Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Earth Sound Earth Signal

Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts

Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 343
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Earth Sound Earth Signal
    Book Description:

    Earth Sound Earth Signal is a study of energies in aesthetics and the arts, from the birth of modern communications in the nineteenth century to the global transmissions of the present day. Grounded in the Aeolian sphere music that Henry David Thoreau heard blowing in telegraph lines and in the Aelectrosonic sounds of natural radio that Thomas Watson heard in telephone lines, the book moves through the histories of science, media, music, and the arts to the 1960s, when the composer Alvin Lucier worked with the "natural electromagnetic sounds" present from "brainwaves to outer space," through the urban electromagnetism in the conceptual art of Robert Barry, to the energy scavenging drawings and antennas by the artist Joyce Hinterding. From the sounds of auroras at high latitudes and atmospheric electricity in the mountains, to underground music of earthquakes and nuclear explosions, to music bounced off the moon and the sounds of the sun, Earth Sound Earth Signal rethinks energy at a global scale through detailed discussions of artists and scientists such as Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, James Turrell, Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Paul DeMarinis, Semiconductor, Thomas Ashcraft, Katie Paterson, Edmond Dewan, Ludwik Liszka and many others.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95683-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Radio was heard before it was invented. It was heard before anyone knew it existed. It was heard in the first wireless technology: the telephone. The telephone served two major purposes: it was a scientific instrument used to investigate environmental energy, and it was an aesthetic device used to experience the sounds of nature. The telephone would also find success in the field of communications. The first person to listen to radio was Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant. He tuned in during the early hours of the night on a long metal line serving as an antenna before antennas...

  6. 1 Thomas Watson: Natural Radio, Natural Theology
    (pp. 25-33)

    The legend of radio begins in the 1890s with Guglielmo Marconi leading the procession of successful great men and Nikola Tesla among the great men unfairly treated. Although some would win in the courts of law and aficionado opinion, Marconi held sway in the popular imagination. Marconi’s early device was actually wireless telegraphy, not “radio” as it came to be known with commercial broadcast in the 1920s. It did not transmit voice, music, and other sounds, only the make-and-break dots-and-dashes of telegraphic code. Purpose-built inventions that carried voice and music appeared around 1906 to 1910 and were linked to the...

  7. 2 Microphonic Imagination
    (pp. 34-40)

    The mysterious sounds that Thomas Watson heard belonged to a larger class of sounds, real and imagined, opened up by the actual telephone and the idea of the telephone. The phonograph was good at storing and repeating the realm of already existing sounds, but the telephone specialized in new unheard-of sounds. The atmospheric energies and earth currents influencing telegraph lines had been registered by the perturbations of needles, in the clicking of the telegraph key, and by the occasional sparking of the equipment in telegraph offices under the influence of powerful magnetic storms. Once a telephone receiver was put into...

  8. 3 The Aeolian and Henry David Thoreau’s Sphere Music
    (pp. 41-52)

    The telephone amplified and expanded the audible world of nature, both real and imagined, from the tiniest sounds inside and immediately surrounding people, out to distant reaches of the cosmos. Circulating within this new world were musical sounds and sounds that otherwise engaged aesthetic attention. Yet nature had long produced its own music—the Aeolian—arising from the wind. This music is as old as the myth of Aeolus and the Aeolian Islands and everywhere else that sentient beings have heard the sounds of the wind among the trees, plants, and rock formations. One legend has it that a music...

  9. 4 The Aelectrosonic and Energetic Environments
    (pp. 53-68)

    Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Watson were enthralled with the sounds of nature in the wires, Thoreau with what he heard on the outside, Watson from the inside. The difference between telegraph and telephone lines was not significant; telephones were regularly placed in-circuit with telegraph lines and submarine cables. It would have been possible to hear the effects of environmental electromagnetism and the Aeolian effects of wind blowing over the same line at the same time. The electromagnetic effects would not be Aeolian; they would be Aelectrosonic.

    The Aeolian and Aelectrosonic are manifestations of naturally occurring energies, the former rooted...

  10. 5 Inductive Radio and Whistling Currents
    (pp. 69-82)

    Because they were long metallic conductors, telegraph and telephone lines and cables attracted surrounding energies from each other and from the environment. When lines ran close enough to each other, their electromagnetic fields interacted and through induction “leaked” information to one another, and some of that information was musical. From this simple fact, two commonly held presumptions in media history need to be qualified: first, that music was not heard over the air until the advent of radio (qua Reginald Fessenden), and second, that messages were securely contained within wires until Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless broadcasts.

    Moreover, this electromagnetic interaction resulted...

