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Read: introduction to Douglas Kahn's Earth Sound Earth Signal

January 2014

Read the introduction to Douglas Kahn's new book art and music's relationship to electromagnetism and natural radio. Kahn wrote The Wire 359's Epiphany article. Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies And Earth Magnitudes In The Arts is published by the University Of California Press.

Radio Was Heard Before It Was Invented
Radio was heard before it was invented. It was heard before anyone knew it existed. It was heard in the first wireless technology: the telephone. The telephone served two major purposes: it was a scientific instrument used to investigate environmental energy, and it was an aesthetic device used to experience the sounds of nature. The telephone would also find success in the field of communications. The first person to listen to radio was Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant. He tuned in during the early hours of the night on a long metal line serving as an antenna before antennas were invented. Other telephone users listened to radio for two decades before Guglielmo Marconi or anyone else invented it. Some heard music and others heard sounds that were out of this world. As time passed, radio fled into the wilderness, a place where nature once existed, and was forced from technology, a place where nature could not be found. Scientists, soldiers, and generals listened until the 1960s, when musicians, artists, and their audiences rediscovered radio. And now, as the wireless of old meets the wireless of new, many people listen.

If the story told in the previous paragraph seems unnatural, it is because the radio is natural. Radio is not always a technological control device supplied with energy from a battery or a plug in the wall; sometimes it is the energy. Unlike other forms of 19th century media that developed upon a tried-and-true base of writing and storage, the sphere of telecommunications technologies of telegraphy, telephony, and wireless resonated with energetic environments and received signals from terrestrial and extraterrestrial sources. Thus, receiving radio may mean that someone is listening but not always that anyone is sending. Communications technologies change old ways and provide tantalising glimpses into the future, but the mistake is to think that they are always about communications. They do not always default to infrastructural business ventures upon which humans converse or exchange information with one another; communications technologies also belong among scientific investigations, aesthetic engagements, artistic activities, and environmentalist possibilities. Individually and collectively, communications have hosted communes in the tendentious house of nature.

The idea that media might have proximity to nature is certainly counterintuitive; but a merging of recent green media analyses and histories into “the nature of power” promises greater accuracy, wider ranging political action, and artistic possibility. Mentioning nature and communications in the same breath would have been easier during the 19th century, when the earth was regularly put in circuit with communications technologies (i.e. when aspects of the earth were as integral to the operation of the overall apparatus as the bona fide technological devices and infrastructure). Telegraph and telephone signals were returned through the earth, and a ground meant the ground underneath people’s feet; information was underground information. Earth currents associated with auroral display and storms on the sun were sensed on telegraph lines and heard on the telephone. Pairing nature and communications would also have been better tolerated late at night in the 1950s and 1960s, when distant, phantom-like radio stations faded in and out due to a drifting ionosphere, when communications were still under diurnal influence, when there was a night and day to speaking and listening.

The idea that nature might have proximity to media would not seem so strange had the history of communications been written from the perspective of sidekicks, not genius inventors, dominant functions, and victorious business models. We know Watson from Bell’s legendary boss-man instructions: “Watson. Come here I need you.” Bell’s instructions made Watson the first name in modern telecommunications and one of history’s most famous sidekicks. But when it comes to telecommunications, nature is more of a sidekick, even though it has always been the biggest broadcaster, bigger than all corporations, governments, militaries, and other purveyors of anthropic signals combined. In fact, nature was broadcasting globally before there was a globe. Radio was heard before it was invented, and radio, before it was heard, was.

Telephony was a new day for sound, not just for talking. The reality and idea of phonography contributed to the surge of sound thinking and auditory imagination during the same period (the latter half of the 1870s), but the way people talked about telephony was different. The telephone was celebrated for its unprecedented sensitivity in rendering incredibly small amounts of energy audible, just as its associated technology, the microphone, zoomed into a new universe of sounds, real and imagined, like a microscope with ears peering all the way down to a molecular level. And, unlike the phonograph, which relied on old forms of transport to move sounds over great distances, the telephone, for all intents and purposes, paved its own way at the speed of light.

Telephone lines were prefigured by telegraph lines, not only in the distance that a signal could traverse in the time of a tiny spark, but also in the way they resonated with a larger energetic environment, both atmosphere and underground. It was in this latter capacity that the telephone took on its wirelessness, sensing earth currents and receiving musical programs that were not being transmitted on the same line. The capacity of long lines to sense environments alive with unbounded regional or cosmic energies led to a propensity to think big.

The telephone produced plenty of noises and odd sounds when it was first tested from one room to the next, but the types of sounds Watson heard during his off-hours on a line that stretched a half mile down the street were different. He did not seek to eliminate them because they interrupted nothing. They were curious and captivating enough to keep him up into the early hours listening. He may have been a sidekick in the history of communications, but in the history of electromagnetism he was most likely the first person on earth to listen to radio. All Bell did was invent the telephone.

Watson heard electromagnetic waves a decade before Heinrich Hertz empirically proved their existence and two decades before Guglielmo Marconi was credited with inventing wireless telegraphy. The cult leader Pythagoras is reputed to have been the first person to imagine a mythical acoustical cosmos of the music of the spheres, but the sidekick Watson was the first to listen to the sound of electromagnetic waves that actually course through the cosmos, irrespective of the silent vacuum of outer space, and he, as of this writing, has no cult.

Watson did not mention a musical character, but others listening to natural radio associated the sounds with music and with gradations that slurred music with noise. It was not necessary for music to be invoked for aesthetics to come into play, of course, since sounds and noises themselves could be experienced in the same way. Whether telephone operators or investigators in the ranks of radio science, listeners heard the raucous and mellifluous sounds of natural radio and some listened aesthetically. Like many naturalists before them and after, they could more easily listen aesthetically and associate the sounds with music the more distant the sounds were from the dominant institutions and discourses of music. Today, for many reasons, such sounds encounter fewer impediments.

