The tune was meant to represent what traveling through the center of the Milky Way might feel like.
Over the past few years, NASA has tried to convey images of space through sound so that even people who are vision impaired can imagine what the galaxy looks and feels like. But because the scientists didn’t know how to write sheet music, they were unable to accommodate musicians who wanted to play songs inspired by NASA’s work.
That was until composer Sophie Kastner recently used NASA’s data and images to create her own song depicting the sensation of traveling through the Galactic Center, which is about 26,000 light-years from Earth. She collaborated with a Canadian ensemble to perform it, and the recording was released online last month.
Kastner hoped to create a sense of vastness and awe at the start of the song to represent journeying past stars. But as the imaginary traveler nears a black hole, Kastner hoped to leave listeners in fear and with curiosity about the size of the universe.
“Doing this made me realize that being a scientist and being an artist aren’t that different,” Kastner, 27, told The Washington Post. “We’re all just making sense of the universe, and this is one way of doing it.”
Kimberly Arcand, a visualization scientist at NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., has been translating images from NASA’s Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes into sounds since 2020. After one video of NASA’s interpretation of sounds from a black hole went viral last year, a social media commenter called the noises “Cosmic horror.”
No one knows exactly what space sounds like because there’s no air in space for sound to travel through. But Arcand uses a coding program to play sounds that reproduce a mood or vibe based on the telescope imagery. Through the program, bright areas of an image are coded with high-pitched noises, and congested areas are represented by low-pitched noises.
As part of the project, NASA combined telescope images from roughly 400 light-years of the Milky Way into a single picture. In September 2020, NASA created its own interpretation of the Milky Way’s sounds, starting from the left side of the picture. The video played high-pitched notes early on before the melody became faster near the black hole on the right side of the image that appears as a bright spot.
But Arcand, the NASA visualization scientist, wanted musicians to be able to play her music, so in the spring of 2022, she asked Kastner — the daughter of her colleague — to write sheet music based on the Milky Way picture. Kastner, who was about to graduate at the time from Montreal’s McGill University with a master’s degree in music composition, said before that, she had mainly composed songs for operas.
Kastner said that NASA’s sounds from the image were difficult to translate into sheet music, and that she felt the result was convoluted for a listener to follow. Kastner suggested a new idea: She could create her own song.
Using NASA’s interpretation of the sounds as a guide, Kastner said she simplified, adjusted and lengthened the tune in hopes of creating a song that would portray a story about traveling through the Galactic Center. Areas featuring bright stars would prompt high-pitched notes in Kastner’s song; darker areas of the picture would prompt deeper noises and more instruments playing simultaneously to represent confusion.
“I thought that when I got this project that it was going to be something really out of my comfort zone and really different for me, but I kind of realized that it wasn’t,” Kastner said. “With the image, I still had a story to tell.”
The first part of the song is based on the left side of the picture, where Kastner said she noticed empty space. The song begins slowly as the violinist, cellist and pianist pluck strings from their instruments to create a sense of uncertainty. The flute and the violin later play high-pitched notes to represent more stars appearing in the image.
The middle of the picture displays bright filaments, which Kastner described as “wispy” in her composer notes. To represent them, the violinist and the cellist play multi-pitched melodies, while other musicians add occasional notes to portray other stars in the area.
Kastner’s final section represented spiraling toward Sagittarius A*, a massive black hole. She focused on having the piano, glockenspiel, marimba and crotales produce high-pitched and fast-paced notes. The tempo increases as all of the instruments play simultaneously until the pianist finishes with a high note.
Kastner named the song “Where Parallel Lines Converge,” based on a line from Sarah Howe’s poem “Relativity”. Howe compared the universe’s unanswered questions to “black holes where parallel lines will meet.” Kastner thought that line portrayed the different parts of the image spiraling toward Sagittarius A*.
After finishing seven sheets of music in May, Kastner was nervous about how the song would sound. In June, seven musicians and a conductor from Ensemble Éclat, a music group based in Montreal, gathered in McGill’s recording facility for a rehearsal.
Kastner said listening to the song for the first time was the “best feeling ever.”
The next month, the musicians returned to the studio. Arcand, who had never imagined her project would influence in-person performances, said she was overjoyed when the musicians emailed her a recording later that month.
“It felt a little avant-garde, which the universe is,” said Arcand, 47. She hopes this is only the beginning of musicians adapting NASA’s music.
“This might sound odd to someone else — trying to translate massive data into something we can play on the flutes, on the violin,” Arcand said. “… But to me, it’s such an interesting form of expression of the scientific data.”