Credit: <br/>Chelsea Ross for Chicago Reader

Hali Palombo, 29, is a composer and sound artist who works in found and lost audio and media, frequently including shortwave radio, and creates visual art and video installations from slow-scan television. Her January release Cylinder Loops collages audio from antique wax cylinders, and in March she launched an intermittent podcast, Unknown America, that delves into historical oddities and obscurities. She’s been making field recordings of Wisconsin tourist attraction the House on the Rock (“It’s terrifying—I’m very inspired by it”), which she plans to use for a seven-inch coming out this summer via local label Ballast.

As told to Philip Montoro

There’s actually a very specific point I developed an interest in shortwave radio. I was 13 years old. I was at a family barbecue with my grandfather and a bunch of other family members. I was closest to my grandpa. He was very into shortwave radio, and I remember we were sitting at the dining-room table, and he said, “Hey, you look really bored—do you wanna see something cool?”

He went out into his car, and he brought in a huge old radio and plugged it in. So we sat there in the dark living room—everyone else was outside eating ribs and burgers and whatnot—and we sat inside and we listened to shortwave. For three or four hours, we scanned around. We listened to Radio Havana, which is a Cuban station, for a long time. I had a little recorder, a voice recorder that I got at a school book fair that was supposed to be disguised as a pen, because it was, like, for spies. I would record bits I found to be interesting. I would just listen to them over and over again.

Almost immediately I got a shortwave radio—it was a survival radio, so in order to power it you had to use a hand crank. You’d get a decent amount of reception and power for like 30 minutes, and then you’d have to crank it again. My mom would hear me at four in the morning, frantically trying to generate energy for this radio, and she would come in and tell me, “Please go to sleep. You must go to sleep. Please stop listening to the radio.”

What interests me about shortwave radio is you can hear people and music and sounds from quite literally all over the world. And it isn’t extensively moderated and curated like FM radio is, or even AM radio. In 30 minutes you can hear 50 different countries. You can hear someone sitting in a truck babbling or an amateur radio operator who’s 90 years old talking into the ether, to nobody, and you can hear very unusual music that is sometimes being played live. You can hear Morse code. It’s an infinite generator for audio that you’ll hear once and never hear it again. It’s just fascinating and exciting in every way.

  • The installation Grand Detour uses slow-scan television, field recordings, and shortwave radio samples. It was visible through the windows of ESS in the early months of the pandemic.

Slow-scan television is—people who transmit on shortwave radio, they’re able to transmit these bursts of shrill-sounding data, and you can use an interpreter to translate the data burst into an image. They’ll send, like, pictures of their kids, they’ll send weird stuff—girls in bikinis or animals or what have you.

I’ve done like four or five works that are based entirely in slow-scan television. What I do is I translate my own images—photographs I take—into those bursts of data, and then I retranslate them back into an image. And I film all of that. The audio that’s translated into the image is just a bunch of beeps and shrieking—it’s awful. What I do is I create microminiature compositions to go with the slow-scan television, often from field recordings at the location where I take the photograph.

Granted, my career is only three years old, but the further I get, the more I use shortwave radio samples as texture or layering on top of real instruments. On my second record, which is called Cherry Ripe, I used more samples, but I chopped them up, I put a delay on them, I processed them in various ways until they were really foggy and kind of obscured and a little more mysterious.

Cylinder Loops is a wax cylinder collage record. Every track is about a minute and a half long, and I sourced the wax cylinder samples from UC Santa Barbara—they have a massive library of wax cylinder samples that are completely free to use. I cobbled them together into stand-alone little tracks that I felt emphasized certain qualities of the cylinders. Like if there was somebody speaking, I wanted to highlight that by maybe putting a little bit of soft music underneath it.

If there was any genre that Cylinder Loops fell into, it would probably be hauntology. My work is forgotten, lost media that I cobble together into something new. A lot of the shortwave radio stuff, no one will ever hear again unless I commit it to a recording and create something from it.

When I was maybe 21 or 22, I got my first car, and I spent a ton of time driving, and I developed an obsessive interest in anything transient and liminal. And by that I mean stuff that you pass through to get somewhere else, kind of otherworldly but functional places—rest stops, tollbooths, truck stops, windmill farms.

My first encounter with something of that nature was—there was this huge smokestack in Joliet that was on fire, that I saw when I was driving. It was one of those places that was tucked way off the side of the highway somewhere, but you could see it incredibly clearly. It took me nearly an hour, when I pulled off the highway, to actually find the flaming smokestack I saw, and when I did it was really majestic and it resonated with me in a way that I couldn’t explain.

After that I developed a really sharp interest in things that are so pervasive and so obvious yet generally ignored—people don’t really recognize the beauty in them because they aren’t paying close enough attention. That for me applied to my interest in found audio and lost audio, these bits of audio or images or photographs or bits of paraphernalia that are kind of forgotten and fall by the wayside and are just discarded.