The telephone listening sessions of Thomas Watson were a conjunction of wireless reception prior to wirelessness, engagements with an electromagnetic cosmos prior to scientific investigation, a noisy aesthetics of sound before the avant-garde, and electrical sound before electronic music. Watson did have a personal sense of prescience in his job description as an “electrical engineer,” a term that would grow in legitimacy during his own lifetime, but he might find it strange to be playing a role in this book. However, Bill Winternitz, Watson’s grandson, did not find these topics strange when we talked, he from his home in Alabama and I stopped by the side of a cycle path in California, on the telephone.

Energetic Arts
I first encountered natural radio while trying to understand compositions from the 1960s by the American composer Alvin Lucier and artworks from the 1990s by the Australian artist Joyce Hinterding that, although very different, had natural radio as a common element. Their work posed specific questions, but also very large ones that required rethinking cultural engagements with electromagnetism, the histories of telecommunications, the history of electronic music and, ultimately, energies and earth magnitudes in the arts, spanning many decades. My attempt to respond to their work started as a paper and ended as this book.

Before we begin, let me say that the topic here is necessarily interdisciplinary. This book is rooted in the histories of the arts – primarily the media arts, experimental music, and the so-called visual arts – but it branches out to the history of telecommunications and the history of science and veers into media theory and other issues. Readers who may at times find themselves in unfamiliar terrain, however, should be assured that discussion will soon return to more recognisable ground.

The natural radio that Lucier and Hinterding engaged artistically in the second half of the twentieth century was heard aesthetically by Watson in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. All of them were drawn to it by their respective vocations in sound: Watson as a telecommunications engineer, Lucier as a composer in the Western classical tradition, and Hinterding as an artist using sound. The three stand as signposts in the structure of this book: it starts with Watson in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, is centered on Lucier in the 1960s, and ends with the recent work of Hinterding. Alvin Lucier began to explore electromagnetism as artistic raw material, first as brainwaves and immediately thereafter as natural radio. He was not alone in feeling that electromagnetism per se was viable material for the arts. Experimental music, given its proximity to electronics and the palpable energetic transfer between sound and signal, was conducive to material being immaterial. This idea could also be found in the visual art of James Turrell, where light was understood electromagnetically, and in the conceptual art of Robert Barry, who observed that visual art occupied but a tiny patch (visible light) of the electromagnetic spectrum and that the rest of the spectrum was open to artistic possibility.

By the 1990s, when Joyce Hinterding took an interest in natural radio, there had been substantial developments in sound in the arts, DIY and hardware hacking, amateur communities, science and the arts, and an intensifying ubiquity of communications with a wireless backbone. She is now among a growing number of artists, media artists, and musicians who move along the electromagnetic spectrum and through energetic environments as easily as those energies move through them.

Despite the pervasiveness of electromagnetism in nature, electrical generation and motors, telecommunications and electronic media, physics, and so on, there has been very little written on such phenomena in the histories and theories of the arts. It was not that long ago that the same condition pertained to that other major energy: sound. There are similarities: the way that electromagnetism has received attention among practitioners in the last decade resembles the way practitioners engaged “sound” in the 1980s. Indeed, some of the same individuals are involved.

The exception to the paucity of scholarship is Linda Henderson’s Duchamp In Context, a meticulous treatment of science, technology, and the occult in the early 20th century visual and antiretinal arts. The present effort can be read as an extension of Henderson’s chapter eight – “The Large Glass As A Painting of Electromagnetic Frequency” – as I take up additional questions of the cultural incursion of electromagnetism in its relation to communications media and during different periods in the arts and music.

Early in my research, the artist and media archaeologist Paul DeMarinis directed me to a passage in Thomas Watson’s autobiography where Watson described listening to natural radio when the newly created telephone was first tested on a half mile iron line. It took digging into historical documents and talking with a number of radio scientists and engineers to confirm that what Watson listened to was, in fact, a form of natural radio. Once that was established, it was clear that there was an important historical thread consisting of the sounds of natural radio stretching from the aesthetic listening of Watson to the artistic activities of Lucier and Hinterding in the second half of the 20th century.

It became necessary to step back a quarter century from Watson to reconsider the activities of Henry David Thoreau, who listened to the sounds produced by the wind on the outside of telegraph lines: Aeolian sounds of a type that had been heard since antiquity, in nature and on Aeolian harps and other purpose-built instruments. Thoreau heard the music of nature on what he called the telegraph harp, a piece of the latest technology acting in an ancient manner. Instead of hearing the sounds of nature formed on the outside of the lines of telecommunication, Watson heard sounds from the inside.

Telegraph and telephone lines were in many respects interchangeable; wind could produce Aeolian sounds on either; and, if a telephone receiver was hooked up to a telegraph line, given proper conditions natural radio could be heard. So why were the sounds created by the wind granted musical and aesthetic status through the category of the Aeolian, while the sounds created by the natural electromagnetic activity were not, even though they were heard musically and aesthetically, could occur on the same line, and were produced in the same environment? Since there is no good reason, I have coined the term Aelectrosonic.

Where the Aeolian operates between nature and music in acoustics, the Aelectrosonic does the same for electricity and electromagnetism. The character of the sounds in the Aelectrosonic has implications for the history of music, especially avant-garde and experimental music. The Aelectrosonic can certainly provide a footing in nature for electronic music, which has long been trapped under a sign of technology and marched through history in a procession of technological/instrumental devices. It is also a means to understand how energies move across distinctions of music and not-music, nature and technology, as prefigured in the winds moving through manifestations of the Aeolian itself.

Some of the natural sounds that Watson and others heard in the telephone were perceived as musical, especially short sliding tones and whistling glissandi. Indeed, the term musical atmospherics later became common in scientific quarters, and researchers in the early 1930s described atmospherics along a continuum of musical, quasi-musical, and nonmusical. In the musical and artistic avant-garde, the quasi middle ground was negotiated primarily in terms of an accommodation of noise, first formalised in Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Art Of Noises manifesto from 1913 and echoed in John Cage’s call in “For More New Sounds” in 1942. During the 1920s and 1930s, the science of whistlers and the musical avant-garde shared a similar tolerance and delectation for the plasticity of what was and what was not musical sound; and it can be said that Watson too was listening to the types of noises and odd sounds that would become amenable to the avant-garde almost four decades later.

