I wonder how a spatial sonification of our universe can stimulate a fascination for that which we are a part of. Simultaneously, sharing spatial musical performances based on knowledge that we have of the universe is an invitation to contemplate the magical planet we are on, and our position in it as Earthlings.
The goal is therefore to make the planets and stars of our solar system available to the aural imagination, and make it possible to experience them with our senses, based on what we know about them.
Musica Mundana set out to use site-specific sonic expression for the music of the universe. The sonic expression will here be a result of the dialogue between the voice instrument and the percussion, and their interaction with the space.
When I listen to the recording of our interpretation of GD358 from the workshop I recall and note:
“It starts with an atmospheric sound created by August stroking a metal tube over the metal fence in the centre of the space. The polyphony is distributed between the different participants. Some voices are more constantly present than others. Mattias uses a rubber ball on one of the walls sporadically. The sounds and their interaction are repetitive.”
This is what is spatially happening thus far:
The singers are distributed in the space, moving slowly in a circle around its centre. The percussionists are ‘attached’ to the area of the architecture that they are playing. The sounds of the star have some foreground-background movement happening, which is expressed through the limiting of the vocal expression from very close to the body, to an expression reaching far into the space. The space reacts strongly to the vibrations that are caused by the percussionists. As for vocal sounds, it supports very clear tones (no vibrato and open) and those sounds that have a strong friction in them.
It is important to note that each individual sound has a complex character. This occurs in the fluctuations in tonality, volume and in the rhythm. I separated these different sonic expressions into ‘voices’. The most challenging and fun thing to try out are the very individual natures and behaviours of some of these ‘voices’.
I find it interesting to compare how the sonic qualities in the original sound recording of the star find spatial expression and physicality in the recordings from the workshop. The new aspects that derive from the transformation through collaborative human-spatial expression will lead to the further development of the spatial music for GD358. In preparation for creating the performance I plan next to focus on the following:
There are relationships between the voices which I want to explore further, also in order to compose relationally, so an outside ear (conductor) won't be necessary to connect the different voices - but the singers know their role in relation to the other voices at all points. For example, as you can see in the image below, the pitch note C4 and F#3 start at the same time but finish at different points in time.
Many composers have searched for ways to find musical expression for the universe. Some approached it from their impression of and wonder about it, like Charles Ives in his unfinished work The Universe Symphony (1911 - 1928 approximately). Other pieces use scientific data as a base for their composition, for example Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile (1989), which is based on pulsar stars. I am coming to this question from the perspective of a scenographer-director who explores possibilities to create a sonic scenography that can be experienced from within. I wonder how we can shift perspectives on a journey through a sonic scenography of the universe. Can we hear a star from a great distance and then enter into it? Can the spatial sound performance of stars, planets and moons allow us to experience their interplay physically?
The universe is a vacuum. No sound can travel there. Only where there is matter that sound can travel through can sound exist. In addition, there needs to be an organism that has the capacity to hear and a brain that can translate the vibrational energy to sonic information (and relate this back to memory if possible). These capacities are shared by several species, including humans. In using human bodies and voices in interaction with a space to express the music of stars and to find possible sonic expressions for planets and moons, I transform their material in dialogue with elements on Earth.
It may be the oldest satellite in our solar system. This moon has almost no geologic activity. As Callisto is furthest away from Jupiter, it also is the moon that would be least dangerous to land on (as the least radiation from Jupiter reaches it), so it is also the most inviting in some respects. Therefore, I would like to have a comfortable tone in a medium range frequency for it. Its surface is an image of endurance, with its many scars created by impacting bodies. To represent this surface I would like to add a layer of rusty quality to its base sound.
Recent research estimates that there might be an ocean deep under its surface, which may support life. When the spatial sound composition for Callisto is developed we will search for a sonic expression for this possibility of life.