I would take audio samples of coins ricocheting down slots into the tollbooth, and I would collect receipts from weird fast-food restaurants. I have a ton of video taken of empty airports and empty malls. Basically places that are transient and kind of disregarded. In a lot of cases, shortwave radio falls into that category, because a lot of the most fascinating audio that I’ve found has been things that most people would just skip over.

I have hours of recordings of Morse code. CB radio—truckers talking to each other, which is something that 99 percent of the population would have no interest in, but they have the most insane, hilarious conversations. I feel like my job as a composer is to bring those things into the light and present them in a way that people will find fascinating and beautiful and worth listening to.

I spent about six months teaching myself Morse code. It took that long because I’m not the best at picking up languages, and Morse code is deceptively difficult. I would take recordings of the Morse code on shortwave radio and I would slow it down significantly—I used Audacity to really slow it down—and I would sit there with a pencil and a piece of paper.

There’s a subreddit dedicated to Morse code, and a lot of the people who post on there are old guys who have gotten so good at it that they can just hear it at the speed it’s transmitted and they can translate, which is unthinkable to me.

  • Morse code recorded from shortwave radio by Hali Palombo

A lot of the time what you hear is either amateur radio operators just saying hi to their friends, basically, or you would get things that seem like they would be gibberish, but more likely somebody was trying to transmit a message to another person that they wanted to conceal in some way—be it an amateur radio operator or maybe a spy from a long time ago. I learned Morse code for exactly that purpose, because I had all of these recordings and I was way too curious to not try to find out what they meant.

When I have downtime during my office job, I go down pretty comprehensive Wikipedia rabbit holes. I’ll click on a region of the country, and then I’ll just repeatedly click on links until I find something that is truly bizarre and unheard of. And then I’ll base an episode of Unknown America on that. Alternately, there’s a terrific website called Roadside America, and it breaks down every state in the country by places of interest or roadside attractions or sites where obscure battles were fought or weird cemeteries.

It’s a lot of finding obscure events in history and people and places and just obsessively researching them and reading about them and writing about them and then composing appropriate scores. There is a culture around podcasting that I find to be quite frustrating—it really is a bunch of derivative pop-culture nonsense. Like, how many podcasts about Buffy the Vampire Slayer do you need to make? There’s like 50. I try to make stuff that is (1) very short and (2) about subjects that there are very likely no podcasts about.

I did Vishnu Springs. Vishnu Springs was a—they would call them health spas in the early 1900s. Essentially there was a stream running through a very dense forest in southern Illinois that someone built a hotel and a really small village near, and they advertised the mineral spring running through the plot of land as having healing qualities. So people came, and obviously the mineral water didn’t work, and that was kind of the town’s downfall.

Another topic was the Collyer brothers, New York City’s first widely documented hoarders—they were active in the early 1900s. That’s more of a well-known topic. I think some people know who the Collyer brothers were.

  • Hali Palombo’s podcast episode on Brother Stair was published on March 21, 2021. Stair died April 3.

Brother Stair was a maniacal preacher who broadcasted on shortwave radio for years. He was notorious because he purchased airtime on hundreds of stations, so you essentially could not scan through the radio for five minutes without encountering one of his sermons. And his sermons were—across the board, his entire life—vile. He was homophobic, he was extremely racist, he would scream at his followers. He was just a baffling figure. He was extremely pervasive and drove other shows off the radio because he purchased their airtime. That’s what got me interested in him. He made a huge impact on the world of shortwave radio.

I put out that podcast, and like a week later he died. And I’m like, Oh no, did I do that?

I love House on the Rock. As far as I know, it was this either millionaire or billionaire’s mansion that he filled with his collections of weapons and cars and dolls and swords, and going into it is just bizarre. I’ve never seen that much stuff in that enclosed of a space. Everywhere you turn, there’s some new insane thing to encounter. There’s a giant carousel there. There’s a statue of a giant squid fighting a whale. There’s a huge collection of cars. It’s like the world’s most fucked-up flea market. It’s so strange. You can tell walking through it that the person who owned it and who curated all that stuff was completely unhinged. That makes it even better.

My seven-inch has a ton of samples of the House on the Rock’s automated bands and orchestras. Every time I go listen to these automated bands, they’re like one half-step more out of tune. They sound so comical and bizarre. I’m sure someone is going in there and tuning the violins and the basses and what have you, but they always sound just insanely out of tune, which is hilarious. I take samples every time I’m there.

What I’d like to do with any of my work is build atmosphere. I don’t really write lyrics, so the most important thing to me when I’m creating a song or composition is to draw attention to something that’s unheard of and also to build a sense of place, to build atmosphere, and to put the listener in a place that I manufacture for them. So whether that is making them feel nostalgic or scared or, you know, kind of intrigued—those are pretty much the ways that I would like my listeners to feel. Not happy! No. Or excited. But scared would be good.  v

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.