Listening to problematically musical sounds in nature has a long history with its own debates. The disposition to listen to the environmental sound aesthetically and as music can be read throughout Henry David Thoreau’s writings, as Cage himself acknowledged, and in the writings of other naturalists. Indeed, Russolo’s achievement can be characterised in one sense as having moved auditory naturalism downtown to an urban and industrial context (in his essay “Noises Of Nature,” Russolo’s naturalism can be found in its natural habitat) and Cage’s achievement as having broken through the inertia of Western art music with regard to a wider world of sound and aesthetic listening. In fact, much of what Cage finds in his notion of indeterminacy can be found in the turbulent torque of Aeolian performance that, as Thoreau knew, is an earth sound that originates on a planetary and heliospheric scale.

The Aelectrosonic became evident when telephones were put in-circuit with the telephone lines, telegraph lines, and submarine cables interacting with the naturally occurring energetic environment. However, just as Aeolian sounds were produced by the wind blowing across naturally occurring rock formations and plants, not merely human-made technologies (Aeolian harps, telegraph lines), so too could the Aelectrosonic occur in the sounds of the polar auroras and atmospheric electricity high in the mountains. All that is required to transform an electrostatic or electromagnetic state to sound is the proper transducer, and transducers can be both naturally occurring and anthropic (technological).

The movement from one energy state to another, either within or between larger classes of energy (mechanics or electromagnetism), is called transduction. Audible sounds and other acoustical phenomena belong to mechanics: all sound is mechanical in this sense. Just as the wind blows across distinctions of naturally occurring and human-made, of nature and technology, so too does energy move across states as transduction. Energetic movement is in this way a continuation locatable at transformation, the position of transducers. The Aeolian is a mechanical music in that the actions of the wind, vibrating strings, and the resulting sound are of the same class of mechanics.

In contrast, the Aelectrosonic moves from electromagnetism to sound, that is, from the class of electromagnetic energy to the class of mechanical energy. That electromagnetic fields and waves require technology for transduction into sound means that they have been occluded by mechanisms of control. Electronic music pioneers in the first half of the 20th century were more interested in technological control than in what was being controlled. As music began to be produced through electrical conductors, one could still see the ghost of symphonic music past. The performances using the Theremin, besides being intent upon replicating existing classical repertoire, consisted of the detached gestures of orchestral conductors, wielding sticks in the ethereal air. Nevertheless, because acoustical and electromagnetic energies are classical in terms of Newtonian and Maxwellian physics, music associated with them could be called classical music.

The instrumentality of electronic music during the period had much to do with this music’s reliance on engineers, but it happened to be a prominent engineer, Alfred Norton Goldsmith, who in 1937 reminded the modern music community what it was that was being controlled. The electricity driving new instruments, he said, was just as natural as anything the larger world of music could muster, even as he described this electricity somewhere along a spectrum between the static of cat fur and a bolt of lightning.

As the century progressed, or at least transpired, criticism against using new means for old sounds grew along with the avant-garde and experimental precept of new sounds by any means, although neither grew as exponentially as the use of electronic technologies to mimic existing musical sounds. Openness to phenomena is at the root of the meaning of conductor – something that allows energies to flow through itself, assembles them, coaxes and draws from them. This is no doubt present among symphonic conductors, whereas many experimentalists made an ethic out of it.

Alongside developments for more new sounds, electronic music itself became a conductor for more new signals. By the 1960s, composers and artists began considering electromagnetism per se as raw material for their craft, with Alvin Lucier working with what he called natural electromagnetic sounds, stretching from brainwaves to outer space; and by 1975, the composer Gordon Mumma could identify what he called an astro-bio-geo-physical trend within the ranks of live electronic music, tied to a plenitude of signals culled from scientific investigations of natural phenomena. It is an important distinction: electronic and experimental music did not merely use scientific signals; such music was already conducive to them. Whether because of DIY or a high level of technical sophistication or both, this generation of composers, musicians, and artists increasingly paid attention to energies rather than immediately defaulting to mechanisms of control. As a result, the world became a more energetic place, both acoustically and electromagnetically.

The challenge of this book is to think energy; however, earth sounds and earth signals are privileged over human corporeal energies. Brainwaves are discussed because they are electromagnetic activity that create what Alvin Lucier called natural electromagnetic sounds, a concept that led to his next composition, Whistlers, based on the sounds of natural radio; these electromagnetic sources combined to describe an electromagnetic spatiality from brainwaves to outer space. What Lucier did not do was bring the body and (transcendent) subject into play to construct the countercultural figure of “inner and outer space,” although that did occur in many brainwave works by others who followed suit later in the 1960s and 1970s.

A parallel track in this book relates energies to the scales of the earth – from sound at local and long distances, to the effects of electrical atmospheres, to electromagnetic activities occurring at the speed of light at earth magnitude. Rather than the hieratic music of the spheres, this book concentrates on the terrestrial arts and music of the sphere, from the sphere music of Henry David Thoreau to the sonosphere of Pauline Oliveros. The grand historical sweep from the 19th century to the present, scaled up to the size of the earth, is grounded in detail derived from the anecdotal record, essays and journalism, engineering and scientific literature, the crafted experiences of the arts, and interviews with scientists, technicians, artists, and others involved.

Lived Electromagnetism
A capacious and concentrated attention toward raucous, pulsating, buzzing, crackling and subtle, mysterious little sounds not only goes into an evening’s entertainment in the 21st century but also acts as an indispensible heuristic device in historical investigation. As Hillel Schwartz’s book Making Noise makes abundantly apparent, if such sounds are filtered out by taste or written off as noise or interference, then much will be underheard and overlooked. This is certainly true for the 19th century, during which electromagnetism was experienced through odd sounds in telecommunications systems and the environment.

At its most basic, Earth Sound Earth Signal is an account of the trade between two classes of energy: acoustics (mechanics) and electromagnetism. I emphasise electromagnetism for the simple reason that nature sounds are familiar while nature signals are not: birds sing but most people have not heard the magnetosphere whistle. Also, electromagnetism itself is not very well understood; few of the common understandings of scientists and engineers have assumed vernacular status in the broader culture. The physicist Richard Feynman did sum up why one might wish to know, in his own, inimitable way:

"In this space there is not only my vision of you, but information from Moscow Radio that’s being broadcasted at the present moment and the seeing of somebody from Peru. All the radio waves are just the same kind of waves only longer waves. And then the radar from the airplane, which is looking at the ground trying to figure out where it is, is coming through this room at the same time. Plus the X-rays, and cosmic rays, and all these other things, the same kind of waves, exactly the same waves, but shorter, faster, or longer, slower, exactly the same thing. So this big field, this area of irregular motions of an electric field of vibration contains this tremendous information, and it’s all really there, that’s what gets you! . . . So all these things are going though the room at the same time, which everybody knows, but you’ve got to stop and think about it to really get the pleasure about the complexity, the inconceivable nature of nature."

Feynman also said that it was both more understandable and required less imagination to have the room one inhabits populated with invisible angels or jelly (ether) than with electrical and magnetic fields: “I have no picture of this electromagnetic field that is in any sense accurate. . . . So if you have some difficulty in making such a picture, you should not be worried that your difficulty is unusual.”

There has simply been insufficient time, in historical years, for electromagnetic vernacular to emerge. Millennia stocked with amber and lodestones passed until the 19th century, when electrical and magnetic forces fused into the fields and waves of Ørsted, Faraday, and Maxwell, and electromagnetism became a recognisable force. It really was not that many generations ago. Acoustical phenomena have been commented on since the birth of commentary: Aristotle had plenty to say about sound but never tuned in to radio. 20th century philosophers, if electromagnetism is invoked, leapfrog over lived experiences of electromagnetism and head straight to theoretical physics and the observably limited behaviors of quantum realities. While understandable in motive, this predilection for cosmology and subatomic physics has left everyday lived electromagnetism, from communications to the sun, to others.

Lived electromagnetism is a messy practice resulting from an asynchronous amalgam of perceptual experiences, developing vernaculars and discourses, technologies, and scientific knowledge. For our purposes, lived electromagnetism has its historical basis in such things as rainbows, electric motors, and telecommunications, from which are derived the spectrum, the correlation of electricity and magnetism, and the speed of light and its global and cosmological manifestations.

Gradients (i.e. a spectrum) of light have long been rendered accessible through comparison of musical pitch with colour; such ideas survive today in various understandings of sound colour, synesthesia, and how colour and sound might physically or metaphorically correlate through frequency. 130 years ago, an editorial appeal was made by the respected electrical engineering journal The Electrical World (1883), citing Sir Isaac Newton’s comparison of “the seven colours of the prismatic spectrum to the average tones of the diatonic scale” as one “correlation of forces” that could extend to an exploration between “light and electricity.” The telegraph and telephone had primed the possibility for “telephotoscopy – the vision of objects at a distance,” and perhaps the transmission of other senses, smell and touch, the editorial speculated, since electricity and nerves share a common energetic sensibility.

The messiness expressed in The Electrical World was understandable, given that the piece was written within an environment of telecommunications but just a few years before Heinrich Hertz empirically demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves (the Hertzian waves of radio) beyond visible light, as theorised by Maxwell. Many people still think that light and radio have nothing in common with one another; nevertheless, rainbows and old radio dials are among the best everyday materialisations of frequencies along a spectrum.

Although human perception favors the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, one of light’s most salient features, its speed, is not perceptible. It is as though freeways were always, not just occasionally, mistaken for parking lots. Nevertheless, by the mid-19th century the perceptible length of telegraph lines and the distances traversed led to an understanding of a qualitatively different speed, even as conceptual models struggled with notions of electricity flowing through wires like water through pipes (this survives today in the notion of streaming media on the Internet). Telecommunications since telegraphy remains at the center of lived electromagnetism. A public model of electromagnetism and the electromagnetic spectrum was extended at the turn of the twentieth century with radium and X-rays, expanded considerably with radio in the 1920s, and resolutely reached the end of the spectrum at gamma with the atomic bombs in 1945. The spectrum was completed with the spectre of complete annihilation.

Thus, chronologically located between the old wireless devices and the new wireless gadgets of today was the harshest lesson in electromagnetism: the gadgets, as the first atomic bombs were called. In their wake, the cognisance of radiation became quotidian and global and, along with the dissemination of journalistic tropes, the isotopes that circulated in the wind served as markers for the global spread of other toxins, as genocide moved to ecocide over the following decades. Long distance radio signals coursing invisibly through the air annihilated space and time, and Sputnik and other delivery systems stigmatised the skies, promising a different annihilation during the Cold War. These two systems of annihilation joined on the domestic front in the United States in CONELRAD, the name of the emergency broadcasting station, whose acronym stood for control of electromagnetic radiation.

CONELRAD was the radio station to tune to when nuclear attack was imminent or had occurred. It was a concession in the control of electromagnetic radiation, because no ultimate control over the larger field of radiating gadgets was economically or politically viable. Broadcasting stations, domestic appliances, professional instrumentation, and commercial equipment had the potential to be redirected into communicating with the enemy and acting as homing devices for targeting. That is, once electricity started to flow through objects designed for purpose and convenience, the radiations had the potential not only to interfere with radio reception and become a nuisance but also to turn an object into an enemy. Not only were objects collaborators, for and against, so too were the accumulated radiating mass of objects, communications, and heat sinks of cities.

The Cold War moved to the Warm War. The punctuated apocalypse of nuclear warfare, of unleashing the sun on earth, as President Truman put it hours after Hiroshima, moved to the slow burn of today, the sun setting on the species. Just like Sputnik, global warming has stigmatised the sky: what used to be a moving star became a delivery system; what used to be the weather is now a vengeful climate. The radar that tracks enemy incursions also tracks clouds. The collaborating objects that provide convenience and transmit media now plug in to complicit fossil fuel grids and patch in to voracious server farms. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, lived electromagnetism was primarily conducted on the spectrum on technological grounds, from telecommunications to nuclear weaponry, whereas now it consists of ubiquitous global communications with a backdrop of earth scale environmental disaster. Just as messy as other practices of lived electromagnetism, the relationship between a plethora of telecommunication devices and the nature of the sun has yet to be reconciled.

