Sferics 2: Bell Cloud

Sferics 2: Bell Cloud (a collaboration with N.B.Aldrich) uses atmospheric radio energy (“sferics”) to control a room full of mechanized bells. It was first installed at the Portland Museum of Art for the 2013 Portland Biennial.

Lightning emits a distinct radio signature, which can be received hundreds of miles away. For this installation we built a pair of “VLF” radio receivers and matching antennas to monitor atmospheric radio disturbances. The real-time information is fed into a computer which controls the ringing of bells suspended from the ceiling. Each lightning strike rings one bell, and an algorithm compares new strikes to recent ones to determine which bell to ring next.

The result is a kinetic soundscape that reflects the radio energy passing through us all the time. The “song” of the bells is composed by the probabilistic laws of the atmosphere itself: On a calm day the room is a nearly silent contemplative space, but nearby storms sometimes increase the tempo to a chattering din. The patterns of activity seem at once familiar and unpredictable, like the reflections of light on water, or peepers singing in a pond.

Special thanks to John Carney, Sean George, D.M. Ingalls, Clifton Moser, Gene Nichols, Owen Smith, the University of Maine Intermedia MFA Program & the University of Maine at Machias Music Department.

Exhibition History:

  • 2013 – Portland Biennial, Portland Museum of Art, Maine
  • 2016 – The Cannery, Penobscot, Maine


  • The Forecaster ” …the work I found most satisfying was Sferics 2: Bell Cloud …”
  • Portland Daily Sun (focused on Sferics 2) “‘Piece Work’ strikes a chord through unique lightning exhibit”
  • Sun Journal “An eerie experience of awe is created by the two artists…”
  • Portland Press Herald (general coverage of the Biennial)

Related Resources:

  • Alvin Lucier’s “Sferics” (1981) was an important inspiration for this piece. It’s available on Lovely CD 5013 with “Music for a Solo Performer”. Scroll down here to read the liner notes.
  • You can hear examples of sferics on my VLF natural radio page.
  • StrikeStar is a real-time online map of lightning activity throughout the US.