed by the ‘groups’ which are sets of numbers or phonetically spoken letters . At the end of the groups, there is sometimes a repeat, if not there is an ending indicator, either by a spoken ‘end’ or a repeat of the introduction music. Though number stations continue to proliferate (in spite of the end of the cold war) no government agency officially admits their existence.

The cast is made, the net is spread,
The tuna will leap on a moonlit night.

Aside from being a religious sanctuary and official divination institution, Delphi was the centre of intelligence and espionage in the ancient Greek world. For centuries the Delphic oracle was influential in many political decisions , it was even obligatory for leaders to consult the oracles before embarking on any enterprises.

The consultation itself took place in the temple of Apollo, underground. The space consisted of a room for the petitioners, an inclosed sanctuary (‘adyton’) where the Pythia (the priestess through which Apollo was believed to be in contact with) received the oracle, an ‘omphalos’ (a stone representative of the navel of the earth) and a tripod positioned over a crack in the ground where the vapours (pneuma) from the centre of the earth seeped out. Each city-state was represented by an emissary or embassy at Delphi where the important oracle pronouncements were scrutinized and their ambiguous language was deciphered and interpreted. Disinformation was rife. The unintelligible babble of the ‘pythia’ uttered in a state of ecstacy ,was translated into hexameters by the prophet of Delphi. This position was often susceptible to corruption and manipulation.

The verses used in a conSPIracy cantata (quoted below) were given to Peisistratos by the oracle, encouraging him in his successful attempt to seize Athens and establish his third tyranny.

a conSPIracy cantata is scored for two alto voices, piano and electronics. The electronic sounds are made up of layers of radio transmissions, noise textures, pre-recorded voices and sampled piano sounds. The piece mixes together an archaic modal sound world with an eerie ‘cold war’ atmosphere.

flyer for the original Korzo production

a conSPIracy cantata can be divided into six parts…

  • 1. This slowly changing static electronic texture acts as an introduction to the material of the piece. It is made up of what is thought to be CIA transmission.
  • 2. A modal melodic line heard on the piano/sampled piano is juxtaposed with sung fragments (voice 1) of what is thought to be an old StB station (Czech Statni Bezpecnost) nicknamed ‘the czech lady’. Voice 2 speaks part of a list of one-hundred basic words.
  • 3. The introduction and numbers used by voice 1 is based on the five number groups broadcast by MI6 nicknamed ‘the linconshire poacher’. Characteristically each group is repeated twice. Voice 2 together with the piano, slowly unravels the ancient greek oracle quote: “The Cast is made , the net is spread, and the tuna will leap on a moonlit night.” Electronic textures made up of pre-recorded voices (voice 1) and different fragments of number stations and static noise.
  • 4. A spoken text inspired by the three-letter phonetic alphabet stations typically used by MOSSAD (the Israeli secret service) is heard together with the hundred basic words. Towards the end , the voices sing a reprise of the Czech language station over a development of the modal piano line heard in part 2.
  • 5. Morse code features in this part. The inspiration behind it being the Cuban cut number messages (DGI) where morse letter code is used as a substitution for numbers. The electronic part is comprised of morse code (counts 0-10) and changing harmonic fields. Voice 2 and the piano re-iterate the text of the delphic oracle in a further development of part 3.
  • 6. The final part opens with voice 1 providing a stuttered repetition of the oracle quote, with voice 2 speaking a five-figure spanish number station (DGI). The modal piano line reoccurs in a further development with various electronic textures. Towards the end the voices revert to the hundred basic word lists while the piano provides a pulse of violently struck notes on the inside of the piano. The end radio quote comes again courtesy of the CIA.

a conSPIracy cantata won the first prize (chosen by a jury comprising of Jo Kondo, Nicholas Collins and Cornelis de Bondt) at the Gaudeamus International Music Week 2000 in Amsterdam.

Bimhuis performance during the Gaudeamus festival 2000
Photos by Luiz Yudo

a conSPIracy cantata CD is available from Unsounds.

a conSPIracy cantata CD cover

performance history

  • May 1999; Premiered as a multi-media work with Ayelet Harpaz and Stephie Buttrich (voices), Marion von Tilzer (piano), Ester Eva Damen (video) and Angela Kohnlein (dance) in the Korzo theatre, Den Haag.
  • December 1999; Open Day, Rijksakademie, Amsterdam.
  • April 2000; Concert version - Dodorama, Rotterdam.
  • September 2000; Gaudeamus International Music Week, Bimhuis Amsterdam.
  • Further performances around Holland included Eindhoven, Utrecht, and Haarlem (Toon festival).