Science is at its best when it engages our imaginative abilities as much as our faculties for reason and logic. Dr. Fiorella Terenzi is an astrophysicist, professor, author and musician who exemplifies the fusion of imagination with scientific research. Through her embrace of the imaginative, emotional and subjective side of life she has helped return human warmth to the study of the stars. The prevalent reductionist and materialistic world view of many scientists and astronomers often strips the sense of wonder out of the study of the stars and the galaxy. These powerful radiant and mysterious planets, asteroids, and black holes then just become objects on a plotted map explained with abstract theorems, rather than things of beauty, mystery and the ineffable.
“I enthusiastically embrace the fabulous new discoveries of astrophysics, but I do not want to stop there. I want these discoveries to swim in our imaginations,” she says “to open our hearts to new ways of thinking and feeling about life, about men and women. I want us all to hear how the music of the spheres resonates with the music of our hearts.”
To conjure up an intimate portrait of the universe she has sketched out a new way of investigating the cosmos which she calls Acoustic Astronomy or Radio Computer Music Astronomy. This still nascent field marries the knowledge of the visible universe with that of the sonorous universe. This union allows for new ways of experiencing astronomical discoveries and developments. It also owes a lot of its practice to the practice of data sonification [explored in Chapter 3.]
The Italian Dr. Terenzi received her doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Milan. Her doctoral work included the field of computer music where she focused on creating a class of sound based on data sourced from radio astronomy. Her education also included musical training in operatic singing and piano from the Civic School of Music in Milan.
She has gone on to teach at the University of Milan, lecture in countless schools and at the time of this writing is on the faculty at Florida International University in Miami. She is a tireless educator of the public on the beauty that abounds in the universe, and one of the ways she has brought this love to people is through her musical recordings. Her first album Music from the Galaxies, released in 1991, is the exemplar of Acoustic Astronomy music and is a fine album of electronic music in general. For this album she utilized the raw data from UGC 6697, a strange spiral galaxy approximately 180-million light years from Earth, located in Abell 1367, the Leo cluster.
In the liner notes to her album Terenzi explains. “UGC 6697 is an irregular galaxy presenting a peculiar radio source which seems due to a dynamic interaction between the galaxy and the galactic medium. UGC 6697 contains a circular ring of ionized gas. The dynamics are highly complex due to the presence of a small companion galaxy. A collision between the two galaxies may have occurred, causing a flow of gas to emerge from the galaxy and triggering star formation on the bright side of the ring structure.”
UGC 6697 was studied by Professor G. Gavazzi also from the University of Milan. A number of radio telescopes made observations in the spectrum including the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope at 0.6, 1.4 and 5 Gigahertz. The Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico captured data at 1.4 Gigahertz as well. Using the 4 meter Kitt Peak National Obersavtory in neighboring Arizona, blue, red and H-aplha frames were obtained. Spectral data from the 3.6 meter European Southern Observatory Telescope in Germany was also obtained and used.
All of this data was given to Terenzi from Gavazzi on a digital tape. Terenzi says, “Every kind of celestial radiation can be represented by a stream of numbers.” Those streams of numbers from the tape she converted to sound using the Cmusic program created by Professor F. Richard Moore from the Center for Music Experiment in San Diego.
Moore had previously worked with Max Matthews on the development of Music V and the GROOVE system at Bell Laboratories. Then he skipped off to get a masters and then Ph.D in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Stanford University in 1977. While he was there Moore built the FRMBox, a realtime digital music synthesizer. Then he joined the UC San Diego music faculty in 1979, founding the Computer Audio Research Laboratory (CARL Project) at the Center for Music Experiment and Related Research (CME, now CRCA: Center for Research in Computing and the Arts). He was the director for the Center from 1982 to 1991.
Moore also wrote one of the standard books on computer music, Elements of Computer Music, which goes into detail about the software he had also written, cmusic and pcmusic. The book and the programs are all still used by musicians today, thirty plus years on at the time of this writing.
One of the things cmusic can do is take a description of an acoustic sound and transform it into the digital numbers that can in turn be converted into a waveform, something a person can listen to, off a hardrive or burned onto a CD.
What Terenzi did was to make an analogy between galactic radiation and musical notes. She had the insight that both radio waves and sound waves have frequency and intensity. She used csound to convert the frequency and intensity to something listenable.
Of the music itself she writes, “There are some interesting aspects of the galactic sounds. Some parts seem to be well tuned around B-flat or D-minor. If you listen carefully, you can also hear several new accords and harmonies, linked together following their special sidereal rules. The predominant microtonality of the galaxy is something that could be explored during research by creating new scales and timbers. The galaxy itself can be used as a musical instrument if it is broken into fragments or combined with classical instruments.”
The innovations she has made as an Acoustic Astronomer have been picked up more in the arts and music world than in the laboratories of the scientist. A number of musicians who were both inspired by ambient space music combined its liminality with the tool of sonification to create records that utilized astronomical data as part of their source material.
Terenzi herself went on to work on CD-ROMs when that was a thing, write books, make more music, teach, and no matter what form it took, share her passion for the music of the spheres.
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Music from the Galaxies, 1991, Island Records
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.