On the Aelectrosonic and Transperception


Douglas Kahn and William R. Macauley


Serendipitously, Douglas Kahn’s latest book Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts (University of California Press, 2013) was published in October 2013, at a time when work was underway on the collection of articles for the current JSS special issue. As many readers will know, Douglas Kahn is a leading historian and theorist in the field of media arts and experimental music. His earlier publications such as Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (MIT Press, 1999) are widely regarded as major contributions to scholarly research on the constitution and culture of sound in twentieth century arts. 


Earth Sound Earth Signal includes astute observations and analysis of sonic material, practices, actors, and sites that not only speak to the principal theme of the special issue - sounds of space – but also intersect in unexpected and productive ways with the content of individual contributions. This convergence of research interests, texts, and publication schedules seemed like an ideal opportunity to enter into dialogue and communicate with a larger audience by courtesy of JSS. What follows is an interview between William R. Macauley (WM) and Douglas Kahn (DK) conducted via email correspondence.


WM: Firstly, please explain the provenance of your book Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts. How does the book relate to your earlier research and publications on the history and theory of sound, such as Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts?


DK: The book is a continuation of research into sound, the arts, media technologies and culture that I began in the mid-1980s, and it is my first foray into thinking about sound among other energies. In particular, it is a concentration on one of the three rhetorical figures associated with sound that were introduced in Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-garde (MIT Press, 1992), those being vibration, inscription and transmission. These figures were derived from observing a mass of available material in and contiguous with the arts during the historical period under consideration: modernism and the avant-garde in the second half of the nineteenth century to the present. Noise Water Meat focused on sound inscribed in texts, surfaces, bodies, cells, technologies (phonography, film sound, etc.), dividing lines (e.g., sound/music, music/noise), a stasis and manipulation of storage awaiting reanimation, etc. I haven't published much work on vibration except for the essay on the ‘ultramodern’ composer Dane Rudhyar, "Ether Ore: Mining Vibrations in American Modernist Music", an occult imagination constituted through harmony rather than the percussive drive of the avant-garde, and this was in line with what the art historian Linda Henderson called vibratory modernism. Per transmission, I had written on William Burroughs in relation to radio and a few other things, but Earth Sound Earth Signal gave me an opportunity to attend to transmission in an extended manner. And among its various topics was finally an opportunity to have something to say about electronic music. Noise Water Meat pivoted around inscription and recording technologies, so there was little basis from which to discuss live electronic music from a more fundamental basis.


More prosaically, most of Noise Water Meat was written on a commuter train, whereas Earth Sound Earth Signal was written at a desk; as a result, the new book is more methodical despite engaging a larger set of questions and being more demanding with respect to certain sciences. Noise Water Meat was written in Australia, where libraries were inadequate at the time and before a wealth of resources had become available on the web, so I had to develop my ideas based upon readily available material and a somewhat overwrought collection of my own. Much of Earth Sound Earth Signal was written amid the comparative largesse of the University of California and was finished in very favorable conditions at the University of New South Wales where I am presently. Instead of relying on readily accessible material, I was able to track down hitherto undisclosed documents by the likes of Thomas Watson and Karl Jansky, for example, the first person on earth to hear radio and the first person on earth to hear radio not from the earth. Therefore, Noise Water Meat was an analysis of given histories, albeit quite a few, whereas Earth Sound Earth Signal is more generative.


Also, as I describe in the book, in 2002 I presented a paper about natural radio and very low frequency transmissions, both natural and anthropic, in the works of the composer Alvin Lucier and artist Joyce Hinterding. After delivering the paper, I realized not so much that there were unanswered questions but that the relevant questions did not exist, which was good since I prefer to ask questions. The works themselves ask the fundamental questions and, in this way, revising historical and theoretical concepts and conceiving of new ones in Earth Sound Earth Signal was not just a snowballing effect of the initial provocation of the works but can be understood in its totality to be the means to explain a few works by Lucier and Hinterding. It is obvious that this potential extends to many works and activities, that if they are attended to properly they have the potential to do more than merely address or reconfigure artistic canons or exemplify disciplinary adeptness.


There are reasons for tending to canons and disciplinary positioning, but too many challenging works never receive their due because they don't align with the imperatives of canons or disciplines, let alone the underpinning economies and institutions. For me method – actually, a method for customization – consists of generating an understanding of works closer to the conditions and means of their emergence and, by doing so, ideally sustaining a sense of possibility that itself feeds back into the generative and transformative potential of artistic practice. Perhaps because that is my background, I have long had an allergy to normative desires and consequences in the conduct of too much history and theory of the arts and in the discourse on the arts within other disciplines.


Sound was a necessary means of access to the new areas of history discussed, starting with the noises and odd sounds that marked early cultural and aesthetic incursions by energetic environments. This is consistent with other people's experience in the historical study of sound, even before it was called sound studies, and this experience is certainly one of the things that has invigorated sound studies up to the present day. The same feature harbors the possibility that sound studies could lead away from sound, especially if one wishes to resist academization. Actually, I am not sure how an adequate experiential, aesthetic and cultural account of electromagnetism in the nineteenth century could be produced without going through sound. So the book both goes through sound and leads away from it to form a trade with matters pertaining to electromagnetism.

WM: The term ‘nature’ is frequently used in Earth Sound Earth Signal both to situate sound within political and ecological discourses as well as underscore the history of aesthetic engagement with radio and other forms of electromagnetic energy. Could you say something about the concept of nature employed in the book and expand on the ways in which your conception of nature maps onto the history of electromagnetic sounds and manipulation of energies? Could you outline the concept of ‘Aelectrosonic’ and explain what it means in terms of our understanding the relationship between sound and natural electromagnetic sources?


DK: As I say in the book, nature is all over, which is a way to embody the conflicted character of the term. Anyone who wishes to engage critically will find out very soon how fraught “nature” is and, ideally, how important it is not to get too caught up in tempests-in-a-teapot while real storms are brewing. There are those who adamantly enforce truisms about the inseparability of nature and society, but in the world at-large the term still operates very powerfully if imprecisely in the vernacular and across different discursive sites, with meaning or inflection culled from context. One reason to avoid being too dogmatic appears all around us in the ubiquity of “modern media” that has arisen from the nineteenth century. If nature is indeed all over, subsumed in a union or collective with whatever it was once separate, then why has there been no nature in media. How is it that media history and theory could exist as an anti-wilderness area, a non-natural reserve inhabited only by humans and machines talking to one another and exchanging information? How could nature no longer exist where it has never belonged?


But this question is enveloped in one of more urgency. "Nature" is truly contentious with respect to the weight of the worst aspects of "society" that have crushed any prior separation of nature and society into an ineluctable union of global warming, ocean acidification, mass extinction, climate migration, unbridled wealth discrepancy, among the other capitalist catastrophes now underway. The situation has been raised from routine immiseration and violence to a new magnitude of possible self-annihilation, and this is why so much of Michel Serres' thinking about ecology has its point of departure in Hiroshima. As he points out, the atomic bombing of civilians in Japan by the United States and the diffusion of nuclear weaponry that followed constituted the first rehearsal in a global self-awareness of tangible self-annihilation. This awareness was acute during the Cold War and up through what prompted E. P. Thompson's proposition of "exterminism" in the early-1980s, and has been reinvigorated in the accelerating Warm War of the present. This is where the "nature" of what I examine comes into play. Both nuclear weaponry and global warming are energetic phenomena at an unprecedented scale, one cast in a time frame of a punctuated apocalypse, the other in a slow burn. However, with the acceleration of changing climate, able now to be experienced in the duration of less than one human generation, these two time frames move more closely toward one another, melding into a larger energetic spasm. This motivates my focus; the present is girded by geological temporalities of the Anthropocene, but energies belong to the quick response required.   


