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The Shortwave And the Calling

And the radio counting wasn't just new to Fernandez, it was beautiful. He's a disciple of an Italian named Luigi Russolo, who argued in a 1913 manifesto called "The Art of Noises" that the bustle of city life and industrial machinery ought to be included in our musical language, alongside chords and harmonies, violins and oboes. This proved a tough sell. In 1914, Russolo held his first concert with noise-making machines he called Intoners and the show ended in a melee: performers against the audience.

"I understand that shortwave noise is a kind of music," Fernandez says, sounding Russolovian. "And to me the numbers brought another level of beauty to the music."

Akin Fernanadez, pictured on a London rooftop, turned his fixation with shortwave transmissions into "The Conet Project" recording. (Poppy Berry - For The Washington Post)

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One final thing to know about Akin Fernandez: He's prone to fixations. His first was a collection of Marvel comic books that swelled to 5,000 when he was a kid. In his twenties, he noticed that literary-minded prostitutes in London were advertising their services, and phone numbers, with saucy little poems written on cards glued to the insides of phone booths. ("Once upon a time in Earl's Court / reigned the wicked Love Queen . . . ") For months, Fernandez would mortify friends and family by painstakingly peeling the cards off the glass, until he owned more than 600 of them. In 1984, he published the lot in a volume called "The X Directory."

"My mother came to the book party," Fernandez recalls. "I couldn't believe it."

Numbers stations, with their variety and quantity, triggered all of his impulses to catalogue and collect. The stations had personality, if you listened long enough. One always began with a few bars of "The Lincolnshire Poacher," an old British folk song. On another you could occasionally hear roosters or echoes of Radio Havana in the background, as though someone had forgotten to turn off a mike. One starred a young lady with an exotic accent who dramatically read words from the International Radio Operators alphabet, somehow making inscrutable phrases -- "Sierra. Yankee. November." -- sound life-and-death urgent.

While the rest of London slept, Fernandez chased these voices all over the dial, never sure when or where he'd find one. He wrote down the results in a green book bound with fake leather. A typical entry looked like this:

Sept 6 '93

Freq Time Signal

6.201 USB 12:30 am BIZARRE German Children's Voice

Station starts with beeps, then

GLOCKENSPIEL!! Then count

From 1 to 10 then ACHTUNG!

And message!! [expletive] Hell!!

There are a lot of exclamation points in Fernandez's log.


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