Since the 19th century, naturally occurring electromagnetism-as-nature has been overridden by purely anthropic notions of technological transformation. Electromagnetism had nothing less than the historical misfortune among forces of nature to be disclosed at the moment of its industrialisation. It was ushered quickly into telegraph lines that only under certain circumstances demonstrated their resonance and reception of energetic environments. Instead, telecommunications controlled nature as never before: without a pre-existing nature. It was as though rivers had never existed before being harnessed for mills or dammed for hydroelectric production. For electromagnetism, there was no temporal split from culture, society, or technology within which “nature” could be overcome.

On the physical cusp of the sensory, making sense is difficult because the human body is audiovisually skewed. Unaided human perception is restricted to the tiny patch of light where the eye is entranced by a rainbow but oblivious to the vast analogous sweep of the spectrum on either side. The perceptibility of visual light, however, is overrated, given that humans cannot see light’s constant movement. Electromagnetic effects are felt in other ways: the warmth on the skin of infrared, the sunburn of ultraviolet. The civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw the “noiseless flash” of the atomic bombs dropped by the United States and felt the gamma radiation delayed in the deadly pain of gross cellular damage. Three weeks earlier, a blind woman saw the Trinity test, the first atomic explosion.

Unlike the eye, the ear is not a dedicated electromagnetic apparatus. Although the inner ear eventually excites electrochemical impulses in nerves to the brain, its initial sensitivity is to the vibratory movements of acoustical energy. As elephants and dogs let us know, the human ear only gets excited by a certain range of the sound spectrum; flanked on either side are infrasonic and ultrasonic events. With enough energy, sounds beyond the normal human audible range can be felt or their effects heard – earthquakes come to mind – but most all simply escape notice.

Both seeing and hearing intersect in different ways with the electromagnetic spectrum. What vision is to visible light, hearing is to the range of frequencies known as audio frequency range. The Very Low Frequency (VLF) range of natural radio that Watson heard is in the audio frequency range. Like all electromagnetic waves, those in the audio frequency range travel at the speed of light; but because the waves are exceedingly long, they end up oscillating in the range of human hearing. These are the sounds we would hear if we could hear electromagnetic waves unaided. To hear natural radio, there needs to be transformation from one state of energy (electromagnetic) to another (mechanical/acoustical). The movement of energies from one state to another, whether or not it happens with or without the anthropic artifacts known as technology, is called transduction. The long waves of VLF take a long wave antenna to hear. If ears had been evolutionarily designed to tune in to long electromagnetic waves, the burden of our physiological antennas would probably mean that we would be all ears and prone to be serpentine.

Watson heard natural radio when the long iron telephone test line acted unwittingly as a long wave antenna. This was before anyone knew what an antenna was or, for that matter, what electromagnetic radio waves were. Watson had an intuition about how they might have been generated but absolutely no way of knowing. The only reason that Watson was the first person to accidentally hear these sounds was due to his privileged proximity to the right type of transducer: the telephone. Because the transduction was occurring within the audio frequency range, there was no need to step-down shorter electromagnetic waves into longer waves of human hearing in the process that we now know through the device of radio. A primitive telephone connected to a long iron line would suffice.

There are different types of natural radio. In Earth Sound Earth Signal, I focus on whistlers and related ionospheric phenomena, as the title of Robert Helliwell’s classic book on the subject reads. Many people now know of whistlers thanks to Stephen P McGreevy’s Auroral Chorus: Music Of The Magnetosphere (2001) and his other efforts, some of the most stunning recordings ever made. Others of an earlier generation know them thanks to Cook Recordings’ LPs Out Of This World (1953) and Ionosphere (1955). The Internet has made it possible to listen to natural radio from different parts of the world live, potentially hearing the sound of opposite hemispheres interact with one another.

Whistlers are but one form of natural radio, but their musical character and quasi-musical and sonic appeal have attracted the attention of many people. Heard amid complex fields of noisy activity and often barely distinguishable from them, whistlers are mysterious or at least curious in origin, and they have the ability to captivate one for a very long time. Listening to them can be similar to sitting entranced by tiny flashes of sun and noises in the rush and crackling of a creek, not knowing, perhaps, whether certain flashes are the backs of small silvery fish, that is, as if the creek were ionised and fish swam thousands of kilometers into the magnetosphere and back.

Trajectory of a lightning-generated whistler through the magnetosphere. Illustration by Pia van Gelder.

Whistlers are generated primarily by the powerful, full-spectrum electromagnetic bursts of lightning. Lightning strikes globally between 100 and 200 times a second, releasing enormous amounts of energy that are teased out into signals traveling at the speed of light over great distances. They bounce between the earth and ionosphere and at times catch a ride into outer space on magneto-ionic flux lines before descending back to earth in the opposite hemisphere. Arching over the equator, whistlers are globetrotting signals, earth signals in the truest sense. The way the frequencies from the initial burst of lightning are spread out into a glissando is not dissimilar from how light is refracted and spread out into a rainbow. Along the electromagnetic spectrum, both ears and eyes are attracted to their respective rainbows.

Yet, it is not merely the aesthetic delectation of whistlers that is important. They have stood like a Greek chorus chiming in at key moments on the stage of the history of telecommunications, science, and the military. Not long after Watson listened out of curiosity and pleasure, scientists tried to figure out what whistlers were and where they came from. Signal corps members in the killing fields of World War I heard whistlers, prompting scientific research during the 1920s that itself was associated with verifying the existence of the ionosphere and mapping its features. During the 1950s, whistler research was aligned with the discovery of the magnetosphere and was present during atmospheric nuclear testing of so-called rainbow bombs, named for how they lit up the night sky. And, with Alvin Lucier, whistlers were present as electromagnetism was taken up as artistic material and as an important alliance between the arts and science was forged in the 1960s.

