Music of the Spheres: Locative Practices, Sound and Ecology

Meredith Hoy

Assistant Professor, Art Department
University of Massachusetts, Boston

There exists an ancient history of the notion of the Music of the Spheres, where the movements of the celestial bodies create their own distinctive musical signatures. Contemporary digital art projects, such as Luke Jerram’s Tide, have revivified the ancient fascination with the idea of the Music of the Spheres through the construction of sound sculptures that model small-scale sonic equivalences or translations of cosmic phenomena. [1] Other projects take the Music of the Spheres beyond the realm of metaphor, revealing the presence of actual radio frequencies emitted by astronomical phenomena and converting them into audible soundscapes through, for example, radio astronomy as with r a d i o q u a l i a’s Radio Astronomy [2] and the installation Cosmophone. [3]

Luke Jerram’s 2001 project Tide directly references Kepler’s notion of the Music of the Spheres. [4] An installation using gravitationally controlled tides as an illustration of the constantly changing relationship between Earth, Moon, and Sun, Tide incorporates both aural and visual registers. The sculptural forms in the installation – glass globes that contain volumes of water that increase and decrease according to tidal fluctuations – provide a visual analogy to planetary bodies. The ebb and flow of water in the globes indexes the movement of the planets and their triangulated relationship. The installation functions as an effective visualization of astronomical data, mediated through tidal pull. As the water rises and falls in the globes, friction devices make the glass “sing,” as a glass of water will do when swept by a finger in a circular motion. The music, here, is generated by the effects of shifting cosmic geometries, thus providing an analogy to Kepler’s theories of planetary resonance.  Slight variations in water level that might go unnoticed become immediately evident through shifts in musical notes.

In digital art practice, the 1970s brought about a renewed interest in the relationship between sound and space, and particularly the use of sound as an augmentation of the primacy of visual representation. Sound was identified as a new form of cartographic, location-based practice that could enrich the phenomenological experience of space and landscape. Whilst visual maps create an instantaneous impression, sound maps create a richly textured, durational experience that refuses to foreclose the space in question by converting it to the completeness of a picture. Sound maps are exploratory, open-ended, providing, as Schafer argues, only offer details, rather than a totalized view. [5] As opposed to the tradition of landscape painting, which situates the viewer in a frontal relationship to a carefully framed array of visual information, sound art affirms the materiality of the invisible world. It shows an environment to be a multi-layered, multi-sensory, and dynamic interplay of forces that cannot be encapsulated and circumscribed by the frame. The coup d’oeil cannot sufficiently capture the fact that environment is a complex ecological system formed by the intersection of both visible and invisible phenomena. Sound provides a sensory framework that imparts depth and texture to the listener’s surroundings. It does not simply enrich the visual experience of landscape, according primacy to vision, but actively shapes the interaction between listener and environment.

Since the 1970s, the advancement of sound art has been heavily concerned with the material density of the sonic environment. The Music of the Spheres, imagined in antiquity, was not merely a metaphorical, but an actual phenomenon, inaudible to the human ear due to the very immensity and pervasiveness of the planetary harmonies. The constant resonance of celestial music through the body results in deafness to these sounds, producing a “tuning-out” effect, much like the one reported by urban dwellers who no longer hear the noises of city traffic. This backdrop of sound becomes the object of inquiry for researchers of the World Soundscape Project (WSP). Instead of approaching the macroscopic dimension through such mythic constructions of the Music of the Spheres, the WSP identified the textures of local acoustic environments to reveal the behavioural effects of sonic phenomena and how changing sound patterns produce changes in social interaction.

Local soundscape projects, such as those by Teri Rueb and Janet Cardiff, replace the visual articulation of place through the circumscribing device of the frame, with an embodied, durational, and sonic exploration of particular locations. [6] [7] These projects deviate from the WSP’s recording of soundscapes insofar as they import sound into a given territorial zone. They are deeply invested in the notion of local ecologies, whereas astronomical and meterological sonification projects reveal the resonant materiality of the vast spaces and forces of the universe.

