Jeremy Harrison: The Sound of Stars

How the music for Space to Be was made using the sound of real stars, by composer and musical director Jeremy Harrison

The notion of space was an ever-changing concept throughout the development of Space To Be. The piece was about sharing space, enabling families to come together, to just be, inspired by the work of Dr. Jill Goodwin, whose research underpinned the project. And yet we were making the show during lockdown, alone in our own spaces, scattered across the country. On a practical level we were negotiating space. Exploring different ways of sharing ideas: sending things to each other through the post; exchanging messages and sharing files in digital spaces. Ultimately, we were each spending long periods of time alone. Ferreting away. Making and re-making.  Cocooned in the internal space of the imagination. Early conversations about the natural world led to a flurry of work inspired by nature. This move to the outdoor space was extended for many of us by regular walks, to break up the day and allow for reflection. My morning runs became a space to think and try out ideas, and as always, the dream-space of sleep also brought interesting new ideas or reshaped existing ones.

Grid of three photos. On the left is a young boy leaning on a bright green mat playing the kalimba. In the middle is a girl sitting on a green carpet playing the kalimba. On the right, two sisters play the kalimba together.
Families playing ‘Lyra’, the kalimba we were using as the central sound for the show

It was Ellie Griffiths, Oily Cart’s visionary Artistic Director, who first introduced the idea of outer space to the project. She had been listening to the soundtracks of space films, searching for a sonic starting point of her own. In one Zoom meeting, Pythagoras’s notion of the Music of the Spheres was mentioned. This link between the physical movement of the universe and sound, had always interested me and so I quickly leapt into a Google rabbit-hole, searching for inspiration. As I crawled through the web I found references to sonification, eventually landing on NASA’s website, which charted the extraordinary work of their Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Sonfication is the process of converting aspects of astrological data, such as brightness, or frequency of electromagnetic radiation into sound. NASA has been leading this field, working with musicians and composers to create music from this data, as well as collecting pure sounds generated from the digital signals picked up by the Chandra X-Ray deep-space telescopes. At the time I was also listening to a BBC radio programme, ‘The Uncommon Senses’, about the work of Professor Barry Smith. Smith is interested in the interconnectedness of the senses, which really resonated with my practice, and the way sensory theatre experiences connect with audiences. The idea that we might experience sound through feeling vibrations, was part of the way Oily Cart has approached accessibility for audiences when it comes to music. This interplay between the senses felt familiar and so I continued to click my way through NASA until I found a page detailing the work of Wanda Diaz Merced.

Wanda Diaz Merced is a blind astronomer who developed the existing technique of sonification, as a means of presenting data, while she was an intern at NASA in the early 2000s. She developed software that could map astronomical data into sounds, using pitch, rhythm and volume to make it more accessible, an idea which she made the focus of her 2013 PhD at the University of Glasgow. Her research revealed that this approach led to a more nuanced knowledge of star systems, knowledge that could be missed when dealing only with visual data represented in graphs. As with the sensory theatre world, Wanda Diaz Merced was championing an approach which exploited the rich experience we get from multi-sensory engagement. As she puts it in an interview for Nature, published online on 24th December 2019:

Right now, we are missing discoveries because we are only focused on some visual ways of interacting with the data… we should be focusing on… all the different ways of approaching research. It would mean that visually impaired people, as well as others who are marginalized, could participate equally

The work of the astronomers was reinforcing and overlapping with the multi-sensory approaches we were adopting in our process. As Brian Smith’s research reminded us, the interconnectedness of the senses is an integral way in which we all interpret and understand the world around us. As NASA astronomer and musician Matt Russo puts it ‘instead of telling someone about how a star works you can really make them feel it if you convert it into music’.

Box 5 audio

Over the course of the next few days I began collecting various audio samples from the NASA web resource, along with material published by Paul Francis, an astrophysicist from Australia National University. Francis’s work included sonification data from star systems with magical names such as the Crab Nebula and Arcturus, Spica and Rigel. The sounds of the individual stars and star systems were distinctive and characterful. A world of whooshes, deep humming and rhythmic crackles, that took the music of Space To Be into new and unearthly territory. I began to use star sounds to create crackling background atmospheres to hold the dialogue that the wonderful Jacqui Adeniji- Williams recorded, as the shows ever present narrator. Sound Designer Joe Wright and I then explored ways of building miniature galaxies in a tin, to accompany designer Sophia Clist’s beautiful kaleidoscopes that were the centre-piece of Box 3. When it came to the finale of Box 5, I used a short sample from Matt Russo’s sonification realization of the Milky Way, the galaxy that contains our Solar System. It provided a haunting and gentle chord progression which I converted into digital signals that were used to trigger sounds that came from the kalimba we were using as our central sound for the show. I love the thought of our families lying together in their own constellation, listening to music that comes from the very stars that float above them in the night sky. It is an image that lies at the heart of a quote by German poet and novelist Rainer Marie Rilke, that Ellie brought into the rehearsal process very near the beginning and that I will use now as my ending:

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side-by-side can grow, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against an immense sky.

You can learn more about NASA’s sonification work here: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/news/data-turned-into-sounds-of-stars-galaxies-black-holes.html

If you want to learn more about Wanda Diaz Merced you can watch her TED talk here: