The sound of aurora borealis
WHAT SOUND does the solar system make? Usually only children, scientists and philosophers ask that sort of question. A whole branch of Renaissance thought speculated about the unheard “music of the spheres” that the planets in their orbits supposedly played; the notion obsessed the great astronomer Johannes Kepler. Now listeners have the chance to hear at least one song from the music of the spheres with mortal ears—helped a little by extreme low-frequency recordings and computer-aided electronic music.
To capture this celestial soundtrack, “Songs of the Sky”, an episode from BBC Radio 3’s “Between the Ears” strand, takes a winter journey through central Alaska. Within a crisply atmospheric soundscape of crunching snow, splitting ice and howling wolves, the programme, produced by Kate Bissell, shows how a wildlife ranger and a hi-tech composer collaborated to create otherworldly music out of the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. The lights make the Arctic and subarctic skies glow with spectacular colours when charged particles carried from the sun on solar winds interact with gaseous particles in the upper atmosphere at latitudes with a weaker electromagnetic field.
Karin Lehmkuhl Bodony, a Native Alaskan, is a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service who studies the wilderness around the town of Galena. Matthew Burtner, another Alaskan, is a composer, sound artist and “eco-acoustician”. He uses computer technology to transform natural processes into the serendipitous sounds that enrich his compositions. The spooky alchemy of transforming light into sound begins with the (very) low-frequency radio recorder Ms Lehmkuhl carries into the forests as she observes the Northern Lights. Radio, as they say, has all the best pictures: it is easy to imagine the Alaskan skies her words evoke as she sees first “diamonds set in velvet” then, as the aurora shows its glittering hand, an initial “single turquoise band” that spools into dancing ribbons of gold and red. In woodlands where bears, wolves, lynx and wolverine still prowl (listeners hear some of them), her equipment registers the sonic imprint of the solar shower as it collides with agitated particles of oxygen and nitrogen to generate the lights.
So what does the solar system sound like? It whistles and it whoops. It crackles and it chirps. It gurgles, chatters, squeaks and flows in liquid waves of sound. Ms Lehmkuhl likens it to “listening to whales underwater”. Mr Burtner—accompanied in the programme by his daughter, who asks philosophical questions about the wonders that they witness—feeds this auditory fingerprint into the eerily meditative music listeners later hear.
For him, such projects are a reminder of the “system of order in the solar system”, now disrupted on Earth by human actions that have led to planet-threatening climate change. Circumpolar peoples, Native Alaskans among them, have already seen their customs and livelihoods imperilled by the scrambled seasons and retreating ice. In her indigenous Alaskan community, Eliza Jones makes clear, “you’re not supposed to bother nature” but rather live within its laws. Mr Burtner’s electronic music of the spheres echoes the ancient harmonies of this world and alerts listeners to its new fragility.
Like much of today’s green-minded culture, his work yokes very modern techniques to a traditional reverence for nature and its miracles. You might call this the art of the techno-sublime, and creators from northerly latitudes seem to specialise in it. Katie Paterson, a Scottish artist, unites wit and wonder in projects of unearthly ambition. She has fixed a mobile phone and amplifier within a melting Icelandic glacier to broadcast the sound of climate change, and sent Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” to the Moon in the form of Morse code, then played the distorted signal that returns on an automated piano. Cosmic forces and advanced recording technology meet too in the music of Icelandic singer and composer Björk—notably on her album “Biophilia”. Einojuhani Rautavaara, a Finnish composer, pioneered the fusion of electronica and environmentalism. His haunting “Cantus Arcticus” from 1972 blends Arctic birdsong tapes with a lush symphonic score.
Mr Burtner’s light-to-sound experiments belong in this genre of techno-sublimity. They aim, he says, to nurture “a sense of awe and mystery”. Brought into the range of human ears, his audible versions of the greatest lightshow above Earth invites listeners to hear something “outside of human expectation” and human time. “I saw Eternity the other night,” wrote Henry Vaughan, a 17th-century mystical poet, “like a great ring of pure and endless light.” These heavenly harmonies from Alaska let people listen to it, too.
“Between The Ears: Songs of the Sky” is available via BBC Sounds
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/12/29/the-sound-of-aurora-borealis
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