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The Copernican Orchestra

The Copernican Orchestra of Extraterrestrial Music


Beyond the question of extraterrestrial life, is the question of other forms of musical sensitivity.

When we imagine extraterrestrial life forms, we likely imagine beings more or less similar to ourselves: with eyes, ears, hands, feet, and so on. One of the limitations of such a search for life beyond the confines of our own planet is precisely that we may not know even what to look for, or what other forms of life look like. The famous Golden Record of the Voyager space probe project, bearing sounds and images of our planet, is tailored to our capabilities, but what would happen if you found a civilization unable to perceive sound waves in the air, or without possibility of observing light the way we do?

Through the fascinating Copernican Orchestra and the Omniphonics concert, an experimental philosopher, Jonathon Keats, has proposed that extraterrestrial beings may not have the same sensory means as do humans. They may hear the light or observe the sound, they may have organs able to influence gravitational forces, and many other variables that we’ve hardly even considered.

Keats’ proposal is based on the fact that human sensitivity is based on certain fundamental physical premises: our sense of hearing (which makes possible our connection with music, one that occurs thanks to the anatomy of our ears) and our brains (which evolved to capture variations in air pressure within a range of approximately 20 Hz to almost 20 kHz). Dogs and other forms of terrestrial life have auditory and visual ranges different from people, but other anatomical configurations in outer space could “hear” in still other ways. We just don’t know.

The musical instruments with which we’re familiar from Western music, like string instruments, percussion, brass, etc., have evolved along with us, but always under the premise of expanding the natural range of the sound production of the body. Our mouths and our speech devices can produce “one” voice at a time, while a string instrument can produce two or more simultaneously. This gives them the possibility of producing chords, as well as chromatic organizations of sounds – those which, to humans sound “natural,” according to our senses and appreciation of music. But what would we do if we had two mouths? Or if we could hear gravitational waves? What would music be like then?

The instruments of the Copernican Orchestra are invitations to think beyond the human sensory configuration. The ultrasonic organ, as Keats describes it, uses dog whistles instead of the traditional pipes of organs. This produces melodies inaudible to the human ear, but which remain within the “terrestrial” range. This limitation is then carried to an extreme with the gamma-ray bells, which can exceed a frequency of 10 exahertz (EHz). In the words of Keats, “this type of electromagnetic radiation is notable for high photon energy and strong penetration of matter, qualities that might ring loud and clear for beings evolved in extraterrestrial conditions.”

Such radioactive music is complemented by the inclusion of terrestrial life forms in the ensemble. These include a cage with live crickets whose sound is processed through a synthesizer, and a cello which manipulates gravitational waves, but also included is the very presence of the audience.

Though they’re not touring, Jonathon Keats’ Copernican Orchestra is an invitation to think, imagine and to feel beyond our own biological parameters. His piece “Universal Anthem” is a proposal for radical inclusion: music that can be appreciated by any life form imaginable, so you never know where the next stop for this singular orchestra may be.

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