Flow Motion (Anna Piva & Edward George) – Astro Black Morphologies: Music And Science Lovers – 2004


First publication workshop Space: Science, Technology and the Arts in
collaboration with ESA/ESTEC, 2004

‘I remember talking about Einstein with John Coltrane while we were having an egg cream at the drug store on St. Mark’s Place & Second Avenue. Actually, he was talking about numbers and their relationship to music, how intervals affected certain kinds of chords and how they could be used to create a different order in music. He brought up the theory of relativity. To him it meant that many things already existing had a relationship in music, and it was up to the musician to discover these relationships and express them musically. I saw Coltrane for the last time in March 1967 at the health & food store on Broadway and Fifty Seventh Street. We picked up the same subject of relativity almost exactly where we broke off our previous conversation. More than anything else, I remember him saying, ‘The universe is expanding.’

David Amram, quoted in Chasin’ The Trane, JC Thomas, 1975.[1]

Possible histories of science in modern music I: prehistories, sonic & cosmic

The story of modern music of the last hundred years could be told as the history of a dialogue between the sonic and the cosmic, whose prehistory extends as far back as Pythagoras. It is in Pythagoras’ thought, influenced by ancient Egyptian pedagogy, that we find the idea that the orbit of each of the seven planets produced a particular note according to its distance from the earth. Pythagoras called this Musica Mundana, usually translated as Music of the Spheres.

Here was a sound so harmonious and rarified that ordinary ears were unable to hear it, the cosmic music which Philo of Alexandria tells us Moses heard when he received the ten commandments on Mount Sinai, the same sound St. Augustine believed the dying heard in their final breath, revealing to them the transcendental truth of the cosmos. It’s what Plato described as the sound of the harmony being created by the universe, ‘the visible living being, containing within it all living beings in the natural order.’

20th century music forms, from the jazz of Sun Ra and John Coltrane, to the techno electronica of Underground Resistance, have continued the grand Pythagorean tradition of metaphorising the cosmos as purely metaphysical space, a sonic dimension of spiritual transcendence.

‘One bright morning/I’ll fly away, fly away.’ [2] ‘My ship set sail, my sun-jet in the sky.’ [3]: the story of modern music, from the Negro spiritual of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama to the Ethiopianist logorrhea of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, can be told as a history of the cosmos as the darkness into which black music projected its quest for freedom, from slave ships to sun ships, segregation to post colonialism.

20th century black music’s concern with the cosmos was rooted in a liberationist aesthetic. This cosmos of racial yearning may have been, in a manner of speaking, the same as that evoked by Stockhausen in his Mantra, ‘a musical miniature of the cosmos, just as it is a magnification into the acoustic time field of the unified structures of the harmonic vibrations in notes themselves’. A cosmos contiguous or parallel to Dub’s lightning and thunder evocation of Old Testament elementalism.

Whatever the case, our musical interstellar space has, in the last hundred years, become a pretty busy place, from Gustav Holst’s pre-first world war Planets, inspired by Alan Leo’s book, ‘What is Astrology?’ to Juan Atkins’ post cold war era Deep Space, inspired by Detroit’s Deep Space radio show of the 1990’s.

Possible histories of science in music II: cosmic music & the music of the cosmos

The story of modern music could be told as a history of space exploration, a history of the cosmos as purely sonic, representational space; an audiophilic screen – the cosmos as sound picture space, a successful adventure of colonisation, an overcrowding, even. Think of all those voices, all those sounds, of all those radiophonic days and nights, still drifting through space.

Think of the names, think of the music: Joe Meek’s Telstar, Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, George Clinton’s Cosmic Slop, Jeff Mills’ Rings of Saturn, Kool Keith’s Earth People, David Bowie’s Starman, Ed Rush & Optical’s Wormhole, 4 Hero’s Parallel Universe, John and Alice Coltrane’s Cosmic Music, Sun Ra’s Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy; the list could be endless. And now scientists are doing it too, with Dutch astronomer and computer scientist Alexander Ollongren’s proposals for ways of communicating music to extra terrestrials through interstellar messages, using Indonesian Gamelan music.

So thoroughly seductive is modern music’s idea of space as sonic imaginary, we could be forgiven for not wondering whether the cosmos had a music of its own. We know now that it does, beginning with the ground beneath our feet. The Earth hums, producing an inaudible, 46 billion year drone that gives LaMonte Young an interesting organic precedent.

Scientists call Earth’s planetary sounds tweeks, whistles, and sferics. Jupiter has its music too. ‘NASA’s Cassini Space probe is picking up an eerie melody as it approaches Jupiter,’ reported space.com in December 2002. Cassini was picking up low frequency sounds which, when converted into audible waves, ‘suggest the strains of some alien folk tune.’

This new knowledge of cosmic sounds finds its earliest precedent in Karl Jansky’s discovery of a source of radio noise from the centre of our galaxy in 1932, the year zero of modern astro-sonics. Jansky’s discovery gave birth to a golden age of invisible light astronomy, and to an entirely new way of understanding the universe.

