Echoes from the Moon
Just as the Hub was getting off the ground and into circulation as a performing ensemble, one of its members, Scott Gresham-Lancaster, was working with Pauline Oliveros on a new project she had initiated in creating the ultimate delay system: bouncing her music off the surface of the moon and back to earth with the help of an amateur radio operator.
Since Pauline had first started working with tape she had always been interested in delay systems. Later she started exploring the natural delays and reverberations found in places such as caves, silos and the fourteen-foot cistern at the abandoned Fort Worden in Washington state. The resonant space at Fort Worden in particular had been important in the evolution of Pauline’s sound. It was there she descended the ladder with fellow musicians Paniotis, a vocalist, and with trombonist Stuart Dempster to record what would become her Deep Listening album. Supported by reinforced concrete pillars the delay time in the cistern was 45 seconds, creating a natural acoustic effect of great warmth and beauty. This space continued to be used by musicians, including Stuart Dempster, and the place was dubbed by them, the cistern chapel. Pauline had another deep listening experience in a cistern in Cologne when visiting Germany. Between these experiences, the creation of the album, and the workshops she was starting to teach, she came up with a whole suite of practices and teachings that came to be called Deep Listening. The term itself had started as a pun when they emerged up from the ladder that had taken them into the cistern.
Pauline describes Deep Listening as, “an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. This aesthetic is designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations.” Since her passing Deep Listening continues to be taught at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute under the directorship of Stephanie Loveless.
The idea of bouncing a signal off the moon, which amateur radio operators had learned to do as a highly specialized communications technique, was another way of exploring echoes and delays, in combination with technology in a poetic manner. Pauline first had the idea for the piece when watching the lunar landing in 1969.
“I thought that it would be interesting and poetic for people to experience an installation where they could send the sound of their voices to the moon and hear the echo come back to earth. They would be vocal astronauts. My first experience of Echoes From the Moon was in New Lebanon, Maine with Ham Radio Operator Dave Olean. He was one of the first HROs to participate in the Moon Bounce project in the 1970s. He sent Morse Code to the moon and got it back. This project allowed operators to increase the range of their broadcast. I traveled to Maine to work with Dave. He had an array of twenty four Yagi antennae which could be aimed at the moon. The moon is in constant motion and has to be tracked by the moving antenna. The antenna has to be large enough to receive the returning signal from the moon. Conditions are constantly changing - sometimes the signal is lost as the moon moves out of range and has to be found again. Sometimes the signal going to the moon gets lost in galactic noise. I sent my first ‘hello’ to the moon from Dave's studio in 1987. I stepped on a foot switch to change the antenna from sending to receiving mode and in 2 and 1/2 seconds heard the return ‘hello’ from the moon.”
Though farther away in space than the walls of the worden cistern, the delay time between the radio signal going there and coming back is much shorter. In a vacuum radio waves travel at the speed of the light. Earth Moon Earth, or EME as it is known in ham radio circles was first proposed by W. J. Bray, a communications engineer who worked for Britain’s General Post Office in 1940. At the time, they thought that using the moon as a passive communications satellite could be accomplished through the use of radios in the microwave range of the spectrum.
During the forties the Germans were experimenting with different equipment and techniques and realized radar signals could be bounced off the moon. The German’s developed a system known as the Wurzmann and carried out successful moon bounce experiments in 1943. Working in parallel was the American military and a group of researchers led by Hungarian physicist Zoltan Bay. At Fort Monmouth in New Jersey in January of 1946 John D. Hewitt working with Project Diana carried out the second successful transmission of radar signals bounced off the moon. Project Diana also marked the birth of radar astronomy, a technique that was used to map the surfaces of the planet Venus and other nearby celestial objects. A month later Zoltan Bay’s team also achieved a successful moon bounce communication.
