A Machine To Listen To The Sky – A Day Of Listening To Natural Radio And The Electromagnetic Spectrum

May 9, 2013 - Dan Tapper

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Weather balloon above the Museum's grounds.

Weather balloon above the Museum’s grounds.

A Machine To Listen To The Sky is a sound installation that is based around my love for hearing the unheard. Through the use of inductors -wire coils- electromagnetic signals produced by technology and the natural world are converted into sound, specifically sound in the VLF radio band, which stretches from 3 – 30 kHz.

I have spent many hours listening to the beautiful rain like crackling of spherics (atmospheric disturbances caused by lightning), snatches of man made interference (radio and mobile phone signals which momentarily surface before becoming lost in the swell of noise) alongside many other sounding phenomena occurring in the VLF band.

The aim of my installation a Machine To Listen To The Sky was to showcase these VLF sounds in an artistic medium, bringing them into a more accessible forum for public enjoyment and appreciation. This involved combining the act of simply listening to raw VLF with a visual element that was intended to describe and deepen people’s experiences with the sounds they were hearing.

Filling the Balloon at the University of Bath

Filling the Balloon at the University of Bath

This visual element is a large 8 ft. diameter weather balloon, tethered at 10 meters, elevating two inductor devices that output to a set of headphones at ground level. The poetic notion of flight combined with the act of listening to signals, which are naturally produced by the sky and the earth around us, was very appealing to me.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to showcase my project in the stunning grounds of the American Museum. It is a perfect counterpoint between the city and the countryside, allowing a wide spread of natural and technological signals to be heard. The museum’s south lawn also has the most amazing view, which perfectly framed the installation.

The installation was performed on Thursday, 2  May 2013 on a perfect sunny day. Over the course of the day listeners came and went listening to a great range of VLF signals. These spanned from spherics and tweaks (produced by lightning and energy transference between the ground, clouds and the ionosphere) to radio signals which fittingly included some visitors hearing broadcasts originating from America – thousands of miles away and some were even lucky enough to hear some sun spot activity.

A visitor to the Museum listens to the VLF

A visitor to the Museum listens to the VLF

Visitors were also encouraged to draw graphical representations of what they were hearing; it was interesting to see everyone’s different but somehow overlapping interpretations of VLF sound.

Cathryn Spence draws what she can hear

Cathryn Spence draws what she can hear

For me it was a brilliant day and I was pleased at how well people engaged with the piece. It was amazing to see people listening to VLF signals as an artistic piece rather than scientific which is how VLF is often applied.

Everyone drew quite similar interpretations of what they heard

Everyone drew quite similar interpretations of what they heard

As the next step of the project I will be taking recordings from the installation and manipulating them to create an audio music work.

You can keep updated with my progress on my blog:

http://magneticsignals.tumblr.com/

The blog also details how to make your own DIY inductor device:

http://magneticsignals.tumblr.com/post/37330985110/how-to-make-a-vlf-receiver-materials-frame-im

If you have any comments or pictures from the day please send these to:

daniel.tapper09@bathspa.ac.uk

Or contact me on twitter @dantappersound. Make sure to hash-tag #magneticsignals

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