Wireless. 2023, A cantata for TTBB, soprano saxophone, harp (or piano), 32’. Commissioned by Chor Leoni, Vancouver, Canada, Erick Lichte Artistic Director, through the Chor Leoni Diane Loomer Commissioning Fund. Premiered 10, 11 May 2024, Chor Leoni, Julia Nolan, soprano saxophone, Vivian Chen, harp, Erick Lichte conducting.

The letter S: Marconi antenna towers, Poldu, Cornwall, England, 1901

Wireless considers texts from the beginning of radio broadcasting, 1896 to 1920, and how they may speak to us today. These include workaday transmissions such as “Can you hear me?” and “Hello. Test, one, two, three, four,” to emergency calls from the Titanic, to popular songs, to opera arias, and to one impromptu speech. These arranged themselves into a narrative that was, to me, surprising.

The first surprise was that, expecting to find words of great import, words carrying the weight of history at this revolutionary dawn of wireless technology, I found little. There were no Gettysburg Addresses or Bach Brandenburg recordings, no recitation of the accomplishments of the human race. The opera broadcast was a commercial experiment and the suffragist’s speech was unplanned, as we shall see.

The only newsworthy item is a compilation of headlines from the Second Boer War to a ship of wealthy travelers returning to harbor, testing if news-on-the-go for information-deprived tourists crossing the Atlantic could be monetized. But this provided the key to the storyline I chose for Wireless: in celebrating the grand effort to communicate through the air, to reach ever outward and farther, something even greater appears. And here was the second surprise: greater than the desire to reach out is the desire to come home.

So, the opening question, indeed, the first section, Can You Hear Me?, leads directly to a ship returning home in 66 Miles from Needles. Guglielmo Marconi built an antenna on Needles, the Isle of Wight, to see how far a signal could reach ships in the Atlantic. The homecoming impulse is strengthened in Just A-Wearyin’ for You. Swedish mezzo-soprano Eugenia Farrar sang this in 1907 New York City for inventor Lee de Forest in what is believed to be the first live singing on radio. (For all the songs in Wireless, popular and operatic, I’ve used only the words and have composed new music for them.)

The next section, Progress, opens with Is It Snowing, introducing another great wireless inventor, the Canadian American Reginald Fessenden. Operating in 1900 on a small island in the Chesapeake, Fessenden asks his assistant Alfred Thiessen for the weather report less than a mile away. In The Letter S, Marconi transmits that single letter of the alphabet from England to Canada in 1901, the first trans-Atlantic wireless broadcast.

The chorus The Twentieth Century ends this second section. It is perhaps the first public speech on radio, but it was never supposed to be given. Lee de Forest was in New York again, in 1909, to run a test transmission between neighboring Barnard and Columbia Colleges (in 1912 Columbia would become a university). De Forest’s wife, her mother, and female students were at the Barnard microphone; the inventor and male students were gathered around the receiver at all-male Columbia. But the mother-in-law happened to be suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch, and she saw a golden opportunity to tell the Columbia men a thing or two. She walked up to the mic and gave this speech. The women beamed and the men twitched, it is reported.

The subject was righteous but the event ironic not only for the circumstances surrounding it, but also because Blatch based her speech not on what was right—universal suffrage—but on the promise of modernity. It’s understandable, given the new technology right in front of her, but Blatch did not know that the 20th century would soon incubate two world wars, murderous dictators, unthinkable crimes against humanity, and weapons of unimaginable power. Entire philosophies and theories of art and literature would soon dismiss modernism—that progress and technology solve everything. So instead of a hymn to the rights of all people, this setting of the speech is a lightly ironic antiphon of praise to progress. This blind faith in progress would also give us, three years after this speech, one of the first salvos against the fundamental myth of modernism. It would give us the sinking of the Titanic.

The third section, The Titanic, opens with transmissions from the sinking ship’s heroic wireless operator Jack Phillips (who was, thankfully, among the survivors) to a ship four hours away. CQD (“Seeking you. Distress”) was Marconi’s Morse code for what has now universally become SOS.

