DESY News: “When I see gamma rays, they automatically have a sound for me”


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“When I see gamma rays, they automatically have a sound for me”

The multimedia artist Carsten Nicolai, who uses the pseudonym Alva Noto for his music, has exclusively composed the soundtrack for the latest animation on DESY astroparticle physics

Acoustic signals for space: It clanks and sounds, crackles and scratches, booms and rustles and hisses. Powerful, mystical, disturbingly beautiful! The internationally acclaimed artist and musician Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto makes the universe audible. For the DESY animation “Eta Carinae in the Light of Cosmic Gamma Radiation”, created by the award-winning Science Communication Lab, he transformed enormous energies into reduced aesthetic sounds. Here, the sound genius talks about acoustic associations and the parallels between art and research.

What appealed to you about making a scientific animation audible?

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been a big fan of radio telescopes and scientific research. I have a large collection of star charts and books about astronomy. I’m very interested in these things! Maybe it has to do with the fact my school offered a course in astronomy. That was great! Although I wasn’t intent on becoming an astronaut or a cosmonaut – my interest has stayed with me to this day.

Were you given a free rein with composing the sound?

Yes. The only thing I wanted to know was what exactly was going on in the video.  What were we seeing? Then I did some background reading, to have a better understanding. The situation is rather absurd, really: there it actually no sound at all out there. You have to make it up for yourself. So I just pretended that there was sound out there (laughs).

How do you look at a scientific animation like this? When you see gamma radiation, do you immediately have a certain acoustic association?

Yes, I find it easy. Partly because I’ve been exploring it a lot in my work. When I see gamma rays, for example, they automatically have a certain sound for me. I have a very clear idea what things sound like. But I can’t express that in words.

Do you also sometimes just play around to see what a binary star might sound like?

Well, a binary star or a black hole – there are lots of similarities with electronic music there. I hear very clearly that this is a frequency moving from A to B. Or huge gravitational forces: I immediately associate them with an acoustic equivalent. And then I keep searching until I have found or created the corresponding sound.

Where do you look for these, and how?

I have an archive of acoustic phenomena, for example, and a whole lot of synthesizers and I know more or less what they are able to do. I can use certain synthesizers to generate particles. And if I am unable to find them, I just keep trying out hundreds of things until I get it right.

How long does this process take? From seeing the animation for the first time up to the finished soundtrack?

About a week. The first step is to search chronologically along the timeline of the video, simply looking for the sounds for the individual events. I do this steadily until I reach the end.

There’s a slightly jarring sound in the video, which hurts. What was that about?

That high tone represents the huge magnetic fields that are acting there. The energy that is raging there – it’s beyond our imagination! I felt it was appropriate to represent this enormous mass of energy in the form of this high tone. It is not in fact a single high-pitched note; strictly speaking it is made up of eight high frequencies.

When you are making scientific phenomena like these audible, do you also get to hear critical comments such as, ‘No, no, a black hole ought to sound duller than that’?

Yes, because ultimately it’s a very individual perception, an artistic interpretation, because there is no real equivalent. However, when I delivered the first version of this soundtrack, we were all quite satisfied. That didn’t necessarily have to be the case.

From an artist’s point of view, what does it do to the viewer when an interstellar animation like this is set to music as well?

For us, pictures like these automatically have a sound too. When I watched the video without any sound, it felt rather empty. So I had to create a space in which I could work. In this case, I view outer space as a kind of acoustic space as well. These dimensions are almost impossible to imagine. You first have to try to understand them. These are the moments when I create a sound space that gives me the feeling: Yes, that’s what space sounds like. But there are also many references, a whole range of films in which this strange connection between sound and space exists. “Gravity” or “2001”. This time, perhaps, “Solaris” by Andrei Tarkowski was a major source of inspiration. These films also shape us, of course.

Is science art?

To my mind, there are many parallels between scientific research and creative art. You can only discover things if you are able to imagine them – or if you know that you can find them. Creative people also first need an idea of where they want to go with their work. So scientific work is creative work – but I’m not saying, conversely, that artists are also scientists. There is a strange phenomenon in science whereby facts also allow some scope for interpretation – and that is where it becomes a creative process.

Would you consider composing the soundtrack for a DESY animation again in the future?

Yes, any time! I especially like the fact that it’s not a movie soundtrack, but has an actual connection with reality. I believe that science and scientific research are extremely important. If artists can help to convey and communicate what scientists are working on, which is highly specialized and often difficult for laymen to understand, I’m happy to help. I enjoy it immensely – and in a way it also comes very easily to me.

Interview: Christina Mänz

About Carsten Nicolai:

Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto. Photo: Andrey Bold
Carsten Nicolai is intensively engaged in the transitional area between music, art and science. He makes scientific phenomena like sound and light frequencies audible and visible. Nicolai, who was born in Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1965, is an artist in demand worldwide: his works, which are described as minimalist aesthetic, have already been exhibited at the Documenta in Kassel and the Venice Biennale.

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, among others. Together with Ryuichi Sakamoto, he composed the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning film “The Revenant” and received a Golden Globe and Bafta nomination for it. Nicolai holds a professorship for art with a focus on digital and time-based media at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Dresden. He lives and works in Berlin and Chemnitz.

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