Solar Sound Ensemble – Looking Back at the Observatory


Solar Sound Ensemble
Looking Back at the Observatory

Julia: Check – we’re just turning on the recorder now. It’s Saturday the 14th, 2012. Check 1-2-3, check 1-2-3. The date is April 14th, 2012. The city – Cologne, Germany. The temperature 0 Degrees Centigrade. The time is 0.30 Am. The people in attendance are: Julia Scher, Tobias Grewenig, Andreas Hirsch, Hannes Hoelzl, Magdaléna Kobzová. We are all certified here so you could do a voice match test.

Magde: What is the story of the origin of the Solar Sound Ensemble? How did it all start?

Andreas: I’d got carte blanche from the CBK Drenthe to realize an art project at the location of the Dwingeloo Radio Telescope. I first started to talk about it with Hannes. We were thinking about using the data of the ASTRON and CAMRAS and transforming them into sound. On ASTRON’s side there was Peter Bennema who made it possible, he was the first contact. I had a few people in mind who might be interesting for the project and all our first choices said yes.

Hannes: As for the choice of instrumentation, we had the very warm, earthy sound of the palm tree leaf played by Andreas, then my computer sound, which is, in a way, its antagonist, because it can sound very spacey. Than the reason for the choice of the wind instrument was to find a sort of middle between the two, to mediate on the vertical axis. We also thought it would be very good to have some voice.

Andreas: When I got to know Julia at the academy, I was very impressed by her speaking voice. It is also incredible how she comes up with things that trigger associations… Of course, there is also the fact that she’s been working with the themes of surveillance for such a long time, which is, in a way, closely related to observing.

Hannes: For me, Julia’s role was that of a guide or a navigator. Someone who accompanies you on a flight.

Magde: This performance was very site and time-specific, not only in terms of staging and timing. To me it seems that the telescope was not used just as a background but you have managed to make it an essential part of the performance, it became an actor in its own right.

Andreas: For the development of the staging of the performance, the possibilities were a bit crazy, at least for me and the dimensions that I’m used to thinking about. It was great to be able to use the telescope in the dramaturgy, decide how and when we want it to turn and to make it part of the performance.

Julia: I think that forcing the musicians into an orchestral position made a demarcation on the telescope, like in a theatre. And the sound amplification was great, from what the audience said.

Hannes: Yes, that was very surprising. We played in an open field with no background noise whatsoever. This silence is something we are not used to. When there is open air concerts, it usually happens in a stadium, and you get a peculiar arena sound made of reverbs and echos. Here the sound was just pure: one wave and when it’s past you, it’s gone into the forest forever. That’s why it sounded so crisp and clear.

Julia: It was experimental in terms of scale. How to scale the music. I didn’t realize that until it actually started.

Hannes: It was a strange thing, because we were out in the big open field, with the huge telescope on top of us but then the place for the audience was really confined. Suddenly we were back to a sort of cosy Dutch backyard feeling. Of course, nobody could know how many people would show up and it was surprising where they all came from in the end. They came from the forest with the little camping seats under their arms.

Magde: How did you structure the performance? Did you have a timeline to stick to and guide you in the improvisation?

Andreas: We developed a structure and a timeframe for the performance which was very comforting. It was highly influenced by Matthias. It had four defined parts and on the stage we had a clock to keep time.

Hannes: We asked the astronomers for the data they had recorded with the telescope. We took it as a score for the whole performance and also used it for sonification. It was recorded in time and we used it as a timeline. From this we developed the four parts.

Andreas: The first part starts on planet Earth: all the instruments are presented. It is still daylight, there is no projection yet.

Hannes: Following that is something like a take-off, a very short part, but more intense.

Andreas: In a way getting away from the Earth, which is also the point when the projection starts, in the moment when all the instruments and the voice go out. Then follows the star data sonification by Hannes and the projection, getting more cold.

Hannes: That is very distinct in the general picture, because there is no live music, and suddenly a strong focus on the visual part.

Andreas: This third part then somehow evolves into the last part, the finale, where everybody comes in again. These four parts were rather well defined, but within them there was a lot of improvisation and free playing.

Magde: Did you rehearse a lot before the performance?

Julia: These endless rehearsals, from morning till night, and there were men with machines all over this giant room covered with wires, foot pedals, buzzers, and then strange equipment and instruments on the walls. An endless supply of computer strip-cords, hard-drives, usb connectors, which I was constantly plugging and re-plugging into their practice machines, rows of experimental flashing lights. Endless heat and the dripping wet, sweaty t-shirts of all these men and machines tuned to the organ of outer space receptivity. And then the rehearsal would begin. Hours and hours of re-writing words gone wrong.

Andreas: This is one of these moments when I know exactly why I asked you to join us – you are an automatic poetry machine!

Magde: Hannes, how did you process and sonify the star data from the telescope?