Whistler science evolved out of the military communications of World War I and, along with the geophysical sciences, its biggest advances were tied to the funding largesse of the Cold War’s militarised science. New scientific means of sensing physical phenomena at a geophysical scale contributed to an understanding of the energetic states of the earth at the same time as those understandings were directed toward military monitoring and intelligence, targeting, and command and control. Cutting-edge science was both sword and ploughshare.

For musicians and artists in the United States who were interested in scientific knowledge and new technological developments, the material culture of militarised science was as integral as it was unavoidable. The cultivation of earth signals in the arts necessarily took place, if only at the far edge of the margins, within fleeting formal, institutional interactions and informal, casual friendships among artists, scientists, and engineers. Whereas the scientists were closer to the crumbs falling from the military funding table, artists worked where dust might occasionally waft off a crumb. In this environment, sounds and signals emanated from a deep noise floor of barbarism. Indeed, following Walter Benjamin’s dictum that there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism, there are no transmissions in which signals are not mixed.

Whistlers were emissaries of earth magnitude. As whistlers arced over the equator, people heard storms in the opposite hemisphere. Although this fact was not understood until the 1950s, one scientist in the early twentieth century was sure the noises of atmospherics heard in England were produced from storms in Africa. Yet by the time Alvin Lucier used natural radio in his music, he was well aware that whistlers were produced by electromagnetic activity of lightning hurling signals far out into the magnetosphere, in the vacuum of space, and back to earth on the other side of the equator as gossamer sounds.

Given the sound of whistlers, the question still arises of how Lucier might have felt licensed to make music with earth-scale phenomena. Modern composers had looked to the expanses of the earth, planets, stars, and universe to inspire and organise sounds rather than for the sounds they made; composers had often channeled these expanses symbolically through the visual inscriptions of notation, rather than conducting energetic fields and waves that actually fluctuated and vibrated dynamically. Lucier, on the other hand, had the example of his friend and collaborator Gordon Mumma, who made music with the globe trotting signals of seismic activity: earthquakes and underground nuclear testing. Experimental music in the 1960s brought the music of the cosmos back down to earth.

In a late 19th century contest to sense the scale of the earth, the main contenders were acoustical: the booming sound of Krakatoa was heard thousands of kilometers away and the seismic signals from an earthquake in Japan shook seismographs in Germany. Teleseismological signals were regularly transmitted under the horizon more than a decade before Marconi’s wireless “S” made its way over the horizon from England to Canada. Both were means to sense the “whole earth” long before the silent, reverse astronomy of surveillance aircraft, high-altitude balloons, and the “earthrise” and “blue marble” photographs of the 1960s and 1970s. Now that nature has defaulted to earth magnitude, there are many ways to listen live and laterally sense the planet without leaving it.

The Nature Of Media: Inscription, Transmission
While this book is held together with a running stitch of glissandi formed by whistlers, a global view of energy informs these pages, grounded in an abiotic nature associated with the physical sciences and with a materiality often assumed to be immaterial. For obvious reasons, ecological discourse has largely been framed in terms of the biotic (endangerment and extinction of human, animal, and plant life). Only fairly recently has a discursive presence of the abiotic been rendered routine, with carbon and chemical interactions with the solar terrestrial environment and with the live energy systems (solar, wind, wave) necessary to reach a survivable, dynamical homeostasis on the earth. The solar terrestrial environment is many things, not least the electromagnetic presence of the sun.

It is much easier to empathise with creatures with eyes and limbs (sentience and technics), or with objects (eg those that maintain proscribed bounds, occupy fairly stable locations, and especially those consumer electronic objects that themselves take on creature characteristics), than it is with ever moving nondescript energies. Only when mythological energies assume an oddly evacuated, godlike omniscience may anachronistic forces be with you; but when energies are granted nominal entity status without being grand entities, they are most often relegated to relations, durations, and processes. Keeping things, bodies, subjects, and the like at bay for too long is, of course, impossible: the lived in lived electromagnetism signals that from the outset. I am simply saying that the rhetorical fields of matter and energy are historically predisposed to the former, yet it is not enough just to be moved by the nonlocality of energy; how this occurs requires demonstration. Thus, my attempt in these pages to persist in positions of energy, to assert a moving materialism of energy, entails nothing more than a bending of the matter-energy shtick the other way in order to listen to the piezoelectric stress effects.

This raises the question of the vernacular status of the term nature. Invoking nature was once a way to keep things at bay from “society,” but this does not work as well as it once did. People increasingly accept that the term nature helps destroy the very thing it wishes to protect. If this was not obvious before, then anthropogenic global warming makes abundantly clear that there is no longer any “nature” untouched by human hands and that a finite planet constrains myths of separation. If anything, nature is all over. Even the “nature” of natural radio has been skewed, given that whistlers are associated with thunderstorm activity, the patterns and severity of which have been transformed by global warming. To hear such sounds, one would have to listen statistically, at least until the anomalous becomes routine for a moment. The only “nature” left in weather is space weather in the heliosphere, but that is in a wilderness environment not amenable to the biotic.

However, I am not ready to throw the nature baby out with the rising bathwater. There is great variability in the use of the term nature; on theoretical terrain the use has been site specific, and in the vernacular the word has proven capacious and malleable, even in stricter readings. But more important for the present study, the old-school separation of nature and society is simply not operative in telecommunications media, because the dominant notion has been that media have no nature. We will see that this notion is historically situated, with less traction in the past and losing traction in the present. Media have never been monopolised by a separate wilderness and it is too late to start now.

Recent ecotheory and political ecology have critiqued the term nature, yet never in relation to where the word has never been used: the ostensibly pure sociality that is media. Thus, I am hanging on to a notion of nature (in effect, natures) as a means to introduce it to where it has long since been abandoned. Instead of the capital-N Nature that has served to mask machinations of capital, the question of nature in media actually opens political and ecological investigations rather than closes them down. I am hanging on to the term not only for vernacular purposes but also discursive ones at certain sites of analyses, because, most notably, it has been absent in histories of communications technologies, historical media theory, and the history of electronic music.