With respect to the theme of this issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies, the vacuum of space is a place to find an old school separation of nature and society. The fact that climate in space weather will never be anthropogenic puts matters into perspective, since that prospect is long gone on earth. Media and military transmissions travel from earth into outer space, but few other pollutants can be found, whereas there is no spot on earth untouched by human activity, certainly not since 1945 with the spread of radioactive isotopes with their "zero time" signatures wafting from ground zeros, and with global warming expressed daily in the weather. In Earth Sound Earth Signal I don't do much space travel. If I leave the comforts of the troposphere, I prefer to stay in the orbit of the reverse astronomy that focused on earthrises and blue marbles or follow whistlers along magnetospheric flux lines that return to earth; only rarely do things point outside the heliosphere, as in Karl Jansky's reception of radio from the center of the galaxy.


So if you define an autonomous nature by the standard of a pristine state, you will still find it in space weather. Seeking places untouched by human hands will launch you into a truly uncaring brutalism of nature where camping would be costly. It is a good place to look for allegories, but only from a distance. Merely a few hundred kilometers above the troposphere and nature still has clear dominion over "society" and other biotic forms. If there was any question about this dominion, then a revanchist Sun is busy reasserting itself as it sets upon our species, among others, if only to settle debates about nature/society once and for all. So the rhetoric is resolved, but the pleasure of persuasion would be gone. The Sun coming down to earth is not a metaphor of my own making. As I discuss in the book, people understood nuclear weapons as bringing the Sun down to earth; global warming is an expression of the same. It is what I call reverse-Icarus. He doesn't fly into the Sun where his waxed-wings melt causing him to fall into the sea and drown. The Sun descends onto Earth, glaciers and polar ice melt like wax, the sea rises to drown him where he stands.  


Within the book there are two ways in which nature is specifically invoked. First through an investigation of “natural radio” and how its early reception in telephone lines required the concept of the Aelectrosonic, an electrical and electromagnetic equivalent of the Aeolian, i.e., the musical and aesthetic production of Nature by the wind (mechanical energy). Second in how aspects of nature were engaged in technological circuits of communication. The latter, in turn, breaks down to three components, those being the incorporation and exclusion of the earth, the ionosphere, the moon, etc., into technological circuits; the sensitivity of the entire apparatus to naturally-occurring energetic phenomena; and the nature of electromagnetism itself. As I say in the book, electromagnetism was, after all, a type of nature that was effectively industrialized at the same time as it was discovered, arising as it did in the context of modern telecommunications, from telegraphy and all that followed. 


The term natural radio usually denotes radio generated by the full-spectrum electromagnetic bursts of lightning strikes and by auroral activity and other effects of the solar winds and the Earth's geomagnetism. Because natural radio occurs in the audible frequency range, it could be heard on the earliest telephones whose lines acted as long-wave antennas; this is detailed in the book through the scientific literature and the anecdotal observations that preceded it. These sounds were heard a decade before Heinrich Hertz empirically established the existence of electromagnetic waves and two decades before Marconi, Tesla or whomever you prefer, "invented radio". The first person to hear natural radio in this way was Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell's assistant, due to his abiding curiosity and privileged early access to telephone technology.


Additionally, the effects of “earth currents”, “magnetic storms” and “storms on the sun”, such as the mammoth solar storm of 1859, were registered on telegraph gear, and that registration included certain types of crude sounds (rattling needles and keys, sparks, explosions), but the telephone with its "undulatory" current, rather than telegraphic make-and-break, better rendered analogs in sound. Examining such activities in the nineteenth century provides a more accurate historical account of experiential trade between electromagnetism and acoustics, and here too one could locate actual instances and grounded desires for hearing the sounds of outer space, ones that would precede the usual references to Tesla. Watson thought the sounds he heard in the telephone might have been generated by storms on the Sun or by aliens on another planet, but mostly he did not know (later, Alexander Graham Bell tried to listen to storms on the Sun using his photophone). The limits of his speculation did not prevent him from listening for hours to the sounds at night, the same nighttime occupied by astronomers. He did not write down how he might have heard these sounds as music, but other people listening in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and beyond did take note. In fact, they were called “musical atmospherics”.


I coined the term Aelectrosonic as a way to accommodate the way “nature” (that is, naturally-generated rather than human-generated electromagnetic activity) was heard as music or otherwise aesthetically-engaged (not all aesthetic engagements with sound need be musical). A quarter century before Watson, Henry David Thoreau made much of the Aeolian sounds he heard on telegraph lines (the “telegraph harp”), and much was made of the Aeolian more generally as either the music of nature performed on naturally-occurring or on human-made instruments (Aeolian harp).


Therefore, in my investigation it was obvious that aesthetic or musical listening occurred on the newest media (telegraph and telephone lines), manifesting both mechanical/acoustical and electromagnetic energies (two states of energy in classical physics). Whereas the mechanical/acoustical manifestation had a word – Aeolian – and a varied history, the electromagnetic had neither, thus, the need for the word. Of course, the implications, applications and provocations of the Aelectrosonic reach much further than people listening to the energetic environment on telecommunication lines in the nineteenth century. As a trade between two major states of energy, they had a life before human invention, just as the Aeolian existed prior to Aeolian harps or the telegraph lines running near Thoreau. The implications thereby reached into how people heard the polar auroras, atmospheric electricity in the mountains, let alone lightning and thunder prior to and apart from the technological transductions of the telephone and, toward the twentieth century, fascination with electronic music and sounds.


Among cultural transformations at a more general level, the two major versions of the cosmos have been acoustical and electromagnetic. The turbulence and unpredictability of the Aeolian prefigured the weakening of geometric notions of harmony in the Pythagorean and neo-Pythagorean sense associated with simple mathematics and a mythological correspondence of the cosmos with terrestrial acoustics, whereas the Aelectrosonic heralded an indeterminism of the cosmos as actually signaled across its temporal and spatial expanse. So, by the time that Watson heard natural radio, the acoustical cosmos of the music of the spheres that was already faltering with the Aeolian, the turbulent music of the sphere, finally gave up its ghost. Per the theme of this issue, Pythagoras created his own version of the sounds of outer space from the line of the monochord after extrapolating upon the hammering sounds he heard at a forge. He and his cohort constructed a theory of the cosmos (in certain accounts, two words attributed to him) through this fictional sound of outer space, whereas Watson's cosmic forge moment occurred when he was on the telephone listening to the extruded metal of the line. He may not have constructed a theory based upon what he heard, but he did hear the cosmos we presently live in. Present-day Pythagorean romances are based only upon the modeling prowess of mathematics that have surreptitiously dropped larger claims to musical harmony, let alone social harmony, or that attempt to find recompense in the vibrating strings of superstring theory, as though that were a sufficient enough thread to stitch up a continuity with its ancient heritage.


