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.