Editorial: Venturing into Sounds of Space
William Ray Macauley
How have sonic experiences been conceived, articulated, and elided in histories of outer space and narratives of space exploration? This was the core question addressed in a multidisciplinary workshop Sounds of Space hosted at the Freie Universität Berlin in late 2012. This Journal of Sonic Studies (JSS) special issue includes a selection of articles based on papers presented at the workshop. Using a variety of themes as entry points and mobilizing an array of analytical tools, contributors to the special issue revisited the core question in addition to engaging with related questions that focus on specific sites, historical actors, organizations, and situated practices that encapsulate how our understanding of space is mediated in and through sound. Before introducing the individual contributions and additional material, I will say something about how the conception of the original workshop was primarily based on close encounters with sounds of space during my doctoral research on the history of interstellar communication (Macauley 2010). Further, I will examine how the workshop and present collection emerged from the desire to critically engage with a cluster of anomalies, elisions, and assumptions uncovered during research on the historical relationship between sound and space that prompted a series of perplexing questions.
On the Aelectrosonic and Transperception
In addition to the collection of articles, it is a pleasure to announce a couple of bonus items exclusive to JSS. One is an interview with Douglas Kahn, pre-eminent historian and theorist of the media arts with a particular interest in the study of sound in the avant-garde and experimental arts and music. By good fortune, Kahn’s latest book Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts was published in late 2013 when contributions for the current special issue were under construction. Working independently, both projects – Earth Sound Earth Signal and JSS8 – historicize and critically examine sounds of space and this seemed like an excellent reason to strike up a dialogue and learn more about Kahn’s latest book. During the course of the interview multiple points of convergence, intersections, and shared research interests transpired and led to a lively discussion.
Remixing the Voyager Interstellar Record: Or, As Extraterrestrials Might Listen
This text offers an introduction to a hyperlink, http://earthscramble.com/, a portal to the Scrambles of Earth project, which is dedicated to decoding and disseminating audio transmissions of possible extraterrestrial origin that have been received on Earth in response to the Voyager Golden Record. The Voyager Record, a compendium of recorded Earth sounds affixed in phonograph form to NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, was launched out of Earth orbit in the 1970s and in 2013 left our solar system to travel into interstellar space. It may be that aliens have started listening in — and more, as the Scrambles of Earth document suggests, it may be that aliens have started to create their own interpretations of the Earth sounds they have received. Whether such Voyager Record echoes are messages meant for Earthly receipt or are simply exploratory experiments in sound that happen to have been intercepted on their way to somewhere else remains to be determined.
Pythagorean Longings and Cosmic Symphonies: The Musical Rhetoric of String Theory and the Sonification of Particle Physics
Peter Pesic, Axel Volmar
String theory posits very small “strings” whose various modes of vibration produce the observed particles and forces of nature, often described through analogies with music, especially Pythagorean harmonies. We analyze the rationales and implications for enlisting this archaic lore to explain such a modern theory, especially factors connecting internal and external aspects of scientific research: the economic pressure to promote a promising but unproven theory, the quasi-religious appeal of Pythagorean teachings and their consequent aesthetics of the “beautiful theory.” In contrast, sonifications of high energy physics data from the LHC seems to refer more to contemporary music than the “cosmic music” pioneered by Beethoven and carried forward by Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
The Imagined Sounds of Outer Space
This essay explores how the idea of the ‘sounds of space’ has been articulated in popular culture since the late nineteenth century through the early years of the Space Age. The primary focus is on sound and music in science-fiction films from Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the United States, and the four main topic areas are the sounds of signals from space, the sounds of outer-space technology, the sounds of ‘heavenly bodies,’ and the sounds/music associated with space travel. Framing this central portion of the essay, however, is a discussion of ‘space music’ by various composers for whom writing for the cinema was perhaps one of the furthest things from their minds. The essay argues that, in terms of depictions of weightlessness, perhaps certain works by composers Arnold Schoenberg and Edgard Varèse, and by the rock groups Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream, have something in common with the music of sci-fi cinema.
Space is the Place: The Electronic Sounds of Inner and Outer Space
In this paper I examine the new sorts of tonalities produced by electronic music and how they became associated with the theme of space. Sound was an important topic in early science fiction writing. Furthermore, 1950s-era science fiction movies used electronic tones to capture the vastness of space and the other-worldliness of aliens. Electronic tones, such as produced by the Theremin, were also used in movies of this period to accompany moments of mental instability. Sound itself, and weird sounds in particular, were used to portray unusual and strange mental powers. These associations took on new valences as the space age unfolded, in the years following the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Domestic space in US households became an important site for the consumption of sound with the new burgeoning High Fidelity (Hi-Fi) craze. Special genres of music for hi-fi, such as exotica and space age pop, reinforced the notion of space as gendered “other” and largely feminine. The domestic space of musical consumption changed with communal living and the emergence of the counter culture in the 1960s and the new possibilities of electronic tonalities provided by the first commercial electronic music synthesizers. Outer space exploration and the search for inner space were combined into new forms of spacey music, which were often consumed in collective spaces such as “gatherings of the tribes”, festivals, “be ins” and communal “happenings”. Whether it be Jefferson Starship’s attempt to “highjack the starship”, British band Hawkwind’s use of the sound of synthesizers “in search of space”, or Sun Ra’s early use of the Moog synthesizer with his Solar Arkestra to declare “space is the place” – electronic sounds and their association with space had become part of a dystopian critique of Planet Earth.
The Significance of Electro-acoustic Music in the Space Opera Aniara
In 1956 the Swedish poet Harry Martinson published Aniara, a poetic narrative set in a distant future and based on the idea that the Earth has been contaminated with nuclear fallout from atomic bombs and has become uninhabitable. A fleet of spacecraft ferry people to Mars and Venus, where the population of the Earth must be evacuated. One of these spaceships is called Aniara. Soon after take-off, she is involved in a collision that renders her steering gear nonfunctional. Consequently, she veers off course, setting out on a journey into space with no possibility of ever reaching her destination. The reader follows the fate of the passengers and crew during the next 24 years as they try to adapt to life in the spaceship. In 1959 the opera Aniara by Karl-Birger Blomdahl premiered at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. One of the features that attracted widespread attention was the Mima tapes – that is, taped electro-acoustic music and musique concrète used to represent the sound sequences emanating from a computer-like machine called the mima on board the spaceship Aniara. To create the Mima tapes, the composer and the librettist used key phrases from different songs in Martinson’s epic. By using this device in an opera about mankind set in a remote future, Blomdahl was able to create an affinity between music and subject matter.