So the first way nature is invoked in the book is through natural radio and the Aelectrosonic. The second is in the way the ground, ionosophere, etc. were incorporated into the circuits of telecommunications; in how telecommunications systems were sensitive to both small and large scale energetic phenomena (magnetic storms, changes in atmospheric electricity, whistlers, etc.); and in electromagnetism-as-nature placed in larger energetic configurations and environments. "Natural radio" simply initiates, but one means to unravel the dominant conceit of the social in media history and historical media theory is to open it to something more ecologically amenable. Natural radio, after all, was the first radio heard, but it was not sent by anyone in a classic sender-receiver schema of humans talking and otherwise exchanging information with one another.


What is and is not nature is a rhetorical determination with something at stake, where hothouse proscription can be as deleterious as unexamined embrace. Since media are imagined not to have any nature and to have never had any nature, "nature" functions differently in both critical and vernacular arenas. Asking about the nature of media can't shore up conventional conceits or restore an ideal past of a nature it has never had; and for all those convinced that there is no neat separation between nature and society, it poses the question about how an enclave of pure sociality could exist. In this way, introducing “nature” has a similar interrogative effect with respect to media than denying the possibility of “nature” in other discourses over the last ten to fifteen years. It is obvious that media history and historical media theory have been very late in their “ecological turn” when compared to other disciplines; moreover, the traffic in media ecology and remediation bearing no actual ecological content seems to be taunting that fact. Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller in their book Greening the Media (2012) wrote that when they started their research they found "no tradition of ecological media history to draw upon." Green media analyses have mostly highlighted narratives of pollution, resource depletion, etc., whereas I think there are radically positive approaches that can be developed as energetic environments are specified both in detail and more broadly.


Just to be clear, I do not, as is often the case in humanities and social sciences, limit "energy" to its associations with the generation of electricity or means of transport, fossil fuels versus other energy sources, policy, ecology and activism, etc. It includes this sense of energy, definitely, but it is included in a more basic and inclusive level, one that might accommodate many notions of energies in various configurations, systems, imaginations and provocations. Within this expanse there is a need to specify energies. Too many theories tilt toward a black box or secret juice notion of energy, a nebulous something coursing among relations, processes, assemblages, bodies, networks and the like. Acts of specification and, from that, configurations and complexes of myriad energies at work will make these theories more powerful, not just empirically but also metaphorically. Opening a black box like "becoming" will shine a light on shortcut thinking but also release new, more cogent species of metaphors. There are innumerable ways to specify such energies without succumbing to old hobbyhorses like vitalism and, at the same time, without jettisoning an understanding of the historical roles such notions have played and still perform. Likewise, there is plenty to do in the mesosphere where most life is lived above the buzzing matter of a shallow quantum floor and below the harsh environs of cosmology. I think macro-quantum behavior is now up to a bucky-ball, so we are not talking about a scale amenable to much life outside laboratory measurements, let alone the quotidian world in which most people act. The move of quantum mechanics further into the humanities represents an important equilibrium of energy per se amid the predominating matter of new materialisms; if anything, it suggests that there be a much better account of the middle ground.


Most immediately, sound can be understood as one energy among others, one that is never heard in isolation from others, if only because of the energetic operations of perception itself, the vibrational mechanics that outflank audibility, as well as the micro- and infrastructural scales of audio electronics or the fossil fuel regimes that capitalize and fuel them. If energy is movement and work, then there can be the sun, photosynthesis, the stored sun of fossil fuels, torques, convections, turbulences, metabolic, libidinal, chemical, thermal energies, etc. at work in a sound. In this way the "manipulations of energies", as you say, in music, electronic music, sound and the other arts not only have energetic instantiation at specific historical-ecological moments, they have the capability of bringing these instants to the fore.


Space age electronic sounds and music since the time of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet have been closely associated with things not-of-this-earth, imported in the form of aliens or exported in space travel. Energetic sounds need not always be from elsewhere; they can also be terrestrial, i.e., within the convective and radiating energetic sandwich of the troposphere, from the seismic, geomagnetic and fossil fuel storage of old sun, through dynamically turbulent systems, to the solar-terrestrial. Whistlers, a beautiful form of natural radio, offer the best of both worlds, the terrestrial and extraterrestrial, in that they emanate from lightning and are formed along flux lines extending into outer space (up to six earth radii away) and back, ending up on earth in the opposite hemisphere, like an energetic sister-city pact. Whistlers are not merely the pitched upper-end of lightning, with thunder holding down the bass; they evidence the possibility that whenever you see lightning strike it is a launch into outer space.  


Technologies have been imagined to be not-of-this-earth, that is, not "nature", and this has been compounded when electronic music and sound have been understood to be exclusively technological. If there is no ultimate separation between nature and society in the troposphere, then there can be no technology that is not also natural. That is just in simple logical terms that have nevertheless been lost within the historical discourses of electronic music, even though lineages of nature are often allotted to other types of instruments, musics and sounds. Within the book I demonstrate historically, not just in the abstract, a way that electronic sound and music can do the same in the nature of the Aelectrosonic. It is clear to me that electronic music can be nature music wherever it is, without dragging gear into a rain forest or the Antarctic. The energies are of-this-earth, so they are close at hand; it is a matter of attending to them. If electronic music can be understood in this way after it has been the emblem of pure technology, then consumer electronics should not be too far away.  


WM: In Earth Sound Earth Signal you reveal how tropes of inscription and transmission are useful for tracing the evolution of communication media during the nineteenth and twentieth century. In addition, you show how these tropes can be deployed to examine how scientists, avant-garde musicians, and other artists have crafted or manipulated energy to produce sound and music. Please clarify how the concept of transmission elucidates the perception of electromagnetic energy, encompassing scales that range from the electrical activity of the brain to radio waves that travel across the galaxy.


DK: Modern media, modern communications, technical media – whatever you wish to call them – as associated with the nineteenth century can be distinguished into two major classes – as inscriptive and transmissional – underscored but not overdetermined by the recordings of writings and liveness of voices. Photography, phonographs, cinema technology, typewriters, etc., carry on the technological tradition of the printing press, leading to printed circuits and codes of computation, collapsing spatial phenomena into texts, onto pages and screens, forming recordings that go into libraries, archives, servers and other repositories. These are the inscriptive media that Friedrich Kittler concentrated his media theory upon. The telegraph, telephone and wireless, on the other hand, were formed in the speed of a spark and in the capacity of that speed to traverse the global in a new way. Thus my differentiation of diffusion or dissemination as distinct from transmission; similar structures are produced by the mobilizing energies of inscriptive media operating in a metabolic mode, but transmissional aspirations heading toward the speed of light will produce qualitative not just quantitative difference. Imperialism, for instance, would not have been as responsive. This makes transmission a creature that arose from the nineteenth century, whereas inscriptive media are continuous with antiquity.


