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Astroparticle physics for the ear: gamma rays sound like this

Press & Communications

Astroparticle physics for the ear: gamma rays sound like this

Carsten Nicolai alias Alva Noto, Foto: Andrey Bold

Carsten, what pushed you to make this scientific animation audible?
Since my childhood, I’ve been a big fan of radio telescopes and scientific research. I have a big collection of star charts and books about stars. I find it really interesting! Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we had astronomy as a subject at school. It was great! It’s not that I’d actually wanted to be an astronaut or cosmonaut now – but the interest is still there today.

Did you have free rein with regard to sound?
Yes. I only wanted to know: what exactly happens in the video, and what is there to see? Then I read up on the topic to understand it. It’s a pretty absurd situation: out there, there’s no sound at all. Now you’ve got to invent it somewhere in there. So I just pretended there was sound.

How do you perceive such a scientific animation? Do you associate gamma radiation with something acoustic right away?
Yeah, that’s easy for me. That’s also because I’ve dealt with it a lot in my work. For example, when I see gamma radiation, it automatically has a sound in my mind. I have a very clear idea of what something sounds like. But I can’t express it verbally.

Do you also just try to imagine what a binary star could sound like?
So a binary star or a black hole – there are an enormous number of parallels to electronic music. I can hear it clearly: this is a frequency that moves from A to B. Or enormous gravitational forces: they have an immediate acoustic equivalent in my mind. And then I have to keep looking around until I’ve found or generated the corresponding sound.

Where and how do you search?
For example, I have an archive of sound phenomena and a whole lot of synthesizers where I know roughly what they can do. With certain synthesizers, I can generate particles. And if I can’t find them, I try hundreds of things till I get it.

And how long does this process take, from the first sight of the animation to the finished sound?
About a week. In the first step, I search chronologically through the video timeline for the sounds respective to each event. I do this consistently until the end.

There is a somewhat sensitive sound in the video that hurts. What was going on there?
That high-pitched sound represents the gigantic magnetic fields that are at work. That energy raging there – it's impossible for us to imagine! It seemed appropriate to me to represent the enormous mass of energy with such a high tone. That’s not just a single high-pitched tone. It’s eight high frequencies, if you’re being precise.

When you make these kinds of scientific phenomena audible, do you ever make critical comments to yourself, like: "No, no, a black hole like that has to sound duller?"
Yes, because ultimately, it's a very individual perception. An artistic interpretation, since there are no real equivalents. But when I delivered the first version set to music in this case, we were all quite satisfied. That could have ended up differently.

From the artist's point of view: what does it do to the viewer when an interstellar animation like this one is set to music?
For us, it automatically means that these kinds of images also have a sound. When I saw the video without sound, it felt pretty empty. I had to create space in which I could work. I also understand outer space as a kind of acoustic space. These hardly imaginable dimensions – you first have to try to understand them. In these moments I build up a sound space where I have the feeling "Yes, space sounds like that." But there are also many references, a whole series of films in which this strange connection between sound and space exists. Gravity or 2001. A big inspiration in this case was maybe Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. Of course, these films also shape you.

Is science for you also art?
For me, scientific research and creative art have tremendous parallels: you can only find something that you can imagine – or if you know that you can find it. Creative people also first have to develop an idea of where they want to go with their work. So scientific work is creative work – but by the same token I don't mean that artists are scientists. There is such a peculiar phenomenon in science that facts also allow for interpretation – that then becomes a creative process.

Would you make the sound for a DESY animation again?
Yes, anytime! I especially like the fact that it’s not a film soundtrack, but rather has a real relationship to reality. I find science and scientific research extremely important. If artists can help to transport and also communicate what scientists are working on, some of which is highly specialized and difficult for laymen to understand, then I’m happy to help. I enjoy it immensely – and in a certain way, it is also very easy for me.


Interview: Christina Mänz

Click here for the video

More information here about the cosmic particle accelerator Eta Carinae

More about the artist can be found here:

About the artist:

Carsten Nicolai is deeply involved with the intersection between music, art, and science. He makes scientific phenomena like sound and light frequencies audible and visible. Nicolai, who was born in 1965 in Karl-Marx-Stadt (today Chemnitz), is an artist in demand around the world: his works, which can be described as aesthetically minimalistic, have been exhibited at Documenta in Kassel and the Biennale in Venice. As a musician, he uses the pseudonym Alva Noto and has performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Tate Modern in London. Toegther with Ryuichi Sakamoto, he composed the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning film The Revenant and for his work earned nominations for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. Nicolai holds a Chair for Arts with a focus on digital and contemporary media at the Dresden University of Fine Arts. He lives and works in Berlin and Chemnitz.