[-empyre-] Welcome to Week 2: Sonic Paths

Douglas Kahn djkahn at ucdavis.edu
Tue Jun 10 10:00:42 EST 2014

Hello everyone.

Thanks to Tim and Renate, and thanks to Marcus for inviting Nina and myself
to <empyre>. It's now Tuesday morning here in Sydney; it's nice to wake up
to this discussion. 

My book Earth Sound Earth Signal took many years to research and write.
Like the genesis of books for many people, I was not planning to write it;
instead it grew out of trying to understand a few works by the composer
Alvin Lucier and the artist Joyce Hinterding that involved "natural radio." 

Investigating natural radio turned out to be the natural place to start
unpacking the relationship between two energies, sound and
electromagnetism, especially the historical trade between the two starting
in 19th C. telecommunications. Natural radio, it turned out, was heard on
telephone lines nearly two decades before Marconi's wireless telegraphy
device and about a decade before Hertz verified the existence of
electromagnetic waves. Thus, the catch phrase: radio was heard before it
was invented.

Sound is considered first of all a physical energy in the major classical
physics branch of mechanics, electromagnetism as the other; with their
relations falling within moments and means of transduction (which I break
down into two very general categories in-degree and in-kind). So the
expansion of sound studies that Marcus mentions is based upon the
generalization of sound among other energies. It was a dual task layed out
methodologically by trying to understand what artists do on the terms upon
which they work (rather than through received canonical or theoretical
lenses) and going wherever the sound leads.   

The "expansion" of sound studies was how sound studies got going in the
first place. It is also the mode of operation in much of the avant-garde
and experimental arts that I study; they have in the past been thought to
be reduced acts of transgression when they can be seen more generatively as
proposing or enacting possibility. Those two "opening ups" coupled with
what Michel Serres says about collectivist reciprocation (too many
scientists, he says, take knowledge from nature and give nothing back) is
what animates my own work. 

In this sense, I've boiled it down to: John Cage opened music to sound;
it's time to open sound to energy. Of course, it has always been open; only
our analyses have been lacking. In theory and philosophy when "energy" is
discussed, it is very rarely specified; it's more of a short hand and broad
brush. I hope we can think about that in our discussion of "vibration". My
first recourse now is wonder what differnt energies may be interacting. 

In Earth Sound Earth Signal I kept away from the body for a good reason. I
only dipped below Alvin Lucier's scalp for his brainwaves and traced the
transduction down tympan alley past the cilia to the ion channels. I
avoided the body and got out as quickly as I could. The body works on a
very complex and different set of energies than radio and other locations
along the electromagnetic spectrum. No one had ever tried to introduce the
aesthetics and politics along the e-m spectrum (in 1994 Hugh Aitken had
proposed a SHOT-style project to do so, but he died and no one took up the
task), so I had enough work to do without multiplying the level of

But I am starting to think about it now. The "discourse" of energy is alive
and well among artists, but what for instance does a musician or actor mean
when they talk about the energy in the room? The other direction is to
relate these energies with the ecological realities facing the planet. If
we understand global media systems to be energetic ones (and not, say,
merely cartographic/inscriptive networks), then how might that relate to
that other energy issue happening in the solar-terrestrial environment.
Again, I think there are concrete ways to proceed. 


Douglas Kahn
Professor of Media and Innovation
Australia Research Council Fellow
National Institute for Experimental Arts
College of Fine Arts
University of New South Wales, Sydney


> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Thanks to Tim and Renate for inviting us to participate in empyre this
> week!
> When Tim and Renate asked me what directions my own interest in sound
> studies were taking, I thought immediately about Douglas Kahn's new book
> Earth Sound, Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, which
> U. California published a few months ago.  I've been interested in expanded
> ideas of sound studies for a while, particularly in thinking about
> vibration as it relates to popular and experimental music scenes -- partly
> under the influence of Steve Goodman and his fascinating book Sonic
> Warfare, which MIT published a few years ago.  I've been talking with Nina
> Eidsheim for several years now, and was struck by her work on vibration and
> singing/performance (which will be published in her forthcoming book
> Sensing Sound).  So I thought it'd be interesting to have a conversation
> about different ideas re. an expanded field of sound studies, that would
> include different frameworks of physical or other forces that in some way
> underlie what we call sound.  When I suggested
>   this to Doug, he immediately pointed out to me that for him, it's not
> (just) about vibration, or sound as a particular kind of vibration ... but
> a three part framework: vibration, inscription and transmission, that he
> uses to think different technocultural practices.  What he's given us is a
> history of visual and sonic arts that mobilize the electromagnetic spectrum
> in different ways.  That (to me) is a major expansion of what constitutes
> possible materials or matters of concern when it comes to making art.
> So I'd like to begin by asking Doug and Nina to talk a little about
> expanded frameworks of sound studies ... how do they think about that?
> What's at stake in shifting the parameters?
> For myself, I'll save the details for a later post, but I'm intrigued by
> what Goodman calls "the politics of sub-frequency". Where he focuses on
> warfare and violence, I'm interested in the erotics of sub frequency ...
> the kinds of intimacy that are sustained through sound and vibration in
> subcultural and experimental music scenes.  But also the limits of that ...
> a kind of resistance to vibration, to being touched by it, that one notices
> especially with drone music, which still makes a lot of people
> uncomfortable ... or "bored" ....
> One note. Doug is in Sydney, Australia, Nina is in LA, I am in Montreal ...
> so expect some significant lags ... and of course, respond to us or ask us
> to explain ourselves whenever you like.
> More soon ....

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