The Hubble Cantata



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Years ago I was asked by Bay Chamber Concerts — who were in touch with Matt Mountain, then-head of Hubble operations centre the Space Telescope Science Institute — to create a piece commemorating the telescope’s legacy and anniversary. I began to read what astrophysicist Mario Livio had written on his blog, and after meeting, we began to pull together a loose narrative. With the librettist Royce Vavrek, I realised that Mario could become the inspiration for the cantata’s main character. What emerged from our collaboration with Mario was a cantata drawing connections between human loss, love and sorrow, and the life cycle of a star. We decided that Mario would narrate and be the voice of the lead character, an astrophysicist who had lost his wife; there would be an adult choir, children’s choir and a chamber orchestra. No Hubble images would be used until the ending, which would culminate in a VR work exploring the beauty and depth of Hubble images. I began to record Livio, and that was the launch of the collaboration. In it’s final version, I worked with sound designer Terence Caulkins from ARUP to create the 3D soundscape. To present the experience outdoors, in particular for the VR experience, we needed to create an immersive experience that gives the impression sounds are moving around and through the audience space. We mixed the music in a spatialized sound format called ambisonics, which can be used for various loudspeaker layouts. The electronic narration sequences include Mario speaking about everything from baryonic matter to extra-solar life. Filmmaker Eliza McNitt created the virtual-reality film that brings the Hubble imagery in to the piece at its finale. This five-minute VR video gives a 360-degree tour through space, comprising CGI-animated Hubble imagery of the Orion Nebula.  Hubble’s legacy and what it has done for our understanding of the Universe is at the core of our drive to give it a musical life. The loss of communication between loved ones in the cantata storyline is echoed by the expansion of the Universe “at the rate of our imagination”. Yet as the fictional astrophysicist’s understanding of the Universe deepens, he reconstructs his wife’s story and understands her better. Woven together, those twin threads in the piece — the rarity of life in the grand cosmic scene, and Hubble’s revelation of that scene — connect human and cosmic scenarios, revealing realities that may exist at vastly different scales, but that are each vastly important. Data Hums lies at the culmination of the work, and in the words of Opera News “conjures a frightening Matrix dystopia in which the human mind is converted into artificial intelligence. A mesmerizing haze of sound builds up, layering humming choir, whistling electronics and a rumbling, Ligeti-like cluster chord in the instrumental ensemble that slowly shifts and intensifies, punctuated by radio interceptions of static and a woman’s voice.”