Listening as sensory memory
Memory of the senses
Sensory memory is usually short term. However, since most of my experience for Musica Mundana is related to a space that I worked in alone with my voice for two weeks, my memory of its acoustic qualities feels quite present in my body when I recall it. (For more information please refer to the project Spaces as Voice Teachers)
Because my practice is conducted on site with the performers in the space, I nonetheless feel stuck in the past somehow when I try to place and move sounds that I imagine now into my aural three-dimensional image from earlier experiences. In my work I have learned that what would be expected physically/acoustically can manifest itself differently in reality. There is rarely just one component of sound that relates to one aspect in a real sound-space-dialogue. Sounds are composites. Spaces are complex dialogue partners.
However, like when we prepare ourselves for conversations that will happen in the future, one should not spend too much time imagining the replies that will come but rather focus on what one wants to communicate from one’s own side and gather the questions one wants to ask.
The second path is to deal with other bodies in the universe that don’t ‘sing’. If we look, for example, at Jupiter and its Galilean Moons, we don’t and cannot register sound. There is radioactivity that is sometimes taken to be the sound of the planet. This sound does not carry any of its essence or interior composition though, as the sound of a star does. For planets and moons there have to be other ways to find their music. I will strive for ways to make their compositions and their relations to other bodies in space heard.
The closer the space bodies are to Earth the more we usually know about them. Many techniques are used to learn more about the interiors of planets and moons. Information “about a planet's density, seismic activity (such as frequency and intensity of earthquakes), magnetic field, heat, mountain ranges and so on” are analysed together (NASA, 2021). Jupiter and its satellites are far away. Therefore, many of the things we know about them are ‘reasoned speculations’. I will use the information I have gathered on Jupiter and its Galilean moons and their relationships in order to guide my creative thought process.
As I now introduce my concept for the composition of Jupiter and the Gallilean Moons, please remember that what I will write here is not a first draft for a composition. These sketches will guide my practical tasks and give frameworks for real explorations on site with the participants - when working this way is possible again.
This is a collection of data that I have gathered about the gas planet Jupiter and its closest satellites:
To investigate the material composition of Jupiter and its four Galilean Moons and their spatial relationships through a site-sensitive approach, as outlined in Spaces as Voice Teachers and Composing in Space. Use the accumulated information (in the form of spatial vocal expressions, sounds elicited from the architecture, written notes and drawings on spatial relations) to guide a spatial sound composition that reveals their elements, structure and their connections in a way that can be experienced in a bodily way, in the space.
1 space (R1 in 2021)
The complexity and physicality of spatial acoustic sounds are able to express the entanglement of the planet and its moons, as I discovered in Musica Munda. In Musica Mundana the creative thought process travels between appearances and the inner processes/composition of bodies in the universe. The same can be done when exploring individual sounds. We can make a sound and analyse how it evolves in the space, how its disappearing journey progresses. Or we can build a sonic phenomenon from scratch. With voice for example: A little bit of friction in the larynx, some smooth warmth in the tone, and an elevation in the dynamics - in one vocal sound. It is a collaborative forming and shaping, a sculpting of sonic expression. (In the book The Body of Sound the shapeshifting physicality of sound is examined)
Compositional planning for the Jupiter System
With the table of contents as a reference (image above), the structure for Jupiter will derive from its components and its relations to the four Galilean moons. Jupiter is the biggest planet in our solar system. It generates more heat than it receives from the sun. It has a strong gravitational field that binds 63 satellites. I am tempted to start its sound close to the sound of a star, with its oscillation, since Jupiter is a gas planet (with a massive core as big as Earth though!). However, due to the differential gas-cloud movements, I feel that the sound could be less oscillation and instead resemble waves, very slow waves. The ‘red spot’ is a signature of Jupiter. It is a rotating storm system that extends 26.000 kilometres from east to west. Its wind-speeds go up to 432 km/h and it is thought to have existed for more than 300 years already. It would be great to give it a signature sound as it seemingly moves independently from the gas-clouds.