The 1910 de Forest broadcast of Tosca from the Metropolitan Opera is a dream interlude, I Lived for Art, imagining what was going through the mind of someone aboard the Titanic. (In the two Tosca arias, I translated the words into English and composed original music for them.) “Why, Lord, why, why do you repay me so?” is, since Job, our response to misfortune of any kind. In this surreal setting, the beginning of the actual Puccini melody in “Vissi d’arte” is the repeating bass line in the harp.

This is followed by the popular song lyrics of I Love You Truly (again, the de Forest, Farrar 1907 broadcast), the next thought that may occur to the passenger of the doomed ship. It is unaccompanied and in the style of a parlor song from my imagined passenger’s youth.

Facing death in this imagining, Let It Be So are Marconi’s words from 1897 Bristol, in the then-new record of 8.7 miles for a radio broadcast. It’s a short reprise of the opening of Wireless, preparing us for the next-to-last movement, an aria in the face of destruction, And as the Stars Were Shining. Again, it is new music to Puccini’s Tosca libretto, here, “E lucevan le stelle,” with its grasping of life in the depths of despair.

The last movement brings us to where tragedy shows us we most want to be, home, to the harbor that first ship was heading for. It’s another popular song, Home, Sweet Home. The words go all the way back to the 1820s, but Marconi broadcast this in 1920, on Britain’s first publicly advertised broadcast. Dame Nellie Melba sang it then. “Can you hear me?,” inserted into the lyrics with the falling third that has resonated throughout Wireless, takes on new meaning now. We now can see this new technology in the context of something greater, yet something ever so humble: home.

A cantata for TTBB choir, soprano saxophone, and harp (or piano)

1. Can You Hear Me?
a. Recitative: Can You Hear Me?
Guglielmo Marconi broadcast from Brean Down Fort, across Bristol Channel to Lavernock, Wales, 13 May 1896.
“Can you hear me?”

b. Aria: 66 Miles from Needles
The Transatlantic Times, broadcast from Needles, Isle of Wight, published on board the St. Paul at sea, en route for England, 15 Nov 1899.
Two fifty p.m. First Signal Received. 66 miles from Needles.
“Was that you, St. Paul?” 50 miles from Needles.
“Hurrah! Welcome home! Where are you?”
Three thirty. 40 miles. “Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking holding out well. No big battle. 15,000 men recently landed.”
Three forty. “At Ladysmith no more killed. Bombardment at Kimberley effected the destruction of ONE TIN POT. It was auctioned for 200 pounds. It is felt that period of anxiety and strain is over, and that our turn has come.”
Four o’clock. “Sorry to say the U.S.A. cruiser Charleston is lost. All hands saved.”

c. Chorus: Just A-Wearyin’ For You
Lyrics 1894, by Frank Lebby Stanton, 1857-1927. Sung by Eugenia Farrar, Lee de Forest test broadcast, New York City, sometime in 1907.
Just a-wearyin’ for you,
All the time a-feelin’ blue,
Wishin’ for you wond’rin’ when
You’ll be comin’ home again.
Restless, don’t know what to do,
Just a-wearyin’ for you.

Mornin’ comes, the birds awake,
Used to sing so for your sake.
But there’s sadness in the notes
That come trillin’ from their throats.
Seem to feel your absence, too,
Just a-wearyin’ for you.

Evenin’ comes, I miss you more
When the dark gloom’s round the door,
Seems just like you oughta be
There to open it for me.
Latch goes tinklin’, thrills me through,
[Just] Sets me wearyin’ for you.

