First Watch: Hubble Soundtracks Hubble Telescope Images
Filed by KOSU News in Science.
November 18, 2011
It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve shifted uncomfortably in a reclining seat and beheld the galaxies in a planetarium. From the age of five to ten, my life was consumed first by dinosaurs, then space — both wonders limited to museums and illustrated books. (And then the Civil War, but maybe that’s a Georgia thing.) I could never get enough … until I grew up and, well, grounded my interests in earthly things. But space has never been too far, really, from my mind, and this video premiere of “Hubble’s Hubble” coalesces that stargazing wonder with sheets-of-sound electric guitar wizardry and NASA-sanctioned images captured by the artist’s namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope.
Let’s back up. Hubble is solely guitarist Ben Greenberg of art punks Pygmy Shrews and the truly unclassifiable (but loosely) avant-classical quartet Zs. Like Dustin Wong and Mick Barr (Krallice, Orthrelm), Greenburg is among the new school of musicians making mind-bending, mostly loop-based minimalist guitar music. But where Wong makes every densely layered loop count and Barr shreds harshly hypnotic figures (no loops, just distortion, thank you), Greenberg meditates on the euphoric cosmos by cycling through patterns that orbit the ears. Earlier this year, I could see that intense meditation in his face as he heaved his body back and forth in the converted living room above a Washington, D.C. warehouse. It was as if Greenberg was summoning a galaxy right then and there in a zen state of shred.
Following an excellent cassette, Hubble Drums is Hubble’s first widely-available album out now on Northern-Spy. In an email interview with Ben Greenberg, I asked how one gets access to official NASA footage and — for those of us who left our science books in a box somewhere — what exactly we’re looking at in the video.
NPR: This seems like such an obvious collaboration, but getting permission to use Hubble photography for a solo electric guitar act can’t be easy. How exactly did this collaboration come about?
BG: When I chose the name Hubble out of a temporary obsession with seeing the Hubble IMAX movie, I never could’ve dreamed I’d wind up getting to work with the actual Hubble Telescope! The collaboration was the brainchild of two great men over a great meal, and naturally I wasn’t either of them. Michael Azerrad wrote the book Our Band Could Be Your Life (and, more important to my early musical development, Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana) and Max Mutchler works at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI for short, he also discovered Pluto’s second and third moons — so cool!). Michael showed Max my music over last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, and a short while later I received an email from Max proposing that we work together. Of course I had to accept! So glad that I did. Max set me up with Tiffany Borders over at STScI, and I brought in Sheena Callage to help put the whole thing together. Working with them was a real joy and I’m so happy with what we’ve made together. As obvious as this may seem in retrospect, there’s no way I could have come up with it on my own.
NPR: What exactly are we seeing in this video? How did y’all come to choose these images?
BG: Traveling through space, we encounter a spiral galaxy. M81, similar to our own Milky Way, is one of the brightest galaxies that can be seen from Earth. Its spiral arms wind all the way down into the nucleus and are made up of young, bluish, hot stars formed in the past few million years, while the central bulge contains older, redder stars. Zooming directly into this red center, we wind up in the midst of the glowing gas ejected by a dying Sun-like star called a planetary nebula. We continue to explore other planetary nebula forms with amazing and confounding shapes. They dance for us, and morph into one another, entrancing and beautiful, inviting reflection on our place in the Universe, tenuous as it is. At the musical, physical, and emotional climax, we confront a light echo, the expanding illumination of a dusty cloud around a star, pulsating along with the music, echoing the grand celestial end, but also foreshadowing an inevitable and shattering re-birth.
I sat down with Tiffany Borders from STScI and our co-director/editor/after-effects whiz Sheena Callage and we sorted through tons and tons of Hubble images together. As I got increasingly lost in the images, my mind began to divorce the colors and shapes on the screen from the various galaxies and nebulas they represented. Once that happened, I had a much easier time picking pictures I liked. It was strikingly similar to the way I make music, and it was the first time I’ve really had that experience working on something visual.
NPR: Other than both being totally cosmic, in what ways is Hubble the music the same as Hubble the telescope?
BG: Well, I mean, I didn’t start doing this just to make space music or anything! I think of Hubble (my Hubble) as a creative outlet that uses my guitar playing as the platform or medium or whatever. That said, one of the coolest things about doing this video has been exploring that very question, since it’s pretty unavoidable once there are two Hubbles in the room. I do think there are some pretty orbital qualities to what I’m doing. When I’m playing I tend to think in terms of cycles; small cycles of individual riffs and larger cycles of variation of those riffs. Then there’s the more symmetrical and regular path by which my guitar moves around the listener or audience member, this effect is achieved with a simple guitar pedal, by the way. They are both ultimately controlled by what my hands are doing, but since my fingers are human and my guitar pedal’s stereo separation is digital (i.e. fixed), I can mess with expanding and contracting the various orbital elements of what I’m doing by pitting an irregular cycling of my fingers against the regular cycling of my stereo digital delay. Wow, that might make as much sense to anyone as the technical points of the Hubble Telescope.
That duality of human vs. digital forces coming together to make my music has a number of similarities to the whole idea of the Hubble Telescope. It’s purpose, creation, and implications are all very tied up in the dynamics of people vs. technology and that meme is a solid part of the sound I’ve been chasing lately.
NPR: When can I expect to see this video at my local planetarium?
BG: As soon as humanly or digitally possible! I sent the video to Bill Nye the Science Guy, but I haven’t heard back, yet. I hope we can work together someday, though. That would be amazing. In the meantime, people will have to settle for seeing it on their computers or projectors or TVs or other people’s computers, or at my record release show.
You can listen to Hubble Drums in its entirety here. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]