Possible histories of science in modern music III: the universe is in my voice

The story of astronomy in modern music could be the story of the discovery of the cosmos, or something of the cosmos, in the body.

Not an hour, if a few years, away from where John Coltrane and David Amram discoursed on the expanding nature of the music and the challenge physics suggested for music, a short rotund black man from the planet Saturn stood on the corner at the crossroads of 125th & Lennox, in Harlem, listening to the music in the busy four way stretch of heavy traffic, and of the sounds above the clouds, beyond the stars.

He was Coltrane’s friend Sun Ra. ‘Trane knew Ra from Chicago, and he finally started visiting our studio on West Eighty-second Street. Sun Ra gave him literature on outer space and we talked tenor while I showed him some of the things the band and myself were doing at the time,’ says Ra’s saxophonist John Gilmore. ‘Trane really wanted to play avant garde music, but he didn’t get the foundation until he listened to Sun Ra a lot.'[4]

The story of cosmology in modern music could have as its central protagonist the figure of Sun Ra. After all, Ra’s 40 year legacy of compositions are an olympian testament to 20th century music’s attempt to re-sound the cosmos in the ear of the other, from the perspective of a visitor who viewed and experienced Earth and human longing from a distant planet too harsh for human life.

To hear him tell it, Sun Ra, aka Mr. Re, aka Mr. Mystery, aka Herman Blount, who first visited Earth in 1914 as an African American in Birmingham, Alabama, was, he said, named by the Creator after the sun god of ancient Egyptian myth Ra, kin by name at least, to Amen Ra the supreme god of ancient Thebes, whom the priests of Thebes declared to be one and the same as the widely worshipped sun god Ra.

Amen Ra was adopted by the Greeks, who called him Ammon and identified him with Zeus, and by the Romans as Jupiter, the planet whose four moons were first observed by Galileo in 1609, eleven years before Blount’s African ancestors were first brought to America. And Sun Ra also described himself as ‘a scientist, I deal with equations. You might say a spiritual scientist and also a cosmo musical scientist.’

It was as if Ra was trying to inscribe into his newly renamed self, to ingest into the body of this new self, as much of the universe of history, mythology, and scientific enquiry as he could, exhaling the cosmos, re-sounded as music composition. Perhaps this was the pan cultural, trans-disciplinary cosmology he was alluding to in a 1972 composition: ‘Astro-black mythology/Astro-timeless immortality/Find your place among the stars/listen to the outer world: the universe is in my voice.’ [5]

Possible histories of science in music IV: the ubiquitous sound

The story of physics in modern music could begin with an echo. ‘If you look at many shapes in nature – clouds, trees, small parts are the same as big parts: that’s the definition of fractals. I used to be extraordinarily involved with music, especially opera. And then I became a slave of my creation. Now fractals are everything.’ – Benoit Mandelbrot [6]

The story of physics in modern music could begin with an echo, or the invention of the reverb, delay, or echo unit.

It could begin with noise itself, a bang, a hiss, a flicker, and Mandelbrot’s discovery of flicker noise in systems as seemingly unrelated as the fluctuations of the stock exchange and the annual records of flood levels of the river Nile.

It could start almost anywhere, told perfectly well along the Nile as on a radio, with Mandelbrot’s colleagues Richard Voss and John Clarke channel surfing a.m radio in 1975, listening for twelve hours to ‘musical selections, as well as announcements and commercials,’ and finding evidence of flicker noise patterns, and discovering that flicker noise is also the wave form most suggestive of music’s laws of structure, memory and variation over time.

Flicker noise patterns, Voss and Clarke found, were less chaotic sounding than white noise and less regimented than brown noise. Located between the two, but unlike either one, flicker noise shares music’s founding pleasure principle of pleasure of balance of order, predictability and surprise.

Voss and Clarke obtained their findings by passing recordings by Bach, Scott Joplin, Milton Babbit, Eliot Carter, Stockhausen, and Betsy Jolas, through a band pass filter, squaring the voltages, and then ‘passing the signal through a low pass filter with a cut off frequency of 20 hertz. The resultant low frequency voltage fluctuations were then subjected to an autocorrelation function to determine the relationship of these fluctuations over time.’ [7]

The story of modern music could be told as a moment in a history of transformations of matter, identity, and form, using the technologies of myth, science and sound. A story of morphology and process, in which physicists, as well as radio engineers and musicians, are scientists of sound.

Possible histories of science in modern music V - sound art, sound transformation: astro black morphologies

The story of modern music could be called The Poetics of Space. It could be a story about time and process, about improvisation, the suspension of closure, and what they might tell us about our world and the cosmos. A story which may have something to do with the discovery in 1976 by Charles Thomas Bolton and a team of scientists of Cygnus X1, a (possible) black hole, in our galaxy, light years away from Earth.