Gravity is a strong force on Jupiter. Even though Jupiter is a giant, since it is a gas planet its gravitation is ‘only’ 2.4 times that of the surface of planet earth. This gravity not only attaches satellites to Jupiter but also causes a lot of collisions around the planet. How can this gravity be expressed sonically? Gravitational waves have recently been recorded by LIGO (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). The sound was, however, not that impressive, even if what it represents is mind-blowing. Jupiter’s gravity is constant. A durational sound, like one made by a percussionist on the architecture could be a good solution here. It should have the sonic quality of a ‘pull’. The sound we find for the gravitation could influence the sounds of the moons somehow.
Jupiter’s radiation is produced by the motion of molecules in its atmosphere, due to the rapid spin and its strong magnetic field. The radiation has an interaction with the volcanic explosions on the Galilean moon IO, allowing for auroras on Jupiter’s poles to become visible. Maybe this interaction can be sonic events shared between IO and Jupiter.
For a workshop I would then distribute the tasks to the participants and together we would start exploring in the space from this material.
The human aspect of music
- The earthly aspect of music
Music as a creation by humans is made for humans. Even when music is made for something that is beyond human, the human who makes the music and the human who listens receive sonic impressions, feelings and possibly meaning from it.
Humans have always been fascinated by the universe. Ideas of music were often connected to it.
“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” Popularly attributed to Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BC)
Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) searched for the harmony of our solar system. He believed that “the movements of the planets are modulated according to harmonic proportions”, although he was not claiming that we would hear them. (Aerts et al., 2010, p.2)
I find it important to make time for individual try-outs of the characteristic sonic expressions in collaboration with the space, especially for those sounds that are created by physical friction in the body of the singer. In my experience these sounds can engage a response from certain materials in the space in a vibrant and almost tactile way.
As one of the first musical developments of GD358, I would try to have voices drop out for a while, kind of the opposite of solos. This way, instead of revealing the individual expressions (those can be experienced as the singers pass by and when the audience moves around), we would expose different relations and combinations. Just like the movements of the gas waves in a star that have their own ‘flow’ and don’t rotate as one. The variations of extracting, removing and returning will be interesting sonic movements, and reveal the star’s compositions as fluid/gaseous.
The following video shows a try-out based on the heartbeat star KIC8164262 that I did on my own with Reaktorhallen in April 2021. As you can see and hear I am exploring possibilities for vocal spatial expression based on the binary star sound, and developing patterns that can derive from the original musical form.
Aerts, C., Christensen-Dalsgaard, J., Kurtz, D.W., 2010. Asteroseismology, Astronomy and astrophysics library. Springer, Dordrecht ; New York.
NASA, 2021. How do we see inside of a planet’s crust? https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/news-display.cfm?News_ID=631 (accessed: 19/07/2021)
Back to the portal
My plan was to create Musica Mundana as a spatial musical performance at R1 (Reaktorhallen) in Stockholm in spring 2020. Due to COVID-19 the process was stopped. This text is an attempt to explain the process thus far and to imagine its future. The thought and design process that I will describe in this text is based on experience that I have had with the space of Reaktorhallen during a two-day introductory workshop for Musica Mundana that I held in January 2020 with the vocal ensemble Roliga Sångförsöket and the percussionists August Wangendahl and Mattias Yilbar Norgren, as well as on information that I have gathered through conversations with the physicists mentioned above. When I held this workshop, I had already engaged with Reaktorhallen as one of my voice teachers during the project Spaces as Voice Teachers. This helped the singers and I to find vocal expressions that were specific to the project’s space-voice-relation in the short time we had together.
There is a need to express its size and therefore dominance in relation to the satellites through volume. If I decide to express the magnetic field of Jupiter, I should also find a sonic expression for that of Ganymede.
The icy surface on this moon is supposed to cover an ocean. This icy crust is old. I would suggest a high pitch for the ice and a rusty quality similar to the one of Callisto. The water underneath, the alien ocean, would be beautiful as a micro-polyphony but if I want to keep the option open to let the whole Jupiter system sound together, I cannot use too many participants per planet/moon. I am tempted, since water equals the possibility for life from a physicist’s perspective, to use breath and wet mouth sounds, not in an illustrative way but in a life-giving expression.