The ease with which ubiquitous media gave rise to global communities with no natural habitat seems absurd from a generational perspective and may or may not prove to be absurd again. The deep redundancy of the term social media goes without notice amid an absence of anything resembling a “natural media.” The truly odd place that media assume in ecological discourses is exemplified in the term media ecology, a field in which writers, as Ursula Heise puts it, “generally waste no words on the state of the natural environment.” The natural habitat of this ecology consists of media as its own species of content. It is more urgent to ask what a deeper media ecology would be.

Nature is embedded more deeply in media than nature programming, as has been detailed by “green media” research on resource extraction, environmental destruction for infrastructure, carbon neutrality, pollution of workers and the environment, obsolescence and waste, and the huge demands put on electrical generation by the spreading acreage of server farms. The global breadth of any single transmission has already been trafficked in the transportation of materials, labor, and goods, within which innumerable energies are expended at every point in the process. In minerals, fossil fuels, and manufacturing alone, the materiality of any contemporary communications device spreads to the four corners of the earth, mirroring its messaging. Green media analyses have had formidable tasks without accounting for aesthetics or poetics, although that too has begun.

To the extent that this book involves media evolving from the 19th century, it concentrates on modern telecommunications technologies (telegraphy, telephony, and wireless) rather than storage media (photography, phonography, and cinema). The former are characterized by transmission, whereas the latter are characterised by inscription (although I will later project cinema onto the field of transmission). Inscriptive media precipitate phenomena onto surfaces (pages, scores, screens, memory devices, etc.) and are associated with recording and storage awaiting revivification, reproduction, repetition, and more storage. Transmissional media (in my usage) are inseparable from electricity and electromagnetism; they differ from inscriptive media through basic physical states of energy (mechanics, electromagnetism) and are thus historically very recent when compared to the antiquity of inscriptive media. Telecommunications technologies like telegraphy, telephony, wireless telegraphy, radio and television broadcasts, and the Internet are transmitted “live,” even when they transmit recordings.

One consequence is that transmission should, at a certain level, not be confused with diffusion or dissemination; doing so ignores the speeds involved, the effects of and on distance, and the historical accelerations that have accompanied them, such as colonial and imperial expansion. Word gets out fast, but inscriptive media have been closely tied to metabolic speeds, whereas the electromagnetism underpinning transmission aspires to the speed of light. The metabolic energies and speeds of word of mouth, postal carriers, horses, and trains differ qualitatively along the biotic and abiotic from the energies of modern telecommunications that began with telegraphy. Whereas diffusion has always existed, transmission is first of all “modern,” developing once optical telegraphy moved toward telegraphy. Although these broad distinctions (inscription, transmission) came together in telegraphic code (even switching relays), then merged more significantly with electronic sound recording and the radio broadcast of recordings, and finally became inextricable with digital technologies, they remain operative nonetheless.

Communications systems are thought to be where people or their proxies communicate or otherwise exchange information with one another, whereas I prefer not to let such notions override actual technological functioning. That telegraph and telephone lines were used for aesthetic and scientific purposes means that communications were neither always, nor do they have to be, for communications alone. It is so deeply engrained to equate communications technologies with communications – it is, unfortunately, locked in the word – that variability defaults to the counterintuitive. Nevertheless, we need to understand communications as a variable technology that, for the purposes of this book, constitute an interrogative function leading to experiential (aesthetic/artistic), scientific, and communicative areas.

These three classes are not equally proportionate, of course; nor are they autonomous (that is the whole point); nor do they exhaust categorical possibilities (an argument could be made to include the military) or inhibit broader elaboration (the atomic bomb was a seismological instrument). Because the three classes can happen on the same device at the same time (differing from the distributed functions examined in variantology), it seems important not to radically separate them out, as has been done in the closed circuit sociality informing media history and theory. Ideally, such inquiry can provide a field of historical precedent for how contemporary media devices are composed of multiple purposes.

The most familiar piece of variable technology in the history of communications is the telescope. As an aesthetic and experiential device, it was used for stargazing; as a scientific instrument, it was used in astronomy; and in long-distance communications, it was used in optical telegraphy. Scientifically, the telegraph was used to research magnetic storms associated with sunspots and auroral activity, with the data gathered on a distributed, geophysical scale sent to a central collection point on the same system; all the while, along the telegraph’s lines, Thoreau and others listened to the strains of the Aeolian. The telephone, all parts of it, had numerous scientific uses, while Watson and others listened to its Aelectrosonic strains, and the same was true for wireless technologies. In this way, a closer examination of media technologies uncovers a technological indeterminism.

My attention to technologies is commonplace in my usual disciplinary sphere of media arts history, due in large part to the influence of the writings of Friedrich Kittler, who has mistakenly been called a media theorist when in fact, among other capacities, he was a historical media theorist. While I consider the research here complementary to Kittler in many respects, differences need to be drawn. Most obviously, in his best known works Kittler chose to concentrate on inscriptive media rather than attending to transmission media and telecommunications. He is correct in showing how telegraphy veering from the railroad separated transportation from information (a separation codified in wireless), but he does not veer from a presumed primacy of inscription over transmission. The title of one of his books is Gramophone, Film, Typewriter; it contains three technologies that epitomise the systems of inscription (Aufschreibesysteme), which is, in turn, the title of another (translated as Discourse Networks). The inscribed surface of a gramophone disc is etched with a stylus much like a pen on paper, or struck and molded in the manner of a printing press or a typewriter on a page; in contrast, cinema has two surfaces, the filmstrip and the screen, between which the energies serve time.
Kittler argued that “media determine our situation,” that is, media constitute an informational situation that subsumes, in their broad bandwidth, literature, philosophy, the production of discourse, and much more. Within this field of exchange, scholarship traditionally conducted in relation to the page and archives reverse engineers in Kittler’s work a predominantly inscriptive notion of contemporary media. That is, inscriptive practices determine where media are situated. Inscriptive media cover quite a bit and Kittler’s theory is capable of fusing long histories and significant continuities and periodisations in a telos toward a Mammon of computation. Scripts, alphabets, and mechanised Gutenbergian effects are continuous with computer code and printed circuits, and Kittler has processed them with an unparalleled integration, much like a microchip itself. However, there remains a basic level at which privileging inscriptive media comes at the expense of transmissional media.

