Musical ritual has long been tied to the magic of the skies. So it’s fitting today’s total solar eclipse will be set to sound.
A huge swath of North America will today see our sun obscured by the moon, in a rare total eclipse. And of course, that means it’ll be met by one of the world’s big space agencies and a global Internet viewing audience – as this is the first major eclipse like this to happen in the age of global social media.
NASA has everything you need to catch up with the event, including maps (with weather and traffic), safety information, and a live stream. (I’ll be watching on the Internet from Berlin; don’t know about you):
Safe viewing resources [a DIY pinhole camera seems a smarter bet than dodgy, possibly faulty purchased cardboard glasses]
But while the eclipse itself is seen, not heard, that isn’t stopping people from mounting musical responses. Perhaps the most interesting is a sonification project with Kronos String Quartet and Exploratorium, who will transform the eclipse event into live music. (“Maybe ‘musify’ is as good a word as ‘sonify.’)
While light is a wave as well as a particle, it isn’t an audible wave. But just as you can create a viewable picture from visual information, you can also make an equally valid ‘picture’ with sound and music. The team begins with a digital image from a telescope in Caspar, Wyoming. In the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a Max/Jitter patch will analyze the image and produce sound. The string quartet will play along.
That is, this is sound and music made from the same image we’ll be watching from Wyoming with NASA. Here’s an explanation of the process:
The sonification process and composition comes from Exploratorium resident composer Wayne Grim. Some background, via National Public Radio:
Grim has pre-baked part of the music, organizing samples from the quartet into a colorful score with 23 cells that looks more like a collage than your standard staff notation. There aren’t any specific instructions; it’s a kind of road map to follow as the eclipse proceeds.
This is Grim’s initial collaboration with Kronos, but it isn’t his first time with “sonification.” He created musical evocations of the 2012 transit of Venus and last year’s total solar eclipse in Micronesia.
It sounds like it’ll be really cool. We’ll watch here – and listen:
There’s more. The folks at NASA have compiled a pretty funny musical playlist, ranging from obvious choices like Pink Floyd and Bonnie Tyler, to more obscure choices (like a 19th century polka, part of the compilation pictured here):
Alternatively, our friend Philip Sherburne has composed a playlist timed to the eclipse’s path of totality for Pitchfork, naturally featuring everyone from Eno to Sun Ra to biosphere. Perfect — and maybe worth replaying even after the eclipse. (Not to gush too much, but Philip’s writing and playlist picks are among the best music journalism around. You’ll also be able to catch him DJing at festivals like Unsound.)
Finally, another view of the picture I’ve included here. This is just a partial eclipse, but our friends at the European Space Agency captured some exceptional imagery with their Sun-watching Proba-2 satellite, in glorious, Earth orbit ultraviolet.
Here’s a view of the 2002 total eclipse, from the ESA/NASA orbital observatory SOHO:
Speaking of ESA, they’re a great resource for solar observation. At the CDM-hosted MusicMakers Hacklab, in collaboration with CTM Festival, we had one team working with the free and open SOHO spacecraft imagery for audiovisual performance (both as visualization and sonification).
ESA – the Sun, 21 August 2017 – covers various spacecraft observing the sun, as well, with links
Also, I call “Path of Totality” as a music project name. Dibs. (Okay, actually, have a feeling that phrase is going to come up a lot on SoundCloud in a few weeks.)