Projects such as r a d i o q u a l i a’s Radio Astronomy and Katie Paterson’s Earth-Moon-Earth make the music of the spheres actual and audible by sonifying meterological and astronomical phenomena. [8] While information visualization lends a sensory dimension to data that would normally be too large or too small to experience within the threshold of human perception, data sonification provides a temporally extended, dynamically resonant experience of technologically harvested information that destabilizes the primacy of visual cartographic systems.

r a d i o q u a l i a’s Radio Astronomy had three parts: a sound installation, a live on-air radio transmission and a live online radio broadcast. Listeners heard the acoustic output of radio telescopes live. The content of the live transmission depended on the objects being observed by partner telescopes. On any given occasion listeners might hear the planet Jupiter and its interaction with its moons, radiation from the Sun, activity from far-off pulsars or other astronomical phenomena.

Radio Astronomy correlated the processes associated with broadcast radio – the transmission of audible information – and the processes of radio astronomy (the observation and analysis of radiated signals from planets, stars and other astrophysical objects). The work synthesized these two areas. The signals from planets and stars were converted into audio and then broadcast on-line and on-air. The project is a literal interpretation of the term “radio astronomy”. Very few people have heard these sounds, considering space to be silent rather than a potentially rich virtual acoustic environment. In Radio Astronomy the Music of the Spheres is actualized and rendered accessible to sense perception. In their documentation of Radio Astronomy, r a d i o q u a l i a (an artist duo composed of Adam Hyde and Honor Harger) underscored the potential for sound, and specifically radio, to offer a perceptual alternative to the preponderance of visual data available to visualize space. Since the 1960s, experiments in radio astronomy have demonstrated that celestial objects emit signatures in the form of radiation. Taking up the avant-garde tradition, pioneered by musique concrête and John Cage amongst others, of repurposing ambient sound within a musical context, r a d i o q u a l i a conceives Radio Astronomy as a “new iteration” of the Music of the Spheres placed within a theoretical framework of automated composition. Their documentation traces historical precedents for their work from Kepler’s Harmonica Mundi to 20th century avant-garde composition to late-20th and 21st Century digital interventions such as musical “glitch” – the hisses, crackles and pops that might be normally perceived as errors or interruptions in the recording of a musical composition – which in glitch are accorded primacy in a given compositional fabric. But this project can also be conceptualized as a sonic map of space, one that captures time-based phenomena such as solar flares or the rotations of pulsars. Whereas maps and charts present their territory as stable and unchanging, the movements and eruptions of planetary bodies are dynamically captured by radio telescopes. Radio Astronomy proffers a new kind of document – a perpetually shape-shifting map that accounts for the dynamism of ecological systems, refusing the rigidity of the cartographic grid.

In Earth Moon Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon), artist Katie Paterson adapted radio transmission technology for a different end to r a d i o q u a l i a’s. Instead of providing a sonification of the dynamic frequencies of celestial bodies, Paterson explored the textural materiality of the moon by using it as a refractive surface, off which a composed musical score is bounced. Earth-Moon-Earth generates a different sort of sonic map and a divergent notion of locative exploration than Radio Astronomy. In the former project, bodies in space generate their own sonic frequencies, and thus their own musical “composition.” In Earth-Moon-Earth, the moon is “mapped” sonically, again, using composed music and the ‘glitch’ as its cartographic instrument. Patterson utilizes a radio transmission to beam Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata off the surface of the moon in Morse Code. The code is bounced back to Earth, where it is translated back into musical form and played to human listeners. The transmission, however, does not yield a perfect reflection of the original piece of music; when it is bounced back, only some of the music returns, other pieces being absorbed into the shadows on the moon’s surface. The resulting music bears, in a sense, an imprint of the texture of the moon itself, a cartographic reading of its pocked and shadowed surface.

Paterson’s work capitalizes on the phenomenon of glitch: a flaw or error in the system. In ‘glitch’ art, this error becomes the central topic of aesthetic and conceptual consideration. Glitch artists revel in the beauty of systemic failure, producing images and sounds that refuse perfection and illusion. In Paterson’s piece, the materiality of the moon, of code, and of radio frequencies, are all made apparent through a process of fragmentation. Collision, refraction and absorption work in concert to yield a musical composition whose aesthetic properties emerge through the presence of the glitch, which is itself produced by the particularities of the lunar terrain. The indexical trace of the moon’s geographic features is made evident through aural rather than visual experience, a locative practice that unfolds through the use of sound. This piece, unlike Radio Astronomy, depends on the defamiliarizing of a familiar piece of music. The “composition” rendered by radio frequencies in Radio Astronomy only coincidentally mirrors the structural conventions of music. Here, the structure of music is undone by collision with the physical structure of the moon – two very different forms of materiality coming into contact and producing a third term, an aural approximation of the texture of the lunar surface.

In Earth-Moon-Earth, the texture of lunar territory is experienced aurally, providing an alternate experiential model to that of the visual cartographic paradigm. The notion of the Music of the Spheres is distanced through the intervention of human technologies, namely musical composition and satellite scanning. Radio Astronomy, on the other hand, literalizes the Music of the Spheres, revealing cosmic phenomena as accessible and knowable through the aural register. In this sense, Radio Astronomy more authentically “records” the soundscape of the universe, showing its movements and its material structure to have a distinct acoustic signature and an acoustic ecology. Both projects operate within a strongly locative sensibility, each generating an acoustic map of the region they explore. In addition, both cases can be said to be hypermediated by technology – none of these projects seek to create the illusion of a transparent or unmediated view of their subject. Their explorations are rife with technology, with the standing-between that is the nature of all media. Sound is generated by technological devices, rather than “recorded” in the manner of the WSP’s soundscapes in the 1970s. The universe, in these latter instances, is made available through the technological apparatus, without which it remains mute, or at least inaudible. A perceptual relationship to universal acoustic ecology is developed through the symbiotic relationship between the physical, material realm and the technology that makes it available to apprehension.

The notion of the universe as a vast, silent realm is overturned by these projects, in which listeners are confronted with a continuously expanding aural landscape that becomes simultaneously intimate and alien. The fabric of sound suggests the possibility that the material structure of the universe can become sensorially proximate, while at the same time precluding the possibility of total colonization via a masterful, controlling gaze. Sonic resonances afford an intimate encounter, a haptic collision with objects otherwise too distant to touch. By capturing moments of friction in the sonic structure of the universe, these projects underscore the impossibility of absorbing the universe in the synchronic, temporally empty glance, introducing instead the open-endedness of sheer duration, punctuated by bursts of sound, translating data into the majestic primal energies imagined in the original concept of the Music of the Spheres.

References

1. “Tide,” on Luke Jerram’s official website, http://www.lukejerram.com/projects/tide (accessed November 4, 2013).
2. “Radio Astronomy,” on r a d i o q u a l i a’s official Radio Astronomy website, http://www.radio-astronomy.net/; r a d i o q u a l i a’s Soundcloud account,http://soundcloud.com/radioqualia (accessed November 4, 2013).
3. Official Cosmophone website, http://cosmophone.in2p3.fr/ (accessed November 4, 2013).
4. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) published his work Harmonices Mundi in 1619. This work, in which he attempted to explain the harmony of the world, was a series of five books and contained what is known today as his third law. The work was founded on geometry, from which Kepler derived first a theory of musical harmony and then a cosmology of the heavens and the earth.
5. Raymond Murray Schafer (born July 18, 1933) is a Canadian composer, writer, music educator and environmentalist perhaps best known for his World Soundscape Project, concern for acoustic ecology, and his book The Tuning of the World (New York: Random House,1977). He was notably the first recipient of the Jules Léger Prize in 1978.
6. Teri Rueb’s official website, http://www.terirueb.net/i_index.html (accessed November 20, 2012).
7. “Walks,” on Janet Cardiff’s official website, http://www.cardiffmiller.com/artworks/walks/index.html# (accessed November 20, 2012).
8. “Earth–Moon–Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon),” on Katie Paterson’s official website, http://www.katiepaterson.org/eme/ (accessed November 10, 2012).

Bio

Meredith Hoy is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art in the Art Department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 2010. Her current book project, entitled From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics, traces links between contemporary digital art and modern painting. Drawing on theories of visuality, space and spatial practice, cybernetics and systems theory, phenomenology, and post-structuralism and semiotics, her research focuses on the impact of technology on art and visual culture. She has written on modern and contemporary art and architecture, generative art, information visualization, and the phenomenology of networked space. She teaches courses on modern and contemporary art, visual culture, and media studies.