Sound Thoughts

A few years back I put considerable amount of time into recording various sounds, which I eventually posted on a website called Two of these sounds have been downloaded over a thousand times each. One is the sound of an old rod pump in operation, the other was recorded from a home built stereo shortwave receiver, in which each ear hears signals received by a separate antenna, one horizontally polarized, the other vertically polarized. There are detailed technical descriptions of the recordings on the Freesound site, so I’ll let you read them there, rather than reproduce them here.

The other day I received an email from someone who had incorporated the shortwave radio recording into the soundtrack of a play. It works very effectively there, and I thought it was an intriguing case of a technically mediated phenomenon being incorporated into a work of artistic creation. The recording was accomplished by unusual technical means, while the sounds themselves are an expression of a very human phenomenon, that is, many people competing for the attention of one individual offering something much sought after, a radio contact with a station located in an out-of-the-way place. The spacial sense afforded by the stereophonic recording technique confers an expressive dimensionality that would be completely absent if the recording had been made via an ordinary single-channel shortwave receiver.

The recording puts me in mind of a short essay that’s posted on my ham radio website, which describes something of the “magic” which attracted me to radio in the beginning. Here’s an excerpt:

“Given that we [ham operators] hardly communicate anything of substance via radio, unless it happens we’re involved in emergency communication, what motivates us to put so much energy into the avocation? For me, part of the attraction is to the primordial mystery of the medium; with what I’ve sometimes termed, “divining the ether.” From age fourteen, the quavering CW (Morse code) note of an early morning transatlantic signal, dipping in and out of the background noise generated by zillions of thermally excited ionospheric molecules, evoked a visceral excitement that I’ve compared to some people’s passionate attraction to for trout fishing. Instead of the secret allure of dark waters, I’m drawn to the gleam of a twilit sky and the responsive sea of ionized particles above us, invisibly charged by the sun, kaleidoscopically reflecting faint signals from people situated in far away places.

“As with fishing, the radio addict hangs his antenna in space in hopes of snagging that lurking lunker, which would be the occasional exception to the routine exchange of signal and weather reports. Now and then my enthusiasm is renewed by flashbacks to my twelve-year-old self, still lurking in the wings, excited by the mysteries of a universe not yet rationalized into “explainable” phenomena.”

You might understand from this why science was never just a technical discipline to me, but something much more. The radio sounds are technologically mediated, but my wanting to know how ionospheric (and human!) phenomena would sound in stereo motivated building the technical means to hear them. It was not the other way around. The rod pump sound was interesting to me (and over 2000 other people) as an an intriguing sound representing a particular historical context and set of associations that the sound encodes.

One implication of what I’ve been saying, and this is not the first time I’ve made the same argument, young people might become more interested in science and math if these subjects were presented in a larger context than simply a means to earn a living, or worse, “make a killing.”

Unfortunately tagging any scientifically related discipline as carrying “romantic” overtones (i.e. tinged with love or other “irrational” varieties of excitement) is looked upon with suspicion and disdain in today’s scientific milieu. But if we came to understand science and its applications as being at one with other forms of human creativity, instead of something “objective,” standing apart from these, we’d be less likely to get ourselves into the sort of desperate environmental and social crises we’ve dragged  ourselves into by mindlessly deploying every conceivable technological innovation for no other reason than the fact that it existed and someone could make a buck from it.

Kevin Jones