Because they don't move very much, inscriptive media are favored by scholars, their stasis being conducive to reanimations in the process of generating still more texts; at a certain level it is a matter of self-reproduction. In the material culture of inscription you get energies writing themselves with Chladni and Lichtenberg figures, photography's pencil of nature, and in the graphic impulses examined by Robert Brain and others. However, the conductivity at the basis of transmission excited, that is, preconditioned the reception of realms of an energetic nature such as the earth scale phenomena of magnetic storms registered along the lines of telecommunications. More routinely, the speed of a spark, as it was called, on a line disappearing over the horizon, began a tutorial on what the speed of light might be and the great distances it so quickly dispatched.


These were combined with an unprecedented sensitivity of weak forces, beginning with the "molecular forces" of the microphone, opening to even larger and more distant heliospherical and astronomical phenomena whose presences on earth were faint. Much of what has been in fact "nature" in telecommunications was noise to be eliminated from the project of human communication, but that did not prevent numerous individuals, amateurs, scientists and, eventually, artists and composers from engaging with it. Karl Jansky was given the task of eliminating a persistent noise in radio reception but instead heard radio from the center of the galaxy that, by the time it reached earth, was exceedingly weak. Just as telegraph and telephone lines tutored people on the physics of propagation, the NBC radio host who played the live sounds on air during his interview with Jansky reminded his audience listening on radio to regularly maintain their own antennas.


The history of Western art music, the tradition from which a couple of generations of experimental composers mentioned in the book (e.g., John Cage, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Karl-Birger Blomdahl) evolved, was reliant upon the inscriptive regime of musical notation, as was the scholarship of the text that grew around musicology. Much of the movement away from such strictures was conducted under varied auspices of "sound" with modernist goals of plenitude in the mix. In technological forms, inscription carried over into the use of recorded sound, most notably in musique concrète (inscribed discs, spliced tape, sound objects, phases of storage and playback), with its precedents in early film sound. During the 1950s and 1960s numerous composers and musicians held positions that opposed recording to liveness, the craft or manipulation of inert materials as you say, of notation, recorded media and even computer code. We can see how people approached live electronics at the time, and up to the present day, in a manner that was more characteristic of the propagation of energies in transmission.    


Energies can be coaxed, stored and revivified within an inscriptive logic, of course, but the mistake is to think that they have thereby been controlled or accounted for; it is important to seek out the transmissional operations wherever they may have come from, may be, and to wherever they may lead. Beginning in the 1920s, electronic music was shaped more from the bases of control rather than what was being controlled. By contrast, in the 1960s there were people working at the interstices of musical instruments, scientific instruments and media technologies in a new form of "astro-bio-geo-physical application in the live electronic music", as the composer Gordon Mumma put it, where he said, “One did not have control. One had influence.” Pauline Oliveros said that “the waves are already waving”, and John Bischoff, in describing his work in some of the earliest music made with personal computers, said that things were "already moving, already acting" so it was necessary, he said, to “step back one little half step and become an influencer." It is a common disposition among contemporary electronic musicians, improvising musicians and sound artists, especially those artists who now explicitly think of energies as materials. The approach is palpable in how people do not so much perform their instruments as collaborate with them, even stepping aside and letting them have their own solos. To put matters on a gradient of control/no control was consistent with John Cage's indeterminacy, but it was also consistent with many other approaches to liveness, especially in practices of improvisation in music or in the naturalism of Thoreau and others. Indeed, there is something to be said about how conducive to ecological ethics this may be.


Alvin Lucier, who in full disclosure was my teacher at Wesleyan University, is well known for his use of spatial acoustics in his music, such as the resonant frequencies explored in I am sitting in a room. His first two mature compositions, however, were notable for their trade in acoustics and electromagnetism. The first composition is his well-known Music for Solo Performer, aka the brainwave piece, whereas the second, based upon natural radio, Whistlers, is less known; in fact, he withdrew it from his catalogue and it was, in effect, replaced a number of years later by Sferics. The two compositions, nevertheless, are united by what he called their "natural electromagnetic sound". My first response was that there could be no such thing, since technological mediation was required, and that there was nothing natural about technology. I soon realized that my pedestrian reading was influenced by discourse surrounding consumer electronic devices and engineers rather than a grounding in scientific instruments and physicists.


Lucier's Music for Solo Performer was structured differently than the synthesizer works prevalent at the time in that the circuit included both air and his body in addition to the electronic components. He broke open the technological circuit to let in some air in the same way that telegraphy was opened to let the ground into its circuit. This trade between acoustical and electromagnetic energies propagating through the circuit of the work cannot be understood through the inscriptive practices in music a generation earlier, only through transmission. The propagation in Whistlers took matters to circuits, involving earth-ionosphere waveguides and magneto-ionic flux lines at a global scale. The propagative features in Lucier's compositions with natural electromagnetic sound led me to appreciate how he and others in the 1960s understood electromagnetism not only as artistic raw material but also as-nature, as well as providing an occasion to revisit the nineteenth century from a very different perspective.


His early compositions with brainwaves and whistlers were responsible for building him a reputation at the time as being someone who worked with brainwaves and outer space (despite the terrestrial return of whistlers). It really was substantially different than what anyone else was doing at the time. When placed within his overarching concern with spatiality, this described a concept of an electromagnetic spatiality, if only in an allegorical sense, from the electrodes on the scalp to the further reaches of the universe. I say scalp because I'd like to put a little distance between "from inner space to outer space" that accompanied the counterculture, which carries too much baggage about "consciousness" and, as Lucier has stated, did not inform his approach at the time. Shortly after Lucier began working on Whistlers, perhaps even before he titled the composition, John Cage credited him in preparatory notes for Variations VII, a composition that was an exercise in various means of receiving and registering transmissions. For the first performance of Variations VII the composer David Behrman was wired up for his brainwaves while the clicks of a Geiger counter registered what may have been cosmic rays in transit deep from outer space.

WM: I enjoyed your account of how scientists and artists worked with electromagnetic signals known as whistlers and other atmospheric sounds related to the propagation of radio waves through the Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic fields. It was fascinating to learn that scientists not only collaborated with avant-garde artists on projects, but also came up with the original ideas and practical techniques for both creating and engaging with sonic phenomena as aesthetic objects. Please expand on the reasons why these and similar collaborations emerged during the 1950s and provided the basis for experiments, live performances, and recordings.

DK: In Earth Sound Earth Signal I go into some detail about the relationship between the physicist Edmond Dewan and the composer Alvin Lucier. I had noticed two general tendencies in writings in "art and science": first, they emphasized the individuality of the artist and cast the scientist into a supporting role and, second, the closer the collaborations came to institutional sanction, if not sponsorship, the more attention they received. Because there is a good chance that better records will exist privileges these types of institutional relationships over those that have occurred on a more casual basis. The latter applies to the relationship between Edmond Dewan and Alvin Lucier; it was a matter of conversations in hallways, visits to each other's homes. Although both were at Brandeis University, the institution, in particular, the music department was not supportive; it was part of a larger rift in the United States at the time between "modern" and "experimental" composers, the former having more institutional power. I'm not sure if anyone has detailed this to any extent – it often opens up old academic wounds – but similar things manifest themselves presently, where composers of certain forms of music must find solace in art departments or sonic arts programs instead of being welcomed in music departments.