Europa also has an icy surface with an ocean underneath. These elements can therefore have a similar expression to Ganymede. The surface is very active on Europa though. The ‘rustyness’ should therefore have a different expression here. There is the opening and closing of the ice, a cracking, and even the creation of high ice cliffs on the surface of Europa. The larynx could be an interesting source for cracking sounds here in combination with voiced and unvoiced breath. I wonder if we can find a way to include the ‘ball of string’ structure (as the surface patterns are called) of Europa sonically. Since the process is very slow, it may not be possible, and if one speeds the process up it might become too busy.
Io is cold, but there is no ice. A high frequency, but a bit lower than Europa and Ganymede, could make sense. There is hot magma under the surface and there are volcanic explosions. Deep tones could be used for heat (because the sun has a deep oscillation tone). I don’t want to illustrate the explosions but find sonic expression for the phenomena. The eruption occurs when the magma can no longer carry the surface layer. It sinks into the magma lake and the volcano erupts (again, this is a slow process - so the question of how to deal with time here keeps on coming up). I don’t have an idea for the volcanic activity yet, and the ‘alien ocean’ here is not some kind of water but magma. The breathy sounds should therefore be different here. Inside the magma there are gas bubbles formed that rise and expand, and then move up towards the surface. A sound that resembles bubbles could therefore be used instead of the larynx sounds of the other moons. The hot and cold contrast on this moon is fascinating. It would be exciting to make this clear sonically.
Considering the pandemic, it is - at the time of writing - still uncertain when and if I will be able to complete this work as part of my PhD.
Material for Musica Mundana
- Finding and transforming
If we consider the source material for the music in this project, there are two kinds that I am working with at the moment. Both include a dialogue between an intellectual and intuitive approach.
The first one is the stars - which actually have music inside of them. As asteroseismologist Donald Kurtz described to me, “We know what the stars are made of due to their oscillation”. Different oscillation modes reach different depths in a star and this teaches astronomers about the star’s internal structure. The sound of the stars cannot be heard because there is no medium that the sound could travel through in outer space. The sound is ‘trapped’ in the stars. However, for asteroseismologists the oscillation is visible in the rhythmical change of brightness. When I listened to the sonifications of real stellar observations, a spectrum made of different rhythmical patterns and composed of different frequencies became audible. It is a polyphony that is rhythmical and has different pitches. I am using these sounds from nature, and I analyse them in order to work with them in the terrestrial spaces the performances are created in.
In the transformation to audible music from the ‘music’ of a star, we can go right into analysing its polyphony and find ways to interpret the sounds with different spatial vocal expressions and with architectural percussion. For a start we can already go right into analysing its polyphony (made up of parallel voices). I do this with the help of the audio program Melodyne. Then we search for ways to interpret the individual sounds inside the polyphony. The process from sound file to vocal-spatial expression begins.
As an example, I will analyse the star GD358. I started to work with it together with the vocal ensemble Roliga Sångförsöket and the percussionists August Wangendahl and Mattias Yilbar Norgren during our first workshop in January 2020 in R1. GD358 is a white dwarf star. This means that it is in the last phase of its life as a star. A neutron star is stable, the core is dense, its mass is compressed and the star spins at an enormous speed.
This note is from my notebook, written in 2019. It indicates the way that my methods are intended to mirror those of the scientific method in aesthetic, intuitive, bodily, sensory and spatial form: using trial and error, and with an openness to learning from ‘errors’ as well as ‘successes’, thereby considering that what seems ‘right’ in one moment can prove to be wrong at a later point as our understanding of the world that surrounds us and that we are a part of develops.
Mareike Dobewall presenting compositional planning for the Jupiter System during her 80% seminar at Hugoteatern in the Opera Department.
Image of Jupiter in the background by NASA
Improvisation circle with Roliga Sångförsöket and the two percussionists August Wangendahl and Mattias Yilbar Norgren in R1, in January 2020
Johann Sebastian Bach described music composition as “discovery”. I am excited to think about the possibility of discovering more about the universe through spatial music making. I also wonder how it is possible to keep the questions/reasons for doubt the physicists have during their research alive in the music? How can the spatial sound performance include that openness towards the possibility for being wrong and for the discovery of the new?
