Late one night in 2008, I discovered the existence of numbers stations, the name for a loose collection of audio oddities that have been fascinating shortwave radio listeners since at least the 1970s. These anonymous broadcasts encapsulate everything from (usually female) voices reading off seemingly meaningless strings of numbers, to Morse code transmissions, to data bursts and even more unusual white noise. While the general consensus is that many are related to military or espionage operations, most remain mysterious and incredibly spooky. Aficionados are drawn to numbers stations for many reasons, ranging from interest in conspiracy theories to a fascination with their alien aesthetics.
I fall squarely into the latter category. While my initial response to numbers stations was one of stark, teeth-clenching horror, I’ve gradually come to appreciate and enjoy them as unintentional works of art. This is nothing new for me. Ever since I discovered experimental music in high school, I’ve loved the thought of art emerging from acts of curation or observation rather than through the intentions and technical skill of an artist. It’s why I love Duchamp’s readymades, Herschel Gordon Lewis’s clumsily produced gore films, and just about any art that incorporates an elements of randomness and chance.
I’m not alone in finding aesthetic value in numbers stations, either. Slightly batty artists from electronic musicians Boards of Canada to game developer Jeff Minter have incorporated the shortwave oddities into their work. Even Wilco named an album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, after the text of a numbers station broadcast. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the aesthetics of the stations themselves, and in doing so, I’ve found a new favorite work by the anonymous, accidental artists behind them.
“8 Note Rising Scale,” like the majority of the numbers station broadcasts that can be easily found online, is taken from The Conet Project, a four disc collection of numbers recordings released by the obscure British label Irdial-Discs in 1997. The sparse information shown in the above video seems to represent all that is known about it. Its format is standard for many numbers broadcasts of the period, starting with a musical cue, then the coded message, which then repeats at least once. However, it’s what “8 Note Rising Scale” does with these genre conventions that makes it such a perfect example of the form. The musical cue is a simple C major scale, but it sounds as if it were played on the kind of warbly analog synth used to score ’70s science filmstrips. Between the cue and the message there’s an out of place squeaky noise, like a sample of a moe anime girl run through a 50s echo chamber. This mysterious squeak is all the more fascinating for the fact that it’s interrupted by the reading of the message, as if the numbers broadcast were being recorded over something else.
That’s all there is to “8 Note Rising Scale,” but it’s more than enough to set it apart from its contemporaries. Better known broadcasts like “The Lincolnshire Poacher” or “Swedish Rhapsody,” which share the cue-message-repeat structure sound polished by comparison. More frightening oddities like “The Buzzer” and “Yosemite Sam” lack the formalism that makes it aesthetically interesting. Like Sonic Youth or e.e. cummings, “8 Note Rising Scale” acknowledges genre convention just enough to make its deviations more jarring and more fascinating.
None of this should be taken too terribly seriously. Like a lot of numbers station fans, I like listening to the broadcasts as a weird diversion, a fun way to scare myself when I’m feeling bored. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be considered as their own kind of outsider art, even if the technicians and machines responsible for them never intended any such thing. Like my film lecture professor once said, artists don’t always know what their art means. Sometimes, they don’t even know it’s art.