2. Progress
a. Recitative: Is It Snowing
Reginald Fessenden, Alfred Thiessen, Cobb Island, Potomac River, Maryland, 23 Dec 1900.
“Hello. Test, one, two, three, four. Is It snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If so, telegraph back and let me know.”

b. Recitative: The Letter S
Guglielmo Marconi, George Kemp. Poldu, Cornwall, England to Newfoundland, Canada. First trans-Atlantic radio signals, 12 Dec 1901.
Pip, pip, pip.
“Can you hear anything?”
“Yes. The letter S.”

c. Chorus: The Twentieth Century
Harriot Stanton Blatch, suffragist (1856–1940). Perhaps the first public speech by radio, Lee de Forest test broadcast, Barnard College to Columbia College, 25 Feb 1909.
I stand for the achievements of the twentieth century. I believe in its scientific developments, in its political developments. I will not refuse to use the tools which progress places at my command. I will make use of the telegraph with or without wires, the telephone with or without wires, anything and everything which today’s civilization places at my command, not forgetting the ballot box. Travel by stagecoach is out of date; kings are out of date; communication by canalboat is out of date; an aristocracy is out of date, none more so than a male aristocracy.

3. The Titanic
a. Recitative: The Titanic
Jack Phillips, Titanic to Harold Cottam, Carpathia, 14 Apr 1912.
“Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man.”
“Is it serious?”
“Yes it’s a CQD old man. Here’s the position, report it, and get here as soon as you can.”
“Coming as quickly as possible and expect to be there within four hours.”
“Come as quickly as possible, old man, the engine room is filling up to the boilers.”
“All our boats are ready, coming as hard as we can.”

b. Aria: I Lived for Art
Luigi Illica (1857-1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906), “Vissi d’arte,” from the libretto to Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (1901), broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera by Lee De Forest 12 Jan 1910. Translated by K.S.
I lived for art, I lived for love.
A living soul I never harmed.
With a secret hand,
so many misfortunes I relieved.
Always with a faith sincere
my prayers at holy shrines arose.
Always with a faith sincere
I brought flowers to the altars.
But in my hour of sorrow
Why, Lord, why, why do you repay me so?
I gave jewels to Our Lady’s mantle,
I gave my song to the stars, and to Heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
But in my hour of sorrow
Why, Lord, why, why do you repay me so?

c. Chorus: I Love You Truly
Lyrics, 1901, by Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1862–1946), sung by Eugenia Farrar, Lee de Forest test broadcast, New York City, sometime in 1907.
I love you truly, truly dear,
Life with its sorrow, life with its tear
Fades into dreams when I feel you are near
For I love you truly, truly dear.

Ah! Love, ’tis something to feel your kind hand.
Ah! Yes, ’tis something by your side to stand;
Gone is the sorrow, gone doubt and fear,
For you love me truly, truly dear.

d. Recitative: Let It Be So
Guglielmo Marconi broadcast from Salisbury Plain, across Bristol Channel, a new record of 8.7 miles. 1897.
Let it be so.

e. Aria: And as the Stars Were Shining
Luigi Illica (1857-1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906), “E lucevan le stelle,” from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (1900), broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera by Lee De Forest 12 Jan 1910. Translated by K.S.
And as the stars were shining,
and as the earth was filled with faint perfume,
the garden gate creaked open,
and a footstep lightly brushed the sand.
Fragrant, she entered, and fell into my arms.
Oh, sweetest kisses! Oh, languid caresses!
Trembling, I loosened the veils from her beautiful form.
My dream of love has vanished forever!
But that hour has fled, and I die in despair.
And never have I loved life so much!
So much life!

f. Chorus: Home, Sweet Home
Lyrics, 1823, by John Howard Payne (1791–1852). Sung by Dame Nellie Melba from Marconi studio, Chelmsford, England, Britain’s first advertised public broadcast, 15 Jun 1920.
’Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there
Which, seek through the world, is ne’er met with elsewhere.

Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!

An exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain,
Oh, give me my lowly thatched cottage again;
The birds singing gaily, that come at my call;
Give me them, with that peace of mind, dearer than all.

Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!

To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care;
The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there;
No more from that cottage again will I roam;
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!