Portal: Composer’s Statement

Portal Soundscape: Susan Alexjander


As artists and friends Rebecca Kamen and I have been collaborating for years as a successful team, drawing on science for our inspirations. Portal, our fourth project together, has been an ongoing dialog and dream as we contemplated not only massive black holes in space, but black holes everywhere in our reality. What do they mean? Where do they lead? Rebecca’s decision to choose the name PORTAL for this exhibit reflects this mystery. My challenge has been to try to capture in sound what science affirms: gravity waves, deep space, stars and churning black holes…and at the same time complement the delicacy and refinement of Rebecca’s sculptures. The soundtrack is meant to be an ambient background support but is also narrative. What happens when a black hole becomes activated…either by passing space debris or another black hole? The process is ancient: it is thrown into a chaotic state, suddenly and often violently rearranges itself, comes to stillness (singularity), and finally expands into something new. So, the nine minute sound piece is also an imagined journey. Its main characters are two black holes, merging into one.

Picture a compact binary (a pair of compact objects such as immensely heavy collapsed neutron stars or black holes) spiraling around each other on their long, long journey in deep space, keeping company with stars and dark matter. As they orbit they give off energy in the form of gravitational waves, enabling us to perceive them as black holes. While revolving around each other they might also be spinning on their own. Always there is a delicate balance at play. The final merging into one super-massive black hole results (in my imagination) in a singularity of stillness and calm beyond the initial, chaotic, event horizon where matter is both sucked in and piled up in a massive traffic jam. The ‘other side’ of the event horizon is the ultimate mystery. Where does the energy go at that tiny singularity point? What is its final destination, transformation, and in what dimension? Is this a quantum world, where time stops? At this point Einstein’s Theory of Relativity breaks down, unable to reconcile gravity with the quantum world of incredible smallness. A theory of “quantum gravity” may well be the Holy Grail of physics today, opening the door to incredible discoveries.

The soundtrack itself is a spinning, woven tapestry of multiple sound samples. As an art piece it relies heavily on scientific data. Actual sounds from space are used (NASA); the little clipping pulsar, Vela X, spinning about eleven times a second, often accompanies the binary pair in deep space. Other pulsar rotations (spinning fast enough to be ‘heard’ as an actual tone) are present in synthesized sounds. I am especially indebted to Dr. Scott Hughes, MIT astrophysicist, for his patient guidance and original work providing sonic data, which maps the spiraling binary pair towards its final merging. Water, found everywhere in space, is also present in the form of frequencies mapped from molecular vibrations of H2O, courtesy of Dr. David Deamer, cell biologist at UC SantaCruz, California. Atomic elements such as hydrogen and silicon are also represented (for more detail see www.OurSoundUniverse.com).

The concept of gravity is still mysterious. As we know from the moon’s pull, gravity actually acts like a tide rather than a pulse or ripple. With a tide, everything moves together. As one end expands, the other contracts like a long, slow breath. Hopefully, this is reflected in the sound. Since gravity affects everything, the Earth also has a part to play in our exhibit. Gravitational tides affect her; states of harmony or cacophony from deep space must, on some refined level, be perceived. It is this balance and correspondence between earthly and cosmic forces that Rebecca and I have tried to include in our Portal vision. As such, during the final black hole merging and stillpoint, you hear not only spins and space rumblings but also earthly calls…cottonwood tree cells popping (courtesy of sound-recorder Bernie Krause), sounds of inner earth (recordings by Kookoon), the languages of humans, whales and dolphins, and ocean waves which obey their own gravitational laws. Many of these sounds are hidden in the sound fabric, barely perceivable. So we have earthly tides and space tides, intertwined.

As a musician I’m always looking for concordance. Is there harmony in space, or is it endlessly chaotic? Thanks to astrophysicists Steve Drasco and Curt Cutler, we can see an example of cosmic harmony: an animation of a binary pair of black holes approaching their final merging (http://web.grinnell.edu/individuals/drascost/animations/). The two massive bodies spiral in chaotic patterns most of time, reminding one of a tangled ball of string. But several times before merging the pattern becomes coherent and clear, like a perfectly tuned bell. When these patterns become sound we hear harmony instead of noise. The orbits then collapse back into chaos until the final union. Their work has been a huge inspiration to me for this piece.

“Mapping’” scientific data such as molecules and pulsars fascinates and inspires my music, but I draw on many resources (esoteric writings, geometry, number etc.) to attempt to enter into an alliance with the vibrations of the Universe. My work is always about finding correspondences between vibrations of all kinds. I’m enormously gratified to have found a fellow artist, Rebecca Kamen who shares this quest; visuals and sounds enrich each other. Finally, although the soundscape takes a narrative approach it is not necessary to hear it from the beginning. Wherever you enter, the experience will be your own.

Click the embedded player, below, to hear Susan’s soundscape for the Portal installation: