Sferics is the shortened term for atmospherics, natural radio-frequency emissions in the ionosphere, caused by electromagnetic energy radiated from nearby or distant lightning. These signals – resonant clicks and pops, called tweeks and bonks by scientists – occur in the audible range of humans and may be picked up by antennas and amplified for listening. They are best received at night, far from power lines. Occasionally, certain sferics get caught on and travel long distances along the magnetic flux lines around the earth, producing whistlers – downward-gliding signals which may last up to two or three seconds.
My interest in sferics goes back to 1967, when I discovered in the Brandeis University Library a disc recording of ionospheric sounds by astrophysicist Millett Morgan of Dartmouth College. I experimented with this material, processing it in various ways – filtering, narrow band amplifying and phase-shifting – but I was unhappy with the idea of altering natural sounds and uneasy about using someone else’s material for my own purposes. I wanted to have the experience of listening to these sounds in real time and collecting them for myself. When Pauline Oliveros invited me to visit the music department at the University of California at San Diego a year later, I proposed a whistler recording project. Despite two weeks of extending antenna wire across most of the La Jolla landscape and wrestling with homemade battery-operated radio receivers, Pauline and I had nothing to show for our efforts. About ten years later composer Ned Sublette, who was interested in radio waves of all kinds, recommended a book by Calvin R. Graf, Listen to Radio Energy, Light and Sound, which describe a simple method of building a large loop antenna with which to receive these natural phenomena.
Sferics was recorded by the composer on August 27, 1981, in Church Park, Colorado. The sound material was collected continuously from midnight to dawn with a pair of homemade antennas and a stereo cassette tape recorder. At regular intervals the antennas were repositioned in order to explore the directivity of the propagated signals and to shift the stereo field.
Several short samples of the night’s activity were spliced together in chronological order, from 11:30 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. A single faint whistler can be heard about ten seconds after the beginning of the recording and several more, along with a few swishes (partially formed whistlers), can be heard from about three minutes from the end. The periodic high tones (from 10.2 to 13.6 kHz.) that recur throughout the recording are signals from the man-made Omega Navigational System, which provides position fixing and guidance for ships and aircraft around the world.
In June of 1984 Sferics was installed for listening in real time as part of the Siteworks Southwest, Artists of Earthwatch Project, El Moro, New Mexico. A small array of antennas was set up at a campsite on the top of a mesa. The incoming signals were routed through the amplifiers of battery-powered cassette tape recorders to several pairs of headphones, so that visitors could listen to the sounds of the ionosphere throughout the night. From time to time flashes of distant lightning could be seen, accompanied by simultaneous bursts of sferic activity.
Music for Solo Performer (1965)
The idea for Music for Solo Performer (1965) came out of a conversation I had in 1964 with physicist Edmond Dewan. I was teaching at Brandeis at the time and Dewan, a devoted amateur organist, had come over to the music department eager to share his ideas and equipment with any composer interested in exploring this hitherto uncharted region. At that time Dewan was engaged in brain wave research for the Air Force. It was believed that slow propeller speeds were locking onto corresponding brain wave frequencies of aircraft pilots, causing dizziness and blackouts. I was not composing music during this time and needed a new idea. With nothing to lose I took Dewan up on his offer.
Working long hours alone in the Brandeis University Electronic Music Studio with Dewan’s equipment (two Tektronix Type 122 preamplifiers, one Model 330M Kronhite Bandpass Filter) I learned to produce alpha fairly consistently. I did not attempt any experiments in bio-feedback as such but was aware of the reinforcement of my own alpha-producing ability while monitoring in real-time the sounds that came out of the studio loudspeakers. As I was generating alpha in the Brandeis studio I was struck by the violent movement of the cones of the acoustic suspension loudspeakers that were moving in and out rapidly with large excursions. I realized that the loudspeakers were capable of doing physical work, not just reproducing sounds.
From the beginning, I was determined to make a live performance work despite the delicate uncertainty of the equipment, difficult to handle even under controlled laboratory conditions. I realized the value of the EEG situation as a theatrical element and knew from experience that live performances were more interesting than recorded ones. I was also touched by the image of the immobile if not paralyzed human being who, by merely changing states of visual attention, could communicate with a configuration of electronic equipment with what appears to be power from a spiritual realm. I found the alpha’s quiet thunder extremely beautiful and, instead of spoiling it by processing, chose to use it as an active force in the same way one uses the power of a river.
In designing the work I decided to use alpha to resonate a large battery of percussion instruments, including cymbals, gongs, bass drums, timpani, and snare drums. In most cases, it was necessary physically to couple the loudspeaker to the instrument, although in the case of highly resonant bass drums and timpani, the loudspeaker could be placed an inch or so away from the drumhead.
Music for Solo Performer was first performed on May 5, 1965 at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, with the encouragement and participation of John Cage. I sat on a landing between the two floors of the museum, electrodes attached to my scalp. The mono output of the alpha amplifiers was routed to the inputs of 8 home stereo amplifiers, the outputs of which were sent to 16 loudspeaker-percussion pairs deployed around the museum. During the course of the 40-minute performance Cage randomly raised and lowered the stereo amplifiers’ volume controls channeling the alpha signal to various instruments around the room.
In 1982 two versions of Music for Solo Performer were released on Lovely Music LP VR 1014. On Side A the composer superimposed eight pairs of western classical percussion instruments, as well as a cardboard box and a metal trash can. On Side B Pauline Oliveros recorded four versions, each with a separate world music percussion orchestra. For that version composer Nicolas Collins designed a number of voltage-controlled solenoids that were used as electric drumsticks to play various small drums and gongs.
This recording of Music for Solo Performer was produced under the supervision of Wesleyan professor of music Ron Kuivila with the assistance of graduate students Ivan Naranjo and Phillip Schulze and undergraduate Forrest Leslie, at the Wesleyan University Experimental Music Studio, on December 8 and 9, 2007.
Recordings mastered by Tom Hamilton
Copyright © Alvin Lucier/BMI
Produced by Alvin Lucier.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
Copyright © 1999 Alvin Lucier (BMI)
© P 2010 Lovely Music, Ltd.
LCD 5013 DDD