Within their relationship, it was Dewan who had the initial idea that music could be made from brainwaves but, being an avid organist with proficiency in a difficult twentieth-century French repertoire, he also knew that he did not have the compositional skills to realize the idea himself. He offered the idea, along with the equipment and his expertise, to a few composers but was rejected until Lucier took up the challenge. Lucier says that Music for Solo Performer was his first mature work and that he had been floundering before Dewan approached him with the idea. He has consistently credited Dewan in this respect; in fact, at the premier performance at the Rose Art Museum, Lucier credited Dewan with being the co-composer. Dewan was also key in letting Lucier know about research being done on ionospheric radio (that led to Whistlers and ultimately his composition Sferics) and for telling him about his colleague Amar Bose, whose demonstrations on room resonance were the inspiration for Lucier's most famous work, I am sitting in a room. Bose made a tape recording of himself reading a poem, played it back into the room while simultaneously recording that, and so forth for several iterations, until what was his voice reading a poem evolved into shimmering bell-like sounds. There are many varieties of collaboration and influence even within casual relationships, just as there is a spectrum toward more institutionally programmatic relationships.

Dewan was pivotal to Lucier's development and his engagement with science, to what are now canonical musical compositions, and to important moments in art/science outside a musical purview. Although we were on opposite coasts, I was fortunate enough to interview Dewan by phone over the course of several weeks. I often took a day or two off to research what he had told me in order to form better questions when we spoke next. I corresponded with Bose about his demonstrations, and he was very generous in response, but as you can imagine, being the billionaire founder of Bose Corporation, he was a busy man; however, I did back it up with correspondence with people involved in the Boston hi-fi and audiophile scene at the time who, although some despised Bose's basic approach to speaker design, remembered the demonstrations.

It was an earlier entrant into the hi-fi industry who had an important influence upon scientists and the broader scientific culture in relationship to aesthetics and the arts. Emory Cook ran a multi-faceted record label as well as engineered new means of stereophonic playback (for instance, a branching tonearm). While the bulk of his efforts seemed directed toward making calypso and other forms of music available, he also encouraged scientists to make their work more popularly available. One of them was Millett Morgan, a physicist at Darmouth University and one of the most important whistler researchers. Cook coaxed him onto one side of the 1953 LP Out of this World, with the seismologist Hugo Benioff on the other side running through the sounds of earthquakes. It was the natural radio recordings from Out of this World that Lucier used in his composition Whistlers. A similar thing happened in the 1990s when Stephen McGreevy issued his compact discs of sferics, whistlers, auroral chorus and other forms of natural radio, sounds that soon made their way into many musical and sound works.

While researching the book, I wanted to examine Charles Dodge’s Earth’s Magnetic Field (1970) because of its representation of earth-scale energetic phenomena. It was relatively late in this respect when compared to the composer Gordon Mumma's seismic compositions in the early-1960s, Lucier's Whistlers and Blomdahl's Altisonans, but its popularity when issued seemed to override this consideration. It was interesting also because, to the extent that I looked into it, the initial idea likewise came from a scientist, actually, scientists: Carl Frederick, Bruce Boller, and Stephen G. Ungar. The idea itself was suggested by the graphic recordings of Kp indices of the magnetic field activity: they already look very much like a form of musical notation. Although I was in contact with Frederick and Boller, I didn't follow up mostly because I was unable to establish correspondence with Dodge. Mumma himself worked as report writer at a lab complex that included seismology and acoustics, so his casual relationships with scientists occurred on the job, as I discuss in the chapter on seismology, underground nuclear testing and music. His day job, in other words, fortified his seismological interests and gained him access to data that led to his Mograph (as in seis-mograph) compositions beginning in the early-1960s.

In contrast to casual interactions, the art and science or art and technology activities from “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering and Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) to the Art & Technology program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) have received quite a bit of attention. The former involved Bell Labs personnel and cooperation as well as the imprimatur of well-known artists. Billy Klüver, the period's most ardent champion of the arts from the engineering side of things in the U.S., was preceded at Bell Labs by people such as John Pierce and Max Mathews in their active support of avant-garde and computer music. They, in turn, were prefigured by the likes of Ralph Potter with his interest in audiovisual music right after World War II; coincidentally, he had been involved in research in atmospheric radio and its spectrographic representation. This activity and interest in the arts proper is contiguous if not continuous with aesthetic interests and defaults of scientists in a broader sense. With respect to whistler research: that would track back to Everett Burton and Edward Boardman, who in the early-1930s referred to the musical qualities of atmospheric radio along a gradation of musical, quasi-musical and non-musical, resembling the avant-garde aesthetics of composers such as Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse, who in turn worked closely with innovative engineers, Cowell with Lev Theremin on the Rhythmicon, and Varèse eventually with John Pierce and Max Mathews from Bell Labs. The aesthetic ground was softened through the twentieth century for art and technology, art and science, in this way. Similar trajectories occurred within the visual arts, so-called, but music was especially conducive to the signal processing concerns in telecommunications, science and computation, as I have tried to point out in my essays on the composer James Tenney in residency at Bell Labs in the early-1960s, and to an extent in the chapter "For More New Signals" in the book.

As to your question about why these collaborations emerged in the 1950s and beyond, this longer tradition emerging from media and telecommunications would have something to do with it, but the main reason would have to do with the post-WWII ascendancy of the United States with its full-tilt expenditures in military funding in the Cold War and its effects on the post-war generation of scientific and technological knowledge. It needs to be clear that a very large proportion of all research at the time was run through military agencies, including research that had no direct military application. There was such relative largesse in the States because the international competition had been destroyed and disrupted, and such military, intelligence and security state motivation was provided by the Cold War that the military was in a position to hedge all their bets, even some very far-flung blue sky research bets. This was part of learning about nature in order to militarize it, as Jacob Hamblin's recent book, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, details in other respects. Whistler research overlapped with a larger impetus to globally "sense" and monitor every little signal and perturbation that might emanate from anywhere, especially if they might have to do with nuclear testing or military communications, and this monitoring was then folded back into strategies and tactics for command and control. Of course, most anything to do with a satellite or the space race had a military component about it, beginning with Sputnik and Explorer and extending to the Corona satellites which spawned ubiquitous surveillance and laid the ground for Google Earth. This particular period of funding changed dramatically around 1970 with the Mansfield Amendment, which was pressured by anti-war protests and efforts to curb military presence on United States college campuses. It limited military funding to research with a more direct military application and, thereby, withdrew funding from quite a few worthwhile efforts. I heard a conference paper on how it changed Heinz von Foerster's work at the University of Illinois. It was debated in editorials and letters to science journals and put some scientists in an odd position of being against the war but for continued military funding.

So it is important to understand the conflicted character of the time, at the same time as realizing that much of the scientific knowledge of the time was a step or two back from, if not in marching formation with, military exigencies. One of the main reasons for the failure of the Art & Technology program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was its pairing of artists with corporations in Southern California, many of them profiting handsomely off the war in Vietnam and other direct military projects. Robert Rauschenberg's Mud Muse, for instance, was the product of collaboration with Teledyne Corporation that was fattening up from the Vietnam War. Therefore, collaborations between artists, scientists and engineers at the time cannot be seen in the abstract. Certain sets of relations came to a head at LACMA with the specter of all-male artists feeding off the teat of corporations that were themselves feeding from the trough of war. It was the Altamont for an art and technology movement that never had its Woodstock.