Hannes: We got one data set, which in a way was a photograph of outer space taken by the telescope during a full day. Since it’s a recording in time and has spectral frequencies, which also exist in the sound, I processed this huge pile of data and transferred them to the sound on the same timeline, but of course compressed to few minutes, instead of the 24 hours.

Andreas: Is it the actual sound or do you take other sound sources and you manipulate it according to this data set?

Hannes: I used a pre-composed sound as a basis and then used the spectrum from the data file to modulate it. So the sound gets more intense in the moments when the astronomical recording shows more intensity. It is a translation process, in which I tried to make the relation as obvious as possible but also paid attention to the final result in that it works in a musical way, too.

It is interesting, because since it’s all signals, the same analysis is usually applied in sound. You are just within a different medium and a different frequency domain.

Magde: So the star data sonification was a pre-composed part of the performance.

Hannes: Yes, it was the third part. A ten minutes solo where the stars speak by themselves, and I, as a performer, go into the background; I’m not really present. During the rest of the performance I was playing a collection of my computer instruments in a rather free way, improvising and trying to listen to the other instruments.

Magde: Tobias, how did you go on to create the visuals for this performance, the abstract lively organisms-universes?

Tobias: I was hired because of a totally different piece, which was a sort of trashy funny thing, very different from the performance at the telescope. There’s actually no screen on the telescope but a fine net of wires, which reflects the light. But we didn’t know until we tried it. Because the telescope is so huge and beautiful, I didn’t want to attach a screen to it but work with the very nice structure of the dish. From there comes also the idea to start at daylight, so people can see this construction, and then it becomes slowly dark and we morph into a different kind of setting. I created a very simple wire-frame-like universe which is somehow alive because of the physics behind it. It looks like little animals, germs, when you watch them moving, an evolving system.

Hannes: So these constraints were also the reason why you chose very strong contrasts, basically black and white, and no transitions, just straight edges.

Tobias: Yes, that works best because gradients wouldn’t work on the dish. And I also loved the idea of not having a square screen, but a circular projection space, working with vectors. In 3D the boundaries of the dish form a sphere. So I built little scenes and I doubled everything, so I had a sort of DJ mixer, where I could mix one world into the other and each has got its own physical laws. I thought I could allow myself to be more abstract, cold and nerdy, because there were so many warm instruments. I wanted rather to relate to the data and to the mapping.

Hannes: This was projected basically at nothing – this open 3-dimensional body creates crazy side-views, which cannot be calculated, it shows very much the structure of the physical dish, together with the virtual projected structure.

Tobias: That is why I didn’t want the telescope facing frontal, but rather tilted a bit to the side, so you can get all this geometry.

Magde: During the live parts of the performance, there’s the underlying melodic rhythm of a strange origin…

Andreas: The instrument I made, the electrified palm tree leaf has its own characteristics. It is a branch of a palm tree with some rubber bands, which can be adjusted. It has a rather warm sound, with references to African instruments, like the kalimba. I use some effects along with it – delay, mini-fan, which turns and allows me to play very fast arpeggios, and a loop-station to record loops, so I have something steady going on. In the ensemble I try to provide basses, the basic rhythm, but sometimes also go more abstract towards what Hannes was doing with his electronics. Matthias actually moves very eloquently between these two sides.

Andreas: What about the lyrics? There’s a lot of interesting ideas: no waste in outer space, or thinking about where the extra-terrestrials would gather, like the animals around the water supply.

Julia: You brought us to this injection point in the space and it’s great for words. The place we were at with this piece takes you there and some of the words come directly from this quandary: how do we talk about, what words do we use to elaborate on this world of sound, music, culture, entering these other zones. Is music a hospitality engine also? What kind of communities would want to join in? What person would be at a portal between you and the planet X? We really don’t know, so it’s all for making up! But mixing up with science; the resonant frequencies and a couple of other sprinklings of real science punctuate the music, the sound.

Some of my texts were generated specifically for the Solar Sound Ensemble but there is also some juicy selections from earlier works. It was a sort of collage from all the way from 2000. I would just find them back and forth like composing. For me, there were a lot of issues about compatibility of culture and science. The scientific community has certain prejudices about the cultural community and vice versa and that three or four different communities came together to this event was, I thought, very interesting and successful and really good. So there can be great success shared across the communal lines and that is a thing that more and more artists are looking for and hoping for in their practices.

Magde: What bright futures lie ahead for the Solar Sound Ensemble?

Andreas: Mars.

Tobias: Martial Sound Ensemble.

Julia: I’m excited because we already have so many landers there, taking pictures and measurements, and we are in vast communication with Mars through the machines.

Tobias: I don’t know, maybe not Mars, but stratosphere for the next concert?

Hannes: I think what we would do next is a much tighter collaboration with the astronomers. Get more data, moon-bouncing, bringing their work out more directly. Less free-jazz. Also next time we should broadcast what we play, so it goes really out into space.

Andreas: It would be interesting to get into the moon-bouncing and take it further. In general, site-specific work like this is always a challenge and it’s inspiring to deal with very different situations and see where they can take us.

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