Cygnus X1 has become the source of a new opening for a dialogue between electronic music and astronomy. In 2002 scientists Ian McHardy and Phil Uttley at Southampton University announced that data readings of x-ray detritus from Cygnus X1 were implicitly musical in structure.

The patterns of variations they observed in the x-ray output of Cygnus X-1, detected by NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer Satellite, had a direct correspondence with those of super massive black holes in distant galaxies. Uttley compared this electromagnetic output to improvised music, with short and long time variations analogous to musical notes and bars, with transitions from one pattern of variation to another similar to changes in musical style.

Music, mnemonic patterns, correlation in pattern variation, flicker noise: different variants of the same theme, the same ubiquitous phenomena.

This musicalising of scientific process and the musical nature of its source raised a few questions for us: what could this music sound like, what openings could it suggest for sound art, how could we resound this newly discovered music of the cosmos?

We met with Uttley in February 2003, and he gave us some of his data research material, thousands of digits representing the ‘light curve’ for Cygnus x-1, obtained by recording the x-ray flux in time steps of one tenth of a second: a method of observation with a musical parallel in granular synthesis and its process of subtraction, discontinuation and reconfiguration of sonic matter.

When taken to extremes, granular synthesis creates an expanded sonic picture populated by signal traces and empty spaces, a process of negation not unlike dub music’s processed based technologies and techniques for subtracting, reshaping, and resounding sound sources.

We collaborated with astrophysicist Tim O’Brien at Jodrell Bank Observatory and converted the data from text into audible phenomena both as intensity and frequency variation. We then used granular synthesis and dub’s trace producing processes as morphological tools for the production of a series of possible re-soundings of Cygnus X1’s distant, ancient music.

Granular synthesis suggests the space around and between an object is no less rewarding than the object. Dub suggests that the object, a space as much as the space around it, is no more than a trace in the making. The story of modern music could be the story of the engineering of absence into form.

Possible histories of science in music VI - A universal vibration

‘If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.’ Albert Einstein, 1929.

The story of science in music could be about a universal vibration in the form of a mystery. Thinking about the presence of flicker noise in x-ray output of Cygnus X1, we wondered whether music was ubiquitous in nature?

Not exactly. Uttley explained that ‘music is a part, an aspect of nature, a process, and flickering type variability is common in nature; because music is an aspect of nature, you see flickering in music as well.'[8]

Perhaps the reason, or at least part of the reason, why we are drawn to music can be explained by the discovery by Boston University physicist H Eugene Stanley’s research group. In 1992 they showed that flicker noise is also discernible in human DNA; something of the cosmos and its music, inscribed in the body at the cellular level.

The problem is, scientists have not developed a reliable model to account for the wide ranging presence of flicker noise, from black holes to DNA, from the music of Stockhausen to the body of Sun Ra. The reason for the ubiquity of flicker noise remains a mystery. As Stanley put it to Scientific American, ‘There is some magical phenomenon going that we just do not understand.'[9]

To compound the mystery, flicker noise has also been found in recent studies of human behavior. Psychologists Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, Simon Farrell and Roger Ratcliff at the University of Amsterdam have discovered that ‘recent analyses of serial correlations in cognitive tasks have provided preliminary evidence for the presence of long range serial dependence known as flicker noise’ [10]. They also tell us that to this date, no general explanation for the universality of flicker noise has been widely accepted.

Nonetheless its seems safe to say that music presents in its sound an intimate part of ourselves, which we also find in the cosmos, to which we are in turn connected by music. Flicker noise seems to be a universal vibration, which connects music, science, the body, and the cosmos, in an ever expanding loop extending from the here and now, to thousands of light years into the past, and whose feedback produces endless proliferations of music and relations of musicality between musicians, artists, and scientists, and new, cosmic openings, for sound art practice.


[1] JC Thomas, ‘Chasin’ The Trane‘, Da Capo Press, 1975

[2 ] The Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, ‘I’ll Fly Away‘, The Sermon, Specialty SPCD-7041-2

[3] Lee Scratch Perry, ‘Blinkers‘, Time Boom X De Devil Dead, On U Sound CD18643

[4] JC Thomas, ‘Chasing The Trane‘, Da Capo Press, 1975

[5] Sun Ra, ‘Astro Black‘, Astro Black, Impulse AS-9255

[6] Benoit Mandelbrot, interview by Jeffrey Goldsmith, in Wired, Issue 2.08 – Aug 1994

[7] R.F.Voss & J.Clarke, ‘1/f noise in music & speech‘ , in Nature vol 258, Nov, 1975

[8] Phil Uttley interview by Flow Motion, 2003, unpublished

[9] Philip Yam,’Noisy Nucleotides‘, in Scientific American, September 1992.

[10] E.J.Wagenmakers, S.Farrell and R.Ratcliff, ‘Estimation and Interpretation of 1/f Noise in Human Cognition‘, Northwestern University, Amsterdam,

© Flow Motion & Leonardo/Olats, mai 2004 /republished 2023