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The signals have been waiting for us

Gail Priest: Douglas Kahn’s Earth Sound Earth Signal



In Douglas Kahn’s Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, the premise is holistic. Signals are everywhere, running through us, the earth, the sky, bouncing off the ionosphere, and the best way to tune into them is by listening. By the time you’ve finished reading this book you feel like you’ve tapped into a magnificent universal circuit. It’s almost religious.

The book has a roughly historical trajectory starting with Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s ‘sidekick’ who would listen to the “natural radio” that the new telephone technology channelled. Then there’s a dash back to catch up on Henry David Thoreau’s fixation with all things Aeolian—the wind singing through nature and man-made structures. Over several chapters Kahn tunes in to Alvin Lucier and his associates exploring brain waves and the curious whistlers bouncing the sound of storms around the globe. He then heads underground with Gordon Mumma to listen to earthquakes and reaches for the stars with Pauline Oliveros. He ends in the here and now with Joyce Hinterding’s antennae channelling the universal hum of electromagnetic presence. And there’s a whole lot more in between.

Kahn’s style approaches an extended personal essay with the meanderings and side trips just as interesting as the main arguments. While ideas are grouped into chapters, concepts ‘leak’ like the extraneous sounds on telegraph wires to create loops and circuits through the text. A particular thread that creeps in subtly, growing in intensity, deals with relations between signals, the technologies created to channel them and the greater military complex. Kahn refers to this as the geophysical becoming geopolitical. The chapters “Sound of the Underground” and “Black Sun, Black Rain” exploring atomic energies are particularly insightful.

As Kahn suggests in his introduction, the subject matter of the book dictates a high level of interdisciplinarity, presenting not only a history of sonic, musical and visual arts but also delving into the histories of technology and science. An unspoken interdisciplinary aspect of Kahn’s book is that while he is writing about sound he is also often writing about writings on sound. The book is rich with description and quoted texts illustrating what Kahn describes as the “uncanny poetics of popular imagination.” One example quoted is from an 1878 New York Times article, “Phones of the Future”: “We are assured that we will be able not only to listen to the tramp of the tiniest insects, but to hear the growing of the grass and the ripple of the sap ascending beneath the bark of trees.”

In the opening chapters there are several lists of sound descriptors for earth signals and electromagnetic energies that were being heard in early devices: “a hissing or swishing as of someone shaking a wisp of straw;” the “‘crackle’ or the burning of a hemlock broom.” It’s a veritable go-to guide for the adjectivally challenged sound commentator. Of course Kahn himself is no slouch when it comes to the poetic, even when dealing with the most technical of subjects, connecting concepts with grand gestures that set things resonating against each other, like this: “A technological timeline of musical cosmoses could be strung from the antiquity of the monochord to lines of telecommunications.” There is literally never a dull moment.

The book offers vast amounts of fascinating information ranging from background stories around the creation of artworks to mythic descriptions of natural phenomena, such as auroras and static storms at high altitude, which are utterly enthralling. However the dominant achievement is that Kahn manages to rough-up the binary of nature and technology. As he extrapolates on his theory of the Aelectrosonic—the sounds of the electromagnetic world—he repositions nature at the centre of electronic music and indeed of media arts. It all starts with the signals that have been waiting for us to invent ways to hear them.

Earth Sound, Earth Signal feels like a journey to the centre of the earth and to the outer reaches of the stars. It reads equally as science fiction, scientific journal, a history of electronic sounds and a tale of the occult. In the chapter on Pauline Oliveros Kahn mentions the use of New Age Theosophic texts as “a way to trigger our imaginations, rather than as a ‘scientific fact,’” and while his book does not skimp on the latter it’s the invitation to imagine that captivated me. Most of all, the book offers a comprehensive and mind-altering understanding of the connectedness between ourselves, the Earth and all of these shimmering energetic properties. Douglas Kahn invites us to tune in to this awesome totality.


Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, Douglas Kahn, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2013

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 47

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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