Guggenheim scholar to study 'atmospheric radio'

May 13, 2006 2:48 am

A UC Davis scholar plans to use the freedom afforded by a Guggenheim Fellowship to explore how the line is blurred between nature and technology when people listen to sounds from the cosmos.

Douglas Kahn, who directs the 4-year-old Technocultural Studies Program and is a scholar of the cultural history of sound and technology in the arts, is among 187 artists, scholars and scientists in United States and Canada recognized with Guggenheim Fellowships this spring.

Fellows are appointed by recommendations from expert advisers on the basis of distinguished past achievement and the promise of future accomplishment. Awards this year total $7.5 million; fellowships are expected to average about $40,000 per fellow.

Rather than use the funds to travel abroad for research, Kahn will use the material he has been gathering for the past several years to stay at UC Davis during the 2006-07 school year and write a book titled "Radio Was Discovered Before It Was Invented." He will also be working on the project as a fellow at the Davis Humanities Institute during the same period.

He is focusing on events that began in 1876 when Thomas Watson, the engineer who fashioned the first telephone for Alexander Graham Bell, accidentally heard electromagnetic signals coming from the Earth's ionosphere and magnetosphere.

"At nighttime Watson would sit listening for hours on end to a telephone earpiece hooked up to an iron test line that ran over the rooftops of Boston," Kahn says. "The first telephone line had become an unwitting antenna through which he heard strange and beautiful sounds."

Those sounds are now commonly known as atmospheric or natural radio, auroral chorus and VLF ("very low frequency" phenomena).

The sounds range from fragile glissandi called whistlers to noise that have been described as the sounds of "electronic bacon frying," Kahn says. They are generated by lightning, solar winds and auroral activity, among other sources.

Natural radio sounds became better known during the 1990s when avid amateur Stephen McGreevy issued CDs of his field recordings, Kahn said.

Kahn, who wrote "Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts" (1999), plans to start with the Watson story and follow it through the next 130 years, including the scientific investigation of natural radio beginning after World War I and the advent of composers and artists using these very low frequency sounds from the atmosphere to make music and sound art in the second-half of the 20th century.

Experimental music composer Alvin Lucier, one of the pioneers of natural music, was a mentor to Kahn when he pursued a master's degree in music composition at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Conn.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Guggenheim project will come when Kahn tries to answer bigger questions regarding sound, music, philosophy and cosmology that the history of natural radio raises. He plans to challenge conventional wisdom that technology is separate from nature.

"That is, no one wants to listen to 'noise,' " Kahn says. "I also plan to ask what happens in the history of Western culture once the cosmos is understood to be electromagnetic.

"The radio is a sign of modern technology, and has been studied as a 'communication device,' but here we encounter an entirely different notion of radio, as sounds coming from the heavens, a veritable soundtrack of astronomy," Kahn says.
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