WM: Your analysis incorporates the notion of transperception to explain theories, aesthetics, and sonic properties of the intervening space traversed by radio signals and other types of electromagnetic energy, including space measured on planetary or even larger scales. Please elaborate on the work of artists and scientists on the transperception of exhibition spaces and outer space.

DK: My intent was to keep the term transperception close to perception, experience, aesthetics and poetics, and to be applicable to acoustical, electromagnetic and other energetic phenomena and to various relationships among them. What I sought to describe, the simple construction of the term, and the surprising fact that it was not already overburdened, all came into alignment. It was originally motivated by features common to Alvin Lucier's experience of listening to whistlers, as he described it once to me in conversation, and a passage from the Sounds chapter of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Because Lucier was aware of how whistlers were generated – from the massive energy of lightning and propagated over thousands and thousands of kilometers into space and back – he heard the power and distance in each fragile glissando, a poetic amplified by a disjuncture in magnitude carried out over an immense intervening space. Power-wise, it was as though an entire hydroelectric dam was used for the generation of a single lilting pitch of a shakuhachi and, because his experience was terrestrially bound, what he heard didn't fly off into the outer space infinity of the common magnitude of a Kantian mathematical sublime. It was earth scale rather than astronomical. He could have heard the whistlers abstractly; instead, he heard the elements of genesis and propagation in the sound.

Henry David Thoreau, on the other hand, described how the source of a distant sound lost its indexical character when one listened more intently to the space and elements in the intervening space as they modulated (his word) the sound in different ways, as one would see a distant mountain through an intervening mist. There is no ultimate reason, after all, to presume that the mountain should always have priority, since the roles could be reversed: one could look at the great expanse of mist, and a mountain intrudes into the background. Matters need not necessarily breakdown easily into source and channel. The same applies to the sound of a large bell through a fir forest. One may have been listening to the wind in the trees when a bell rushes through the branches. Transperception is this experience of a modulated hybridization of seeing miles of mist/mountain or hearing the needles/bell. It does not always have to be in a linear imaginary through propagation, although that may be where it is most easily understood; when you listen to the wind in a tree you are most likely listening to many winds in many trees from many directions. There may be phenomena and artifacts emulating or otherwise having little differentiation from one another that oscillate between source and influence that would best be heard in terms of transperception.

Transperception is a comprehension that can transform into an embodied prehension. It is aided by understanding states, fields and transits of a world coursing and configured through energies and not merely populated with objects. I proposed the notion of transperception as a means to direct matters away from overburdened notions of mediation. Over the last quarter century there has been a bumper crop of ideas of media and mediation that has driven down the price on articulation. Default appeals made to sender-receiver diagrams and Claude Shannon import an engineering framework not applicable to the types of experiences I was examining. Around 1960 John R. Pierce warned against as much in his popular book on his colleague Shannon. Transperception might be understood as a perception of a foreshortened mediation, but then that would neither appreciate the ways in which what would otherwise be a source and channel can oscillate and meld, nor the multiplicity and variability of channels and sources. And, in any event, the object of the engineering metaphor is to collapse the channel upon what transperception puts into play. One problem with a technocratic desire for an engineered precision in matters of perception, aesthetics and poetics is that the very ways in which the world could be more complexly experienced, ways amenable to the power of scientific understandings, are crushed in the process, much like Lennie in Of Mice and Men wanting to pet the rabbits, except the crushing is done with calipers.

Other Lucier works besides the natural radio-related Whistlers or Sferics can be understood in this way. When a sound is accruing distance while cycling through a system, for example in Lucier's Music for Solo Performer, what is heard is impossible to locate discretely within the system anywhere because it contains the diffuse elements of the system and their "history" in each sound. This is made explicit in his composition Quasimodo the Great Lover where he stretches out acoustical and electromagnetic trades. Instead of tightening into the microscopic folds of integrated circuitry, he spreads them out to any size, from the rooms and corridors of a building to chorographic and geographic and geophysical scales. He folds up these types of live trajectories into one room, in effect, by serializing them in the recordings and playback of his composition I am sitting in a room.

Because space and distance factor into transperception, differences in the speed of sound and light apply. Since the electromagnetic waves of radio travel at the speed of light, this is where the expanse of outer space enters the picture, otherwise we have to listen for patches of silence and arrhythmic phrasing of latency, the delays and effects of the delays occurring due to the mechanisms and the simple size of the global communications infrastructure. The French duo Nicolas Maigret and Nicolas Montgermont in their collaboration as Art of Failure foreground these and other global scale factors to great benefit in their work, whereas others attempt to suppress latency. Trying to eradicate latencies in global jams, for instance, is in keeping with older historical desires to annihilate space and time which, on the face of it, does not seem awfully eco-friendly. It is similar, in this respect, to the suppression of the noises of nature.

Everything changes when you stretch out and give electromagnetism some real room to run, such as composer Pauline Oliveros or artist Katie Paterson do as they bounce radio off the surface of the moon. Stretch it out even further and transperception gets into one of its most everyday, or should I say everynight, manifestations in the experience of people looking at starlight, as I describe in the chapter "Long Sounds and Transperception" and allude to at the start of "Star-Studded Cinema". In a more sustained treatment, starlight would be a good place to examine how a vernacular poetics of the everyday/everynight does not succumb to an immediate inadequacy or popularized version viz. a vaunted techno-scientific real, but can potentially better embody its workings. Moving away from the strictly quotidian, I believe you can see this where stargazing overlaps with astronomy and where, generally, science overlaps with amateurism, an area where a scientist in one area becomes an amateur in another area of science or in another area altogether, such as poetry.


WM: Earth Sound Earth Signal provides fresh insights into Karl Jansky’s work that traced the source of short wave interference, or static, to radio emissions from the center of the galaxy. Interestingly, you point out that in 1933 the host of a radio program out of New York City broadcast sounds recorded by Jansky and implored listeners to “listen to the static within the static” in order to discern radio signals emanating from stars at the galactic center of the Milky Way. Since the early 1950s, to what extent, if any, has the hiss of static and other non-musical sounds been redefined as the sound of distant astronomical objects, such as stars, and, more generally, the environment or medium of outer space? Have you detected any trends or shifts in perceptions of signals and sounds of static in public broadcasts and performances from the late 1950s and 1960s featuring recordings of orbital satellites, such as Sputnik 1 and Explorer 1?  


DK: Any value provided in the book was due to having access to the transcript of the nationally broadcasted radio interview with Jansky. The broadcast occurred close on the heels of the newspaper headlines about his discovery of the first radio signal from outer space, and the interview was accompanied by a live telephone feed from the antenna at Bell Telephone's research site in New Jersey. The document was in a collection of unpublished materials by Jansky provided to me by Professor Tony Tyson in the Physics Department at the University of California at Davis, a remarkable individual with a background in telegraphy, Bell Labs, and cutting edge instrumentation for the study of dark matter and dark energy. When I talked with him he was still telegraphing on a key every morning for fifteen or twenty minutes. He lent invaluable assistance in a number of ways during the early part of my research on the book.

