Tuning the Terrestrial Monochord, or listening to the Harmony of Earth

Antennas and monochords have a lot in common. A monochord is an ancient musical and scientific lab instrument made of one long string, similar in that respect to a long single wire antenna, only the string is stretched over a sounding box of equal length. One or more movable bridges are then moved up and down the string to demonstrate the mathematical relationships among the frequencies produced and for measuring musical intervals. Though it was first mentioned in Sumerian clay tablets, many attribute it’s invention to Pythagoras around 6 BCE. These ancients saw within the monochord a mystic holism in which notes, numbers, ratios and intervals combined with the sense of hearing and mathematical reason. Monochords are related to other instruments such as the Japanese koto, the hurdy-gurdy, and the Scandinavian psalmodikon this last used as an accompaniment to voice in sacred music. In medicine the sonometer, a variation of the monochord, continues to be used to diagnose hearing loss and bone density for those who may be at risk for osteoporosis.19th century psalmodikon player

The discovery of the precise relationship between the pitch of a musical note and the length of the string that produces it is also attributed to Pythagoras. If he had been able to put electricity into wire strings it might have been Pythagoras who discovered the principle of resonance that makes an antenna match a frequency. What Pythagoras did propose was the idea of the Music of the Spheres, a philosophical concept that conjectures that the movement of celestial bodies creates a form of heavenly music. This theory has continued to haunt the imagination of the West since it was first proposed. Later Plato described astronomy and music as “twinned” studies of sense recognition that both required knowledge of numerical proportions. Astronomy was for the eyes and music was for the ears. Now millenia later astronomy can be studied with the ears of a radio receiver and number crunching supercomputers.

Robert-Fludds-Celestial-Monochord-1618In 1618 the physician, scientist and mystic Robert Fludd conceived a divine or celestial monochord linking the Ptolemaic conception of the universe to musical intervals, suggesting that the instrument could also be used to demonstrate the harmony of the spheres. In Fludd’s picture a divine hand reaches down from out of a cloud to tune the monochord to the celestial frequencies of the planets and the stars. Around two and a half centuries later scientists unknowingly started tuning into the terrestrial frequencies that were unknowingly being picked up by telegraph and telephone lines.

In his masterful book Earth Sound Earth Signal Douglas Kahn writes that “radio was heard before it was invented”. He goes on to describe how the first person to listen to radio was Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson. He tuned in with a telephone receiver “during the early hours of the night on a long metal line serving as an antenna before antennas were invented.” Other telephone users also listened to radio for two decades before Marconi made his first transmission. Watson enjoyed listening to the natural VLF signals given off by the earth, though he did not know it’s origin or that it was even radio at all. The natural signals were picked up on the telephone line acting as an extremely long wire that was resonant in the VLF range, from around 3 kHz to 30 kHz and corresponding to wavelengths of 100 to 10 kilometers. Watson’s own line from the lab stretched a half mile down the street. Since he wasn’t transmitting it didn’t have to be fully resonant to pick up the VLF signals. I like to think of these long antenna wires as a type of terrestrial monochord that tunes in to the harmony of the Earth.

Watson did not try to do anything about the noises he heard on the line, as they did not interfere with voice communication. In fact he actually enjoyed listening to spherics, whistlers, dawn chorus and other VLF phenomenon he likely picked up, even as he didn’t know or understand their cause. I like to listen to this form of natural radio myself. There are a number of live internet streams from people who have set up VLF listening posts, such as those found at http://abelian.org/vlf/. I think those sounds are as relaxing as listening to the surf of the ocean or a gentle breeze in the trees. ┬áKahn goes on to write that nature “has always been the biggest broadcaster, bigger than all governments, corporations, militaries, and other purveyors of anthropic signals combined.” May it remain so.

Fludd’s image of the celestial monochord was made famous in 1952 whenharry_smith1 it came to adorn the cover of The Anthology of American Folk music compiled by Harry Everett Smith and released by Smithsonian Folkways. I think some divine inspiration was passed on to Harry Smith, from the same hand that tunes the instrument, and from him it passed on to all the lives his massive compilation touched. The six-album set brought new levels of cultural awareness to musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt and went on to kick start the folk music revival of the 50’s and 60’s. It had a strong influence on Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who are acknowledged as disciples of the anthology. It continues to touch new generations of musicians today.

Avant-garde composer and father of minimalism La Monte Young found early inspiration from another type of electrical monochord. He recalled as a child listening to the droning sound of the power plant next to his Uncle’s gas station. He became fascinated by the 60-cycle hum of electricity as it moved along the lines. This inspired such pieces of music as “the Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer“. John Cale and the late Tony Conrad are among the many influenced by Young’s work. Both were involved in Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Cale went on to a long and varied career and is notable for being a founding member of the Velvet Underground. During rehearsals with Young, Cale and Conrad would tune their instruments to the 60-cycle electrical hum, what Young called the “underlying drone of the city”.

In the late 70’s composer Alvin Lucier started working with physicist John Trefny on a musical acoustics course they were teaching at Wesleyan University. They had set up a monochord and placed an electromagnet over one end while an audio oscillator drove the wire. This created an interaction between the flux field of the magnet and the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, causing the stretched wire to be observed vibrating by the naked eye. This demonstration captivated Alvin’s imagination and he started thinking about building a monochord to be used on the concert stage or in galleries. After getting some metal piano wire, clamps and a horseshoe magnet he had a built a portable version whose length could be varied depending on the size of the space. This became his classic piece Music on a Long Thin Wire. What he did was extend the wire across a room, clamping it to tables at either end. The ends of the wire were connected to the speaker terminals and a power amplifier placed under the table. The amplifier in turn had a sine wave oscillator connected to it, and a magnet straddled the wire at one end. Wooden bridges with embedded contact mics were put under the wire at both ends, and these were routed to a stereo systems. This electrified monochord is played by varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator to create slides, frequency shifts, audible beat frequencies and other sonic effects. Lucier eventually discovered that the instrument could be left to play itself by carefully tuning the oscillator. Air currents, human proximity to the wire, heat or coolness and other shifts in the environment all caused new and amazing sounds to be heard, sometimes spontaneously erupting into triadic harmonies. This electric monochord is an instrument that can play itself just as the long thin wires of the early telephone and telegraph system tuned into the terrestrial harmonies continuously being broadcast by Mother Earth.



Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Magnitude in the Arts by Douglas Kahn
The Hum of the City: La Monte Young and the Birth of NYC Drone by Alan Licht
The Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Everett Smith
Alvin Lucier, Music on a Long Thin Wire, Lovely Music LCD 1011

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