In his historical teleology, Kittler vaults over an engagement with transmission at a place that, coincidentally, gave rise to dedicated whistler research: among the signal corps in the fields and trenches of World War I. He cites the leaky lack of privacy of wireless transmission as rationale for coded communications, and he follows the coding through the Enigma machine and its decoder, Alan Turing, and in turn to Turing coding computational machines. This specific focus meant that other issues in the trenches were not mentioned.

First of all, other forms of telecommunications were also leaky during World War I: the inductive fields of telegraphs and telephones could be tapped without the lines being cut, and the earth circuits for telegraphy and dipole field telephones meant that the ground too, not just the air, was a font of stray messages. While using a grounded surveillance device for eavesdropping on enemy communications, the German Heinrich Barkhausen also heard whistlers amid a buzzing electromagnetic sea of signals, and he would write the first significant scientific paper on whistlers immediately after the war.

Moreover, during World War I there were two major units in the signal corps; one was for coding and decoding messages, upon which a history of inscription can be built, and the other was for locating the direction from which signals were transmitted. The latter was called the direction-finding (D/F) unit. Thomas L Eckersley was a member of the D/F unit in the British signal corps when he heard whistlers, and he would be the other major whistler scientist after the war. D/F antennas were already in use before the war for purposes of navigation and can be understood as the ancestors of GPS, but not before playing a role in locating radio at the center of our galaxy and making a guest appearance in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. At minimum, D/F should remind us that wireless telecommunications have always been concerned with positions as well as messages.

Whereas signal corps code makers and breakers exercised their craft on paper much as would a scholar, those in D/F units focused live on the spatially fluctuating movements of transmitted signals. Some of these signals, as Eckersley presciently understood, were misleading because they had to be interacting with what was later known as the ionosphere. Indeed, whistler research in the years after World War I played a significant part in establishing the existence and understanding the behavior of the ionosphere, that part of nature that was, during the 1920s, brought into circuit of wireless telecommunications systems and would remain there for decades to come. Whistlers and the ionosphere have, in this respect, helped determine our present media situation.

Friedrich Kittler’s basis in engineering compels media theory to a place where machines increasingly talk to one another at such accelerated speed in minutely localised microcircuitry that space no longer matters, and where what he calls “so-called Man” has been excluded from the conversation. In a practical sense, this scenario can be seen operating in financial trading, where algorithms converse and manipulate the fate of nonmachines in microseconds. Certain humans figure in, of course, especially mathematicians and politicians, as do other infrastructural items purchased by the financial industry for generating and regulating its activities, but creatures with the old souls once recognisable to the humanities have certainly been excluded.

Souls of nature writers have rightly come under critique in ecotheory, but that does not mean that Kittler’s machines are conversant with what he calls “so-called Nature.” Media and nature would have more to say to each other with a grounding in physics rather than engineering and in transmission rather than inscription. Kittler limits his discussion in this regard by stopping at voltage differences in microcircuits, which if he followed the potential flows would lead through the power outlet on the wall to green media and a politics of energy, and to a global architecture of ubiquitous media founded on transmission.


Just a few more words on this book. The chronological expanse combined with the level of detail requires an episodic structure. Since many episodes include new concepts and historical information, or are unfamiliar because of disciplinary cross-traffic, there is a need to step back intermittently to provide context. To understand Watson’s fascination with new sounds in the telephone, I have included a discussion of how the microphone, itself a part of the new telephone technology at the time, piqued an unheard-of imagination for sounds. To demystify the act of hearing nature in the lines of communications technologies, I step back to Henry David Thoreau and others who heard the Aeolian music of nature in telegraph lines and, before that, to the longer history of the Aeolian, with its questioning of whether nature had any talent for music. And, given that the natural sounds (if not music) of the Aeolian occurred in the absence of purpose-built technologies, what were and are the commensurate energy-filled fields of technological absence for presence of the Aelectrosonic?

The book’s focus on Alvin Lucier derives from his early use of natural radio in a composition and his notion of natural electromagnetic sounds, among other factors, one of which may be that, in full disclosure, I was his student in graduate school and an admirer of his work several years prior to that and every year since. To discuss Lucier’s natural radio music, it is necessary to introduce him and the physicist Edmond Dewan and then to investigate their engagement with the natural electromagnetic sounds of brainwaves. Only then is it possible to describe an electromagnetic spatiality, from brainwaves to outer space, constituted between Cold War and counterculture.

Then it is possible to step back yet again and describe how the constitution of an electromagnetic plenitude was already underway during the twentieth century in the realm of sound synthesis, and how it related to notions of nature, control, and relinquishment of control in modernist and experimental electronic music as “more new sounds” became “more new signals.” Both naturalist and modernist plenitudes of surround sound became urban, terrestrial, and extraterrestrial environments of energetic fields and waves, as more objects took on currents, cities were saturated, and reception broadened. The expanse from brainwaves to outer space thus serves as an allegory for the points, sweeps, and scattering of electrical and electromagnetic energies wherever they occur, from the microtemporal voltage differences in digital circuits, back in time to the cosmic corners of the universe, many of them audible in more new sounds and ways of listening.

Throughout, it is very important to keep in mind that the focus on certain artists and musicians is only on select works that intersect the themes of this book. No extrapolations to bodies of work or representations of careers are necessarily inferred. Only a few works initially motivated this book, and what I hope to show is that the integrity of specific works may present provocation and require critical labor in equal measure.

You will notice certain dispositions; for example, I include scientists in discussions of art and science interactions where scientists’ concrete roles are too often overlooked. I also acknowledge the popular, amateur, and independent practices that form the third leg of the stool that is art-amateurism-science. I have a predilection for specifying location, which may appear to be unnecessary detail but is rather an accumulation of locations that render earth magnitude a little more palpable. I also choose to invoke sounds, describing them at length in an older form of sound recording provided by words; a book that has sound as a topic should contain sound in a skewed audiovisuality of reading.

Douglas Kahn's Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies And Earth Magnitudes In The Arts is published by the University Of California Press.

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