24. Juni – 1. August 2004 singuhr - hörgalerie in parochial - berlin

Firebirds and Tongues of Fire

(c) Paul de Marinis

My work often traverses the untrodden areas of communication technology where the interplay of meaning, materiality and encoding dance round in figures that suggest the uneasy struggles and yearnings that underlie our officially sanctioned notions of utility, efficiency and consumer desirability. I mean to pose questions about the world we have created , to ask how material devices weave their way into our personal relationships, our understanding of the physical universe and our origins, as well as our notions of possible futures.

“Firebirds” and “Tongues of Fire” are two companion works that examine a power complex of inter-relationships between fire and language from a diverse variety of technical, historical and metaphorical viewpoints. That speech is made of sound is not always apparent as we speak, listen, read and are transported to the inner recesses of conversation. But electronic media, and the radio in particular reconfigured our culture’s perception of the relationship between speech and sound for most of the 20th century. Surely the transformation of speech into signal, signal into wave, to recording and playback make apparent that meaning is forever cast as sound, sound as signal, signal as noise and onward. For all its power and terror, the course taken by the political leaders’ voice is no less technological. In the end, it is only a wave in the air, a scratch in the groove. Sound with all it’s attendant artifacts of recording, transmission, reception, makes this evident.

Each technology of speech transmission has its technical and social requirements for formation, but also its special conditions for reception. The telephone is realtime, bidirectional and intimate; a telephone conversation is an intimacy within the intimacy of the domestic environment; we are still uncomfortable with speakerphones and conference calls. The phonograph allows its reception to be metered and deferred for collective reception in a domestic space. Radio enforces realtime collective reception. There is no object of fixation other than the radiophonic voice itself, save perhaps a grandiose wooden console with silent glowing tubes. Prior to the radio the political speech had remained outside the home in the plazas and conference halls. By speech becoming sound, signal, wave, signal and sound again, home life became politicized. The voice of the leader enters the private domain of the home and hearth.

Imagine the arc of wireless, from its earliest glimmerings in the imaginations of physicists like Branly, Crookes and Lodge, all seriously involved with psychical and spirit communications, through the commercial exploits of Marconi, through the amateur-hacker era when every boy dreamed of a personal communication module that would let him talk with friends and imagined romantic interests across space and the broadcasting of pranks (young boys tapping out false coordinates of the sinking Titanic), the military’s monopoly during the first world war, the era of broadcast, the apex of radio in the 1930s when the voices of political leaders entered the communal domestic space of people around the world, thw age of AM radio, rock and roll, and finally the “wireless” legacy we inherit in our mobile phones and Bluetooth peripherals. This vast nowhere all had to come from somewhere.

Among the early inventors, a lonely and lovesick young man sat in his modest apartments in New Haven in 1904, searching for a breakthrough invention in radio to catapult him to fame and fortune. While tapping his Hertzian key he noticed that the flames of his gas chandeliers would jump and ebb with each transmitted dot and dash. Certain that he had discovered a sensitive receiver for radio waves, he wrote up several patents for devices embodying his discovery. Long before the patents were duly issued, deForest learned that the modulation of the flames was caused not by radio waves, but by the sound of the tapping of his key, thus replicating the discoveries in the 1850s by LeConte and Tyndall. Unperturbed, and possessed by the idée fixe that the flame must be the sensitive receiver of Hertzian waves, he forged on. Piggybacking on work carried out recently by Ambrose Fleming in England, and earlier by Elster and Geitel in Berlin, deForest began encapsulating his experiments inside light bulbs, replacing the dancing flame with the glowing filament. By insight or perseverance or blind luck, deForest succeeded in producing, in 1906, the Audion, or vacuum tube, an efficient amplifier that was to make radio the vast medium it later became and usher in the electronic era – television, radar, computers – that dominated most of the twentieth century. deForest’s invention presents us with an intersection in a moment in time – 1906, the age of electric lighting, when the flames of candles and gas jets were everywhere being locked up in glass bottles, and at the same time all the words and messages running through wires were leaking out into Maxwellian space as communication became radiant.

The flames of “Firebirds” are a look at the collision of voice, meaning, material inscription and collective space as it existed briefly at that brief moment. That sound can emerge directly from gaseous space, without a solid vibrating elements of the loudspeaker has been a phenomenon studied since the earliest days of electronic technology. In 1924 Lorenz AG of Berlin marketed a “Kathodophone” – an early form of plasma tweeter, basically a triode opened to the air coupled to a small horn. In the early 1950s S. Klein of France elaborated on this principle and described an electrothermal horn loudspeaker. In 1967 Babcock, Baker and Cattaneo of United technologies Corporation in Sunnyvale published a paper in Nature describing the form of electrothermal transducer used in “Firebirds” – a gas flame, seeded with potassium ions, is made to vibrate the air by being electrically modulated by a voltage. As the air around the flame is instantaneously heated and cooled, expanding waves of sound vibration are produced in the air, creating an omnidirectional sound source.

The traces of voice presented in “Tongues of Fire” hark back to an earlier era, when the manometric flame of Koenig served as a significant advance in phonological studies in the 19th century. These traces are made by vibrating a flame by placing a speaking tube in proximity to the gas supply. I followed the descriptions from John Tyndall’s “Sound” in constructing the manometric capsule, and, following the example of Dayton Clarence Miller later in the 19th century, adapted an old bellows-camera into a slit scan recording device to inscribe the flame variations on 120 roll Ektachrome film in realtime. These images are the precursors of the oscilloscope traces that follwed, and of the graphical displays now seen in our audio editing software. Again I chose political speech, as much for the familiarity of its cadence as for the reminder it provides of the dangers of fire, friendly or otherwise.

singuhr - hörgalerie in parochial : Klosterstraße 67, 10179 Berlin, www.singuhr.de Donnerstag - Sonntag 14 - 20 h / ‘Lange Nacht’ am 1. August 2004 bis 24 h