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Beethoven in space

Katie Paterson has always wanted to shoot Beethoven to the moon. In Earth-Moon-Earth (2007) the Scottish conceptual artist translated a performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into Morse code, sent the radio signals to the moon, and recaptured the reflection. What came back of the transmission, having traveled 230,000 miles and back, was refracted on the irregularities moon’s crooked surface, and re-translated into a fragmentary and partial “score” of Morse code, which was then re-sonified and performed on a modern player piano. The absences and gaps in the resulting performance are remnants of the music’s impossible journey to the moon and back.

Paterson has made a name for herself for creating artworks that give concrete material shape to the unfathomable dimensions of the universe, of geological time and galactic space. The nickname of Beethoven’s piano sonata Quasi una fantasia op. 27 no. 2 – “Moonlight” – which goes back to the music critic Ludwig Rellstab in the nineteenth century, makes this piece an obvious choice, an artistic quip. But there is more to using Beethoven in conceptual art projects than just a clever word association. Paterson’s work is part of a wider trend in conceptual art that has embraced music and its curious ability, despite its evanescent materiality, to make time and space manifest.

Perhaps the most celebrated instance of Beethoven in outer space is on the Golden Record of the Voyager mission that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and that has left the solar system, on its way to a galaxy far, far away. The Golden Record is not an artwork in the strict sense, but an interstellar mix tape that Carl Sagan and his team curated for the use of extra-terrestrials in 1977. While the Golden Record had nothing to do with the scientific goals of this space mission, it did manage to capture the collective imagination, by humanizing the idea of outer space. While the disc jockeys that put together the Golden Record made an effort at assembling a collection of different musical traditions from across the world, from Japanese gagaku to Louis Armstrong, and from Mexican mariachi to Indian raga, they deviated slightly from their attempts at inclusiveness and balance by allowing a special place for Bach and Beethoven, who represent Western classical music with multiple compositions. The record includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as one might expect, but also the Cavatina from the String Quartet op. 130, perhaps a less obvious choice. Apparently, this movement was a favorite of Carl Sagan’s—the intense humanity of this piece, underlined in the famous performance indication beklemmt (stifled, inhibited) for the first violin in the contrasting middle section, makes this piece such an intriguing choice. Music critic Alex Ross called it “a wistful farewell” from earth. But second-guessing intentions behind the inclusion of specific pieces matters less than the fact that there is music traveling to the farthest reaches of the universe, as a sign that we humans exist.

“The Voyager Golden Record”, by NASA. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Over time, the significance of the record has changed: as critics pointed out at the time, the record rests on huge assumptions (for starters: do aliens have ears?); but by now there is a sense that if extra-terrestrials have the technology to explore our spacecraft, they are unlikely to learn much from our technology—but they will probably be interested to find out more about human culture. And we have time: there is every reason to believe that Voyager, and the Golden Record, will continue their voyage for millions of years. As Evander Price has pointed out, the Golden Record traveling away from earth at 35,000mph into the future will likely be the most lasting testimony of human culture, a piece of space trash still flying into the unknown, long after earth itself has disappeared.

If Paterson’s Earth-Moon-Earth and the Golden Record take Beethoven on journeys exploring unimaginable dimensions in time and space, giving concrete shape to the transcendent, the Norwegian ideas-based artist Leif Inge manipulates musical time in his digital artwork 9 Beet Stretch (2002) without the intervention of distant planets. This piece, which has been performed as sound installations all over the world and also exists online on a permanent loop, takes a recording of the ‘Ninth Symphony’ and decelerates it so as to last exactly twenty-four hours. Thanks to the technology of granular synthesis, the pitches in this rendition remain the same; the music just slows down tremendously. The resulting sounds coalesce in a soundscape that moves past us gradually and granularly, with smooth contours, in continual, barely perceptible transformation. If we choose to, we can be permanently enveloped by the sounds of this endless slowed-down Ninth, every day the earth circles the sun, in perpetuity.

In terms of the space music surrounding ‘9 Beet Stretch’, admittedly, this digital artwork is a mere blip on the radar of the geological (or rather intergalactic) clock. Other musical installations that play with extreme durations last 539 years1000 years, or even close to 40 billion years—longer than the lifespan of the universe itself. But there is something very apt about the rate of deceleration (the 74-minute recording is “stretched out” by a factor of 22.15): at the resulting tempo it is just about possible to make out some individual changes in the day-long symphony, to recognize the dotted rhythms of the Scherzo thundered on the timpani, the descending void fourths and fifths that open the symphony, and which are stretched out to last many seconds, but that still (barely) fall within our attention span. In this way, we can hear slowness; we can perceive how time passes through the music persistently and glacially.

Why Beethoven? One part of the fascination with Beethoven is certainly related to the centrality of his music in our culture. Even the Voyager mission made two slots available for him, in the extremely limited space on the grooves of the Golden Record that was supposed to represent all of earth’s musical cultures. For us earthlings, meanwhile, we know Beethoven so well that we can even restore the original sounds under extreme circumstances: we hear the resonances in the gaps of the moon-reflected Moonshine Sonata and the otherworldly slow sublimity of the Ninth, even where the sounds go beyond what our senses are able to perceive.

Featured image: “ Hubble Monitors Supernova In Nearby Galaxy M82” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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