  11. 6 Alvin Lucier: Brainwaves
    (pp. 83-92)

    Alvin Lucier may have been the first person to use whistlers in a work of art or music with his composition called, appropriately enough, Whistlers (1966). Around the same time, if not before, the Swedish composer KarlBirger Blomdahl included recordings of natural radio along with the sounds of satellite telemetry in his experimental television work Altisonans, as will be discussed in chapter 15, but Lucier’s work is at the core of this study because he understood whistlers to belong to a larger class of natural electromagnetic sounds, amid a trade of sound and signal.

    Lucier was predisposed toward such sounds...

  12. 7 Edmond Dewan and Cybernetic Hi-Fi
    (pp. 93-105)

    On the program for A Concert of New Music, the physicist Edmond Dewan was listed as “Technical Assistant.” After the performance, as the applause died down, Lucier took to the floor and introduced him as the co-composer. Dewan was uneasy about being classed as a composer, half-jokingly because the US Air Force might wonder how he was spending his time, but more because of his respect for composers. He had developed this respect as an avid amateur and accomplished organist, with special interest in twentieth-century French organ music of Jehan Alain, Olivier Messiaen, Jean Langlais, Marcel Dupré, and Pierre Cochereau.¹...

  13. 8 Alvin Lucier: Whistlers
    (pp. 106-114)

    Whereas Music for Solo Performer is one of Alvin Lucier’s best-known compositions, Whistlers is obscure.¹ It was, in fact, withdrawn from his catalog. Nevertheless, he readily identified with the work; for several years, it helped establish his initial reputation within the larger community of experimental music. Along with the brainwaves of Music for Solo Performer, the natural radio of Whistlers roughed out a new space of possibility within signals, from brainwaves to outer space.

    Moreover, although Whistlers was withdrawn, the idea behind it was not. The first incarnation of Whistlers was a live filtering of recorded passages of whistlers and...

  14. 9 From Brainwaves to Outer Space: John Cage and Karl Jansky
    (pp. 115-121)

    Alvin Lucier sounded the bounds of a natural electromagnetic spatiality, from brainwaves to natural radio reaching out many earth radii from the earth’s surface. Because Music for Solo Performer and Whistlers informed Lucier’s early reputation as a composer, this energetic framework was not lost on other people. When Whistlers was featured at the First Festival of Live Electronic Music in 1967, the organizer, Tony Gnazzo at Mills College, remembered that Lucier’s reputation for “brainwaves and outer space” preceded him to the West Coast, and Charles Shere confirmed this when he summed up Lucier’s music as “incorporating such organic and cosmic...

  15. 10 For More New Signals
    (pp. 122-132)

    Modern telecommunications began with message devices that resonated with and received signals from the larger energetic environment. It was with these devices and within these environments that the aesthetic trade in the Aelectrosonic began, when earth currents and natural radio were heard on the telephone, a device used for commune as well as communication. Resonance and reception rendered wired devices wireless and sensitive in other ways to the environment.

    Electromagnetism in the arts began to make its presence audible in the 1920s and 1930s with two classes of modern devices, the wireless (radio) and electronic music instruments, but attunements toward...

  16. 11 Sound of the Underground: Earthquakes, Nuclear Weaponry, and Music
    (pp. 133-161)

    In Aristotelian earth science, earthquakes were part of the weather. In his Meteorologica Aristotle points to the Aeolian island of Lipari, just north of Vulcano, to discuss how winds, waves, earthquakes, and volcanism relate to one another. Strong gusting seas force wind and waves against the bulwark of the shore and they have nowhere to go but underground; waves buckle the land and trapped wind is vented by volcanoes.¹ This makes total sense: during the great earthquake that hit San Francisco and Northern California on April 18, 1906, one person in Cotati, just south of Santa Rosa, looked out onto...

  17. 12 Long Sounds and Transperception
    (pp. 162-173)

    Seismic waves are long sounds that are underfoot and below the human audible range. As such, they belong to a larger class of long sounds that, like other forms of sound, have been heard and composed in music and the arts. A long sound is usually thought to be one that lasts a long time; yet there are sounds that are long in distance as well as duration. Moreover, some long sounds can be heard as having acquired their character through the course of their propagation, acoustically and electromagnetically. In this way, a sound is as much of the intervening...

  18. 13 Pauline Oliveros: Sonosphere
    (pp. 174-186)

    Pauline Oliveros, one of the central figures in experimental and electronic music, has over a long career developed the notion of what she calls the sonosphere.¹ Unlike R. Murray Schafer’s notion of soundscape, Oliveros’s sonosphere embraces a full sweep and barrage of energies, including the magnetic, electrical, electromagnetic, geomagnetic, and quantum, as well as the acoustical. It resonates among personal and interpersonal, musical, earth, and cosmological scales informed by physics and metaphysics. Furthermore, unlike soundscape, there is no stigma of technology arising from a moral chasm between nature and technology: “Some of the most beautiful sounds in the world are...

  19. 14 Thomas Ashcraft: Electroreceptor
    (pp. 187-192)

    The intensity with which Thomas Ashcraft pursues both science and art causes a collision that has produced a beautiful array of self-representations. New Mexico friend and neighbor Bruce Nauman chose Ashcraft for a show at the CUE Art Foundation in the Chelsea district of New York. For that occasion his biography read,

    Ashcraft Thomas: aka “Tom from Heliotown,” aka “Tom”; extrapolator, gum and tradecake designer, experimenter, specimen trader, precipitator;

    Practitioner of the scientific method;

    Practitioner of slant vision, of micro-monumentalism, of ultra-logic and chance;

    Sculptor, artisan, money stylist: Red Money Issuance;



    Research Director: Jupiter Pulse and Power: Energy...

  20. 15 Black Sun, Black Rain
    (pp. 193-204)

    The American poet Harry Crosby was a heliophanist: he worshipped the sun. In “I Climb Alone” he wanders through the night until, “At last there is a filament of gold. There is the color of the dawn. There is the rising sun burning with gold. She comes toward me as I stand naked on the highest mountain top. The flock of stars have vanished but the Sunstar rises. I feel my eyes filling with fire. I feel the taste of fire in my mouth. I can hear fire.”¹ A well-heeled bohemian, Crosby is best known for his Black Sun Press,...

  21. 16 Star-Studded Cinema
    (pp. 205-217)

    It is possible to see cinema everywhere. Seeing cinema is associated with projection devices that took hold in the early twentieth century or have been dug up archaeologically from older engineering feats, but entertainments of modulated light seen in darkened spaces have always existed. Small fires have always projected dancing shadows fading into the liminal perimeter of night, and lightning strikes have always etched stutter-step frames across larger landscapes: “Flash rapidly follows flash, while at times the light bursts simultaneously from different parts of the heavens, every cloud and mountain-top appearing then ‘white-listed through the gloom.’ ”¹ Lightning strikes globally...

  22. 17 Robert Barry: Conceptualism and Energy
    (pp. 218-226)

    During the 1960s, discourses on materiality, immateriality, and dematerialization made for odd intersections in the visual arts and art theory. The difference between matter and energy was policed in the visual arts by perception and property. The register for what stood as artistic material was based on visual objects (painting and sculpture) that solidified their position by vying for rare commodity status, isolated objects in metropolitan art markets and their related institutions. Claims by Clement Greenberg for what constituted a properly reduced commodity were uttered in the same breath as cocktail party theoretical physics. It was in these markets that...

  23. 18 Collaborating Objects Radiating Environments
    (pp. 227-236)

    A photograph of the room at the January 5–31, 1969 exhibition documents the installation of Robert Barry’s 88 mc Carrier Wave (FM) and 1600 kc Carrier Wave (AM). It is a unique example of the larger practice of photographic documentation in conceptual art and other art at the time, not only because there is nothing to see, unlike, say, photographic documentation of an earthwork or performance, but also because what could not be seen (carrier waves) were themselves in the process of eliminating other signals.

    The photograph documented much more: the ambient lighting, the fluorescent lights reflected in the...

  24. 19 Joyce Hinterding: Drawing Energy
    (pp. 237-254)

    Artists, musicians, and their audiences have many ideas about energies, about their significance and how they might work. The artist Robert Irwin once remarked how a nebulously defined energy contained in a small painting by Philip Guston overwhelmed much larger and bolder paintings in the same room, and how it helped move him toward light as a medium.¹ Many artists have moved toward sound for similar reasons. Musicians have long talked about generating, exchanging, and melding with energies, vibrations, and resonances in sounds, voices, instruments, psyches, bodies, spaces, the cosmos, and so on. Electronics have added another dimension, from ecstatic...

  25. 20 Earth-in-Circuit
    (pp. 255-258)

    During the nineteenth century, communication went underground—nothing necessarily secretive or subaltern, even the most common telegraph and telephone messages followed a technological circuit that was returned and completed through the earth. Other aspects of the earth besides the ground have been called upon to serve signal propagation in telecommunications, the ionosphere being the most common. For over a century and a half there have been large cycles in which the earth has been in-series or in-circuit with an open earth circuit or excluded by a closed metallic circuit. The manner in which the earth was put in-circuit and taken...

  26. Notes
    (pp. 259-316)
  27. Index
    (pp. 317-330)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 331-331)