By john.rose on May 24, 2012
Lately I’ve been enjoying audio transcriptions of electromagnetic field measurements taken by NASA’s Voyager probe, which I got from iTunes. (My son David, who has a degree in psychoacoustics, turned me on to this.) As has often been noted, the sounds of space are unearthly yet somehow natural, often pleasant and sometimes eerie. There is some sort of deep structure which our earth-trained senses can still respond to. I suppose it has something to do with auto-correlations and self-similar structures at multiple scales in both frequency and time domains. Composers have sometimes chosen to create sounds like this to suggest “spacey” or other-worldly environments. For example, the NASA recordings sometimes remind me, vaguely, of the creepy electronic beeps and bumps heard in Forbidden Planet. The actual sounds from space are less dramatic, as one might expect. But even when they are a little creepy, the NASA sounds provide a very pleasant and unobtrusive background for me as a I hack away on my code.
So why am I not working, but writing a blog entry instead? Well, starting at minute 12 of the track “Sphere of Io”, there are sounds which resemble a women’s choir singing (wordlessly) in rising tone clusters. You can also find this on YouTube, where the tone clusters start at about 7:30.
Recently I have also been listening to Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite. Planets, of course, is great listening for nerds, both for its own sake and because of the links to astronomy and also (via John Williams) to movie music. I love the first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War”, for its rowdy energy, and have learned to appreciate the other movements also. But I find the final movement, “Neptune the Mystic”, to be frustratingly anticlimactic. It doesn’t stride triumphantly to an dramatic conclusion, but rather slowly fades out into a women’s choir, which sings (wordlessly) in rising tone clusters.
That’s what suddenly ripped my attention away from work: I heard Io doing a cover of Holst’s final fade-out. You can hear Holst’s choral fade-out at the end of “Neptune”, from about 5:42 onward in the Boston Pops recording. You can also hear it on YouTube, where the fade-out starts at about 6:02.
The most remarkable thing about this, I suppose, is that in reality Holst is not imitating Io (since he wrote it a century ago), and nor is Io’s behavior patterned after Holst. Either the two of them are following a common pattern, or I am indulging in a common human behavior of seeing patterns in noise. I think both of the latter alternatives are true; we humans usually require some basic phenomenal structure to prompt us before we begin to see patterns. In this case, I think the basic structure has to do with slightly dispersed audio-range tones, modulated to wander on the 1-second scale, as I hinted above. (I wonder: If air-breathing extraterrestrials exist, would we enjoy their songs? It seems likely to me at the moment.) The most enjoyable thing for me about this is to contemplate the unity of physical laws as we experience them personally, and as they operate in unearthly places like Io. The proof of this unity made Isaac Newton a rock star and launched modern science, but it has been pondered since humans were human, and is still puzzling today. The ancients called it the music of the spheres, and so do I.