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Music of the Spheres

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Dec. 22, 2011 — The folks at NASA must be a pretty hip bunch, judging from the ideas they’ve come up with to engage people about the many mysteries of the cosmos. The most recent example: “Hubble’s Hubble,” a video in which images captured by the Hubble Telescope are set to music by an artist — Ben Greenberg, multifarious guitarist with the group Pygmy Shrews and the avant-classical quartet Zs — who started recording under the moniker “Hubble” well before anyone asked him to write music for the homonymous space observatory.

Got that?

Greenberg didn’t set out to make “space music,” he told NPR’s Lars Gotrich. Rather, he decided on the name Hubble while in the throes of a temporary obsession with the Hubble IMAX movie. Only later did Max Mutchler of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSci) hear his music and touch base with him about working together.

Still, he said, “I do think there are some pretty orbital qualities to what I'm doing. When I'm playing I tend to think in terms of cycles; small cycles of individual riffs and larger cycles of variation of those riffs. Then there's the more symmetrical and regular path by which my guitar moves around the listener or audience member” through manipulation of the stereo separation.

Check out the video below, with Hubble’s minimalist guitars accompanying footage culled from the memory banks of everyone’s favorite space-based near-infrared camera and imaging spectrograph (among other instruments) platform. It’s kinda like the opening credits to Star Trek, without the William Shatner voiceover.

This isn’t the first time NASA has turned to musicians and other artists to help promote the space program. In 2002, the agency worked with composer Terry Riley and Kronos Quartet to produce a 10-movement musical piece called “Sun Rings,” which incorporated recordings of plasma waves made by NASA’s Voyagers, Galileo and Cassini spacecraft, among others, converted into sound (samples of the source recordings can be found here; see video of the performance here. More recently, it sponsored a “Space Craft” contest with online arts and crafts marketplace Etsy.

The Kronos Quartet and Hubble collaborations aren’t likely to reach untold millions who haven’t already been exposed to the marvels and mysteries of space exploration, but they bestow a sort of cultural cachet — an approving look from the downtown music set — on the slightly creaky space agency (the Etsy project, in contrast, was designed specifically to raise awareness of NASA’s past, present and future space programs). It’s a clever move, if you ask me.

Now I’m curious: What other optics-based programs can boast such hipster cred? Leave a comment here or find me on Twitter (@gboas_photonics) to let me know.
Dec 2011
Ben GreenbergDifferent WavelengthsEtsyGary BoasGary Boas BlogHubbleHubble telescopeKronos QuartetMax MutchlerNASAPygmy ShrewsSpace CraftSpace Telescope Science InstituteSTScISun RingsTerry RileyZs

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