Jansky's direction-finding antenna picked up the extra-terrestrial signal originating from the center of the galaxy. Others had heard it as noise in the radio spectrum, but by patiently tracking it over many months he was the first to determine the location of its source and, thereby, he knew that he was listening to the sounds of outer space. The radio announcer during the interview instructed the audience of the program that within the noises that they heard would be noises produced by the source, a noise within the noise, static within the static. I thought this was an extraordinary historical moment for many reasons: a socialization of the cosmos, extra-terrestrial radio on the radio, a lesson on listening to radio within radio. I discussed this broadcast in the context of John Cage's desire to set up a live telephone feed from a Bell Labs radio telescope in New Jersey for his 1966 composition Variations VII. The resemblance between the two were uncanny, although I would be pleasantly surprised if Cage or any of the personnel from Bell Labs involved knew of Jansky's appearance on national radio.

Following Lucier's example of using sounds from brainwaves and outer space, as Cage cited, Billy Klüver sought assistance from a research colleague at Bell Labs on Cage's behalf, a request that was denied. Bell Telephone cooperated in other respects in the production of Variations VII, so establishing a long line from New Jersey would not be the issue. The person in control of the radio astronomy antennas seemed dismissive; he reasoned that the sound received would be an indistinct white noise, so it would be extravagant to arrange a live feed when the sound could be easily produced at the performance through other means. He obviously did not appreciate the importance of liveness, transmission and reception in Cage's conception of the work. Had cooperation been forthcoming, then the live feed may have originated with the same antenna that was used by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in their discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the thermal residue of the Big Bang. The same antenna had been used to calibrate signals of the early passive communications satellite Echo using reflections off the Moon. Since we are talking about the early 1960s, we can probably assume that the antenna was also used for military-related signals in the Cold War, perhaps detection of Soviet signals reflecting off the Moon. So the white noise in Variations VII, had this particular antenna been used, would not merely have been liveness, transmission and reception in the abstract, but a trifecta of science, communications, and the military, which was not uncommon at the time.

I would venture a guess that for the longest time the sound most commonly associated with outer space was the beeping of the first Sputnik. The satellite was shiny so it could be observed from the ground – it looked like a slowly moving star – and, in the same respect, it was designed to be heard, not just seen, by transmitting a constant beeping at a frequency that could be picked up by amateur radio operators around the world. The "beep beep beep" took on significance in popular culture, but an idea of the range of sounds that were actually heard can be heard to this day because of a Folkways LP Voices of the Satellites issued in 1958, the year after Sputnik 1. Besides "beep beep beep" there was the "Tic Tic Tic" that Doris Day sang about in her Geiger counter song; in fact, when Cage failed to secure radio astronomy signals for Variations VII, he fell back on a Geiger counter because its clicks might evidence the presence of cosmic rays from outer space. These beep and click sounds were connected in the Cold War because the missile systems that put satellites into space could potentially deliver nuclear weapons, depositing Geiger counter sounds in their wake anywhere on earth. The way satellites stigmatized the sky buttressed other forms of alien invasion during the period, and both prefigured the slow motion stigmatization of the sky by global warming, where the weather itself has become alien.

I could not speak to what general trends might be with regard to perceptions of satellite sounds, telemetry, and the like without going back to look at the amateur record more closely. There was quite a bit of relevant discussion in QST, the American Radio Relay League journal, during the Cold War, but that is only one source in one country. When I taught my class on atomic culture and the space race, I employed gospel, blues, country, novelty, folk and rockabilly songs, some of which, like Skip Stanley's “Satellite Baby, used emulations of satellite sounds. Although there are no such sounds onRadioactive Mama” or “Crawl Out Through the Fallout” by Sheldon Allman, an outstanding sicknik music comedian, the album cover shows him strumming a guitar, floating in space with a satellite.


There are plenty of outer space sounds in a popular science vein, in literature and journalism, and across a range of cultural forms and in the United States. Because nuclear weaponry conflated the gaze to the heavens with the heat of hell, a Biblical rain of ruin as President Truman threatened in his Hiroshima speech, there are quite a few examples mixed the Second Coming of Christ with nuclear conflagration, that is, until George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic's Mothership brought a little sanity back to the earth.

In the Western art music tradition there is, of course, Blomdahl's Altisonans (see elsewhere in this issue), an outstanding early example of using satellite telemetry sounds, as I discuss in the book. There are many other musical works using radio observations of planetary and stellar radio, including our own planet, that I would have liked to have discussed in the book had I had the time. Three wonderful works that come immediately to mind are Maggi Payne's Solar Wind, which used recordings of Saturn and Venus radio made by the Voyager satellites and other sources; Annie Gosfield’s Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites; and Annea Lockwood's World of Rhythms, with its pulsar sounds from different radio astronomy observatories, along with volcano, seismic, Yellowstone geyser and mud pool sounds, waves, animal sounds, breathing, etc. Terry Riley's Kronos-commissioned Sun Rings used atmospheric and radio astronomy signals that were for me more compelling than the sawing at the strings. Donald Gurnett supplied the recordings of space sounds pulled down from various space probe missions he worked on; being a professor at University of Iowa, he worked in the tradition of James Van Allen, who used rockets to sound out his pioneering research on the magnetosphere. I also need to mention Jeanne Liotta's beautiful film, Observando el Cielo, with sound by Peggy Awesh, using Very Low Frequency sounds; there is a palpable sense of observing, standing amid the torque and turbulence of different layers, from clouds to galaxies, that the sounds of the intermediary signals from the ionosphere and magnetosphere liaise. And the inimitable Thomas Ashcraft at Heliotown.com, who has a chapter in Earth Sound Earth Signal, has now expanded his repertoire to include the fleeting sights and radio sounds of Transient Luminous Events, the upper atmospheric lightning-like events of Sprites and ELVES, to go along with his sounds of Jupiter bursting, fireball radio, radio scattering off Space Shuttle re-entries, etc. 

WM: Please elaborate on your account of the collaboration between physicist and astronomer Ludwig Liszka and composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl on their remarkable televisual composition Altisonans, first aired on Swedish television in 1966.


DK: Altisonans is indeed a remarkable work, and I am very pleased that it is beginning to see the light of day outside of Sweden. There is a general problem suffered by works of experimental television from the period, in that they've existed between the discursive and distribution channels of experimental film and video art. You have to remember too that Blomdahl was a very well known, accomplished composer, and Altisonans was also issued on an LP. So in this way, it was not only unduly ignored in film history and art history accounts, it fell into a black hole between three categories. I only found out about it from a Newsweek article by Howard Junker from 1967 while researching the journalistic reception of Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma. When I delved deeper, I found very little, and what was available was in Swedish, so I am indebted to my friend Jesper Olsson who was able to secure a research copy for me from SVT in Stockholm and to assist with contacts, research and translation.

Consistent with your earlier question, Altisonans was the result of a casual meeting of a composer with a physicist, with the physicist initiating the action; Ludwik Liszka telling Blomdahl about how tonal satellite transmissions resembled birdsong became the basis for Altisonans. They became very good friends, and Liszka assisted in the production of the piece for broadcast, providing many of the sounds and the graphical data that formed some of the visual content. It may be an early example of scientific data being used as visual material, although I would have to look into that further. Blomdahl had explored outer space in his opera Aniara, an opera that has been staged many times, with outer space sounds alluded to in passages of concrète and electronic music, so topically there was some precedent and, just before he died, his next work was slated to be in collaboration with another physicist, the Nobel Prize winner Hannes Alfvén. Following Altisonans, it too was going to be in an experimental vein and incorporate material from geophysics, plasma physics and cosmology.