All bodies are different but similar qualities can derive from the larynx, lip tremble and active manipulation of the throat with the hands.
For a deeper insight into spatial vocal expression please refer to Spaces as Voice Teachers.
Musica Mundana is based on the workshop Musica Munda that I held in Mexico for music students of the University of Guadalajara in 2018. There, in the enormous space of LARVA (Laboratorio de Arte Variedades), I turned to the universe as inspiration for our engagement with the extraordinary dimensions of the space. Sounds from NASA and other material related to the universe were the basis for playful spatial musical improvisation exercises with the students. The workshop with the students revealed that the music of the universe was a great source of inspiration for spatial musical exploration. When I came back from Mexico, I decided to find another suitable space in Stockholm for further explorations of possibilities for spatial vocal expression inspired by the music of the universe, and to find a local vocal ensemble and local percussionists who would join me on this journey into musical (outer) space.
While I was looking for a suitable space and participants I also established contact with several scientists. For over a year I had an extensive dialogue with asteroseismologist Donald Kurtz, who was very helpful in teaching me more about the music of the stars. Since I was especially interested in relations between bodies in space, he recommended that I get in touch with Kelly Hambleton, an expert on heartbeat stars (stars that are interlocked). Donald also recommended Zoltan Kollath who sent me the sonifications of real stellar observations, based on data processing that you can listen to on this page. Here in Stockholm, I started to meet with astrophysicist Lorenz Roth. He shared with me his research into Jupiter and the Galilean moons, along with other parts of his scientific research.
Musica Mundana will be shared live at Reaktorhallen with a limited audience during the Making Public event on the 22nd of September 2021 and on the 24th of September 2021. The documentation of the performance will be accessible on DiVA.
Collaborating with scientists has taught me more about how things function in the universe and this understanding has expanded my imaginative possibilities for making these facts sensible for the body. Our human senses are limited. Through technical development we are, however, able to register information that is not visible, audible or in any other physical way accessible to us. This data is often turned into images to make it visible. I am striving for sonic ways to make this knowledge accessible through the senses in a real space. Here it can leave an impression on us because it can resonate within our bodies. This gives us the possibility to physically respond to elements of reality that are there, but that we cannot feel connected to because they are not affecting our bodies.
Working on Musica Mundana, I constantly shift between micro- and macro-perspectives. The way I see it, things are not just in relation as ‘closed’ entities. They all have a spectrum where they affect other entities and are affected by them as they overlap, collide or move in proximity. At the same time, I would say that they all have a character, like an essence. This is unique to them and stays unchanged. While entities move in (outer) space, they do this in relation. From their interaction different effects occur. There are constant strong forces, like the gravity that binds satellites to planets. For example, tides can occur in this type of interrelation. And there are temporary effects, like when the sunlight warms the surface of planets or moons during their rotation around it. In response, reactions to the interrelations can set other actions into motion, such as photosynthesis. Later in this text it will become evident that these relations (and how interaction affects all entities involved) play a role in the way that I create spatial sound compositions. In my construction of the music of the universe there are tones and noises. Rhythms and relations in the spatial sound construction derive from the understanding and knowledge of the universe that I have gained over the past years.
The satellites orbit the planet on their common centre of mass with the planet. The four moons orbit in the same direction as their planet’s spin. Jupiter has 4 Galilean Moons and around 59 more and counting. All these satellites are ‘captured’ by the planet’s gravity.
For the moons the first decision to be made is how they can be clearly differentiated in their sound from the planet Jupiter and from the stars. Sonically one can work with the cold surface that all moons have in common. Plus, they are much smaller than Jupiter (even though some of the Galilean moons are among the biggest in our solar system, which may be useful to keep in mind for future additions to the composition). I am thinking of high clear tones as a base for all of the Galilean Moons apart from the oldest one, Callisto, since it has no ice.