These successful efforts led to the establishment of the Communication Moon Relay Project, also known as Operation Moon Bounce by the United States Navy. At the time there were no artificial communication satellites. The Navy was able to use the moon as a link for the practical purpose of sending radio teletype between the base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, to the headquarters at Washington, D.C. This offered a vast improvement over HF communications which required the cooperation of the ionospheric conditions affecting propagation.
When the artificial communication satellites started being launched into orbit the need to use the moon for communicating between distant points was no longer necessary. Dedicated military satellites had an extra layer of security on the channels they operated on. Yet for amateur radio operators the allure of the moon was just beginning, and hams started using it in the 1960s to talk to each other. It became one of Bob Heil’s favorite activities.
In the early days of EME hams used slow-speed CW (Morse Code) and large arrays of antennas with their transmitters amplified to powers of 1 kilowatt or more. Moonbounce is typically done in the VHF, UHF and GHz ranges of the radio spectrum. These have proven to be more practical and efficient than the shortwave portions of the spectrum. New modulation methods also have given hams a continuing advantage on using EME to make contacts with each other. It is now possible using digital modes to bounce a signal off the moon with a set up that is much less expensive than the large dishes and amounts of power required when this aspect of the hobby was just getting started.
“For instance, an 80W 70 cm (432 MHz) setup using about a 12-15 dBi Yagi works well for EME Moonbounce communication using digital modes like the JT65,” writes Basu Bhattacharya, VU2NSB, a ham and moonbouncer located in New Delhi, India.
On the way to the moon and back, the radio path totals some 50,000 miles and the signals are affected by a number of different factors. The Doppler shift caused by the motion of the moon in relation us surface dwellers is an important factor for making EME contacts. It is also something that effected the sound of the Pauline’s music when it got bounced off the lunar surface.
“The sound shifted slightly downward in pitch… like the whistle of a train as it rushes past,” said Pauline of her performance.
“I played a duo with the moon using a tin whistle, accordion and conch shell. I am indebted to Scott Gresham-Lancaster who located Dave Olean for me in 1986 and helped to determine the technology necessary to perform Echoes From the Moon. Ten years later Scott located all the Ham Radio Operators for the performance in Hayward, California which took place during the lunar eclipse September 23, 1996. Following is the description of that performance: The lunar eclipse from the Hayward Amphitheater was gorgeous. The night was clear and she rose above the trees an orange mistiness. As she climbed the sky the bright sliver emerged slowly from the black shadow - crystal clear. The moon was performing well for all to see. Now we were ready to sound the moon.
“The set up for Echoes From the Moon involved Mark Gummer - a Ham Radio Operator in Syracuse New York. Mark was standing by with a 48 foot dish in his back yard. I sent sounds from my microphone via telephone line in Hayward California to Mark and he keyed them to the moon with his Ham Radio rig and dish and then he returned the echo from the moon. The return came in 2 & 1/2 seconds. Scott Gresham-Lancaster was the engineer and organized all. When the echo of each sound I made returned to the audience in the Hayward University Amphitheater they cheered. Later in the evening Scott set up the installation so that people could queue up to talk to the moon using a telephone. There was a long line of people of all ages from the audience who participated. People seemed to get a big kick out of hearing their voices return - processed by the moon. There is a slight Doppler shift on the echo because of the motion of both earth and moon. This performance marked the premiere of the installation - Echoes From the Moon as I originally intended. The set up for the installation involved Don Roberts - Ham Radio Operator near Seattle and Mike Cousins at Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto California. The dish at SRI is 150 feet in diameter and was used to receive the echoes after Don keyed them to the moon. With these set ups it was only possible to send short phrases of 3-4 seconds. The goal for the next installations would be to have continuous feeds for sending and receiving so that it would be possible to play with the moon as a delay line.”
It's a set up that could work for other musicians who want to realize again Oliveros’s lunar delay system. Or it could be modified to create new works. The thrill of hearing a sound or signal come back from the moon remains, and if creative individuals get together to explore what can be done with music and technology, new vistas of exploration will open up.
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.