Altisonans was very much in an experimental vein, except perhaps institutionally, in that it was nationally broadcasted, and not in the sequestered venues of experimental film or video art of the time. This is a public level that I am sure that many artists would truly appreciate, but it was double-edged because it no doubt also contributed to why it is not known now as it should be. Many important historical works of radio and television are locked up in the archives of state broadcasters around the world; I have seen this in Europe and Australia. Broadcasters were intrepid enough in their day to commission and disseminate these works, but now many of the same institutions prevent both research and listening/viewing due to fear of copyright entanglements or attempts to tap new, rather disproportionate income streams. I would hope that the attention that Altisonans gains will serve as an example of why other works from television and radio archives in state broadcasters should be fully accessible. This is where national heritage also becomes international legacy. 


WM: The chapter entitled “Black Sun, Black Rain” includes insights and analyses of multimedia artworks by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt (also known as Semiconductor). In particular, you examine their moving-image installation/film Black Rain (2009) that used image data from a pair of interplanetary spacecraft launched by NASA to create a dazzling assemblage comprised of synchronized images and sound. The film includes pictures and sounds that would ordinarily be filtered out as noise, unwanted artifacts, or glitches in more familiar mainstream pictures acquired during space missions, such as those obtained during Apollo missions or with the Hubble Space Telescope. Do Semiconductor’s audiovisual displays of dynamic changes in electromagnetic fields acquired from instruments on board satellites incorporate “noise” to convey not just space exploration but also the annihilation or, possibly, dilation of space and time? In what sense do experimental works such as Black Rain and Semiconductor’s earlier film Brilliant Noise (2006) underscore, both, figuratively and literally, sounds of space?


DK: In a different technological universe, the history of sound cinema might have emerged as a whole from Alexander Graham Bell's photophone, a wireless communications device based upon light that he used to listen to the sounds of storms on the sun. This was, as I describe in the book, in conjunction with the famous astronomer Pierre Jules Janssen at the Paris Meudon Observatory in 1880. If the history of sound cinema won't find precedent, then at least Semiconductor's Brilliant Noise (2006) and Black Rain (2009) will, in the way that they too deal with solar storms, winds and other tumultuous activities of the Sun. This line of their work, which included their wonderful Magnetic Movie (2007), arose from an artists' residency with the Space Science Lab at the University of California at Berkeley where they were introduced to large sets of solar data. One of the pragmatic reasons for scientific study in the area is that a big ionized blast from the Sun could raise havoc with electrical grids, communications lines, electrical circuitry, and especially satellites used in communications and military surveillance, command and control. In fact, solar storms have raised havoc on modern telecommunications ever since the long conductors of telegraph lines were stretched out over the landscape. Interestingly, accounts of the massive storm of 1859 that fried many telegraph systems are still referred to in more recent scientific literature.

Analog has a more capacious failure mode than digital, so if people want to prepare for the sounds of a truly big blast of solar wind, they should think about going for vintage gear. In the meantime, they will have to decide where to come down on data sonification. Many sonification projects strike me as inadequately self-deprecating about their musical choices, an a priori of musical preferences rather than what the deep secrets of nature sound like, more an authored mechanism than what it sonifies. One of the first attempts was by an oncologist for whom "music" meant Western art music, so it was no accident that mouse RNA ended up sounding like a Chopin mazurka instead of rats in Katzenmusik. On the other hand, Przemysław Prusinkiewicz, author of The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants, told me his own music derived from computational biology sounded more like Jimi Hendrix. I can understand a universe that sounds more like Hendrix than Yanni.

I just heard sonified helioseismological data that sounded like a 1920s Western art music appropriation of Caribbean percussion. I happen to both like that tradition and the idea of vibrations through plasma, but I worry about the arbitrariness of these algorithmic translating machines. I imagine someone has already done this, but perhaps sonification – if the practice operated at fuller potential – could enable dialing through, morphing and mixing through a library of preferences, so that one could listen to the Higgs Boson as dub step, Debussy, another Gangnam Style knockoff, or whatever. An optical equivalent would apply to the candy-coated color-coding that accompanies Hubble Space Telescope images, when in fact people should be able to coordinate Magellanic Clouds with their lounge room paint scheme or the tartan of their clan. Semiconductor pursued something similar by providing the data for Brilliant Noise to other musicians and artists for them to cover a wide variety of possible heliospheres. The heliosphere is an enormously large area to cover, so they needed all the help they could find. Composers will have much more work to rehearse for the multiverse. 

It is good to find a sweet spot fidelity to the data and a creative candor of its necessary infidelity. Semiconductor are particularly well versed in this craft. The interruptive artifacts are a matter of fidelity to the artifactual reality, the infidelity of cultural representation. This act goes beyond commonplaces about mediation, representation or aesthetization, all of which must be understood through the professional communities that require their investments to produce data approximating actual phenomena. It takes years, enormous amounts of money and confidence in a chain of other professional communities to place these sensitive instruments into such hostile environments and have them emulate analogous relationships. Semiconductor are in this respect the expression of one more community with its own professional standards. They have developed techniques to reinstate the energies, affect and empathies involved as these satellites are thrown closer to the solar activities so dangerous to satellites. The way Semiconductor fudge data would run into problems in most applications for lab funding, but, unlike the sciences, the way they do it is not fraudulent. In my observations of people observing the Sun, they are exceptionally good, which is not insignificant given that the Sun is the closest thing we will ever get to an actual deity. My only regret in my discussion of Semiconductor in Earth Sound Earth Signal is that it was not the occasion to address their work in a more comprehensive manner. After I wrote about them they returned with another work, 20Hz (2011) for the Invisible Fields exhibition that was based upon the type of    magnetic storms that had raised havoc in the mid-nineteenth century, no less.


WM: Is Earth Sound Earth Signal part of an ongoing project, and does it include topics that will be taken up and developed your next book?


DK: Yes, I am following up in at least two ways. The first is to continue with the introduction of "nature" into "media", which might be better stated in an academic frame as merging historical media theory and eco-theory. This is the main topic of the book I am presently working on, although the book will not be presented as theory per se. The second follow up expands an investigation of energies; a very big topic in itself, it intersects with the next book but also has a life of its own. Earth Sound Earth Signal already posits sound as but one energy among others, as mentioned previously, but only so much could be covered. It would be misleading to say that it was limited to electromagnetism, since it is such an enormous topic, but it did not track energies into bodies to any great extent. The discussion of brainwaves was necessary because brainwaves were the first iteration of Lucier's notion of "natural electromagnetic sounds" as well as being a register of an electromagnetic spatiality "from brainwaves to outer space." I also did not go far into matters of "energy" as pertaining to fossil fuels or other sources, or with what I see as problems in the way energy is theorized generally. So there is a big world of energy that needs to be better understood and engaged with, especially given the catastrophes of energies rapidly unfolding now.