I grew up with Carl Sagan’s wonderful television series Cosmos
and with his writings. I first became interested because my
brother was fascinated with space. In the long, warm summer
nights of our native Portugal, he would speak about it for hours
and explain to me things about the stars, planets, quasars,
galaxies, black holes and whatever else occurred to him about
the universe. He would locate the constellations and talk to
me about all these wonders, citing Dr Sagan’s words. We watched
the television programmes together and although I was always
more inclined to study history, languages, music and literature,
I too became captivated by astronomy and the night sky. These
were the reasons why I was so keen to obtain this work, Nature
of the Night Sky, and have the opportunity of reviewing
Jeff Talman, who created this recording, is a renowned artist
who works with sound and has distinguished himself particularly
in the area of Reflexive Resonance. It is interesting to explore
his work and ideas by visiting his website,
which I would strongly recommend. In a short e-mail interview,
to which Mr Talman kindly agreed (and that you can read at the
end of this review), I asked him how he had arrived at the concept
and creation of such a piece. It was fascinating to discover
that its origins were in an article about astro-seismology,
which mentioned the use of star oscillations to discover exo-planets.
It immediately made me think of the recent and excellent BBC
programmes “Stargazing Live”, presented by professor Brian Cox
and comedian Dara O Briain. How appropriate it would have been
to display such a sound installation, as part of the fascinating
observation of the night sky! Perhaps, next time? But, returning
to Talman’s answers, after reading the article mentioned above,
he realised that the star oscillations would fit very well with
other pieces that he had done with resonance and so, it led
him “...to explore star resonance as the starting point
for a new work”. He began to contact astrophysicists and
eventually, hit it off with Dr Daniel Huber. In Talman’s own
words: “...it became a real collaboration working up the
sound in a consistent manner for numerous stars so that all
were relative to each other and at a very high sound value for
use in an art work”. And so, Nature of the Night Sky
As I received the recording, I felt a little anxious! I really
did not know what to expect and although extremely curious about
it, I worried that I might not like it. Then, I read the words
of Dr Huber, which are printed on the inside sleeve of the CD:
“... Like musical instruments, larger stars tend to oscillate
at low frequencies while smaller stars oscillate at higher frequencies.
The sounds of the project are all based on astronomical observations
of star oscillation. The star sound data was scaled ... to bring
sounds into the range of human hearing.” I was instantly
hooked! These are beautiful (and fun) scientific facts and,
to me, it is the science behind it that makes the piece so absorbing,
as what you will hear is literally the sound of the stars that
you can see in the sky on a clear night. Naturally, the final
work is not exactly what Dr Huber is describing. The artist
explains on the CD notes that he analysed dense packs of resonance
in Dr Huber’s modelled star sounds; filtered them to extract
each star’s principal resonant frequencies, which are afterwards
overlaid to create the abstract sonic forms of the piece.
Nature of the Night Sky is certainly a fascinating
sound project but as a CD it does not completely work for me.
Amazing though it is to think that when you listen to the recording,
you are actually hearing the sounds of stars, thousands (millions?)
of light-years away from us; this is no music in the conventional
sense and the sound can be at times a little monotone. Of course,
metaphorically speaking, one can describe it as music of the
stars. I cannot say that I disliked it. I did not. In fact,
I found it really engaging but I missed looking at the night
sky at the same time. I think that only then can one truly appreciate
the full beauty of this project.
The recording consists of approximately fifty minutes of sound,
in various degrees of intensity. There are subtle variations
and extraordinary moments where it seems that one is hearing
exquisite singing and then, one must wonder if there is really
a voice that can replicate it. There are also sections where
the artist included entire scaled resonant sound masses of particular
stars. Actually, it is most interesting that Talman tells us
exactly at which time in the recording one can hear a certain
star. Whether you will notice it or not, if you have not read
the notes, is another matter entirely. The CD notes also list
a table of all fifteen stars that were used for the work and
include the words of astrophysicist, Dr Huber, which I mentioned
Nature of the Night Sky was first created as a sound
installation in Germany, in the Bavarian Forest of Gibacht,
and here is the clue to what I missed when I was listening to
the CD. As a consequence, I felt curious and just wanted to
find out about people’s reactions during that first performance
under the dark skies above the woods; so, I asked Mr Talman.
His words confirmed what I imagined. The audience was silent
and in awe: “Fifty minutes later when the work was over
people remained seated or lying on the ground. No one stirred
or said anything or seemed to move. They just remained there
and quietly looked at the stars”.
The sound work recorded in Nature of the Night Sky
is not unpleasant at all; on the contrary, it is actually gentle
and soothing at times. However, I needed to be surrounded by
darkness, to look up at the night sky and so, feel the real
magic and wonders of the Cosmos through the sound on the CD.
With this in mind, I asked Mr Talman if he had plans to present
this installation, for example, in the middle of the Arizona
desert, which is the most incredible, overwhelming night sky
that I have had the privilege of admiring. To my delight, he
confirmed that “... I want to present it in the desert and
have been in touch with several parties ...”, which is
great news. Sadly, it may take a while as Talman says himself,
“Expenses are always a concern in this tight economy...”.
Nature of the Night Sky is a compelling recording but
you cannot use it in the same way that you would any conventional
music CD. For me, it worked best when I listened to it under
headphones with my eyes closed. I would recommend that you do
this comfortably lying on your sofa. Then, allow your fantasy
to take over and lose perception of the world around you, or
better still - weather permitting - sit outside, gaze at the
night sky and let your mind wander. The sound will relax you,
re-energise you and if at the end of it, you were unable to
travel through space at galactic speeds, blame your imagination
- or lack of it; not the recording!
Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at
See review by Dominy
Brief Interview with Jeff Talman on his work Nature
of the Night Sky by Margarida Mota-Bull for MusicWeb
MMB: How did you arrive at the idea to create this work?
JT: I read about scientific discovery almost every day.
An article about asteroseismology talked about the use of star
oscillations to discover exoplanets, that is planets outside
our solar system. These oscillations are spherical harmonics
– sound resonance – and this fitted in very well with other
work I have done with resonance, so the article led me to explore
star resonance as the starting point for a new work.
MMB: Was it from the start a collaboration with Dr Daniel
Huber? Or did you contact him with this work in mind?
JT: First, I contacted several astrophysicists, a few
of which had put scaled star sound up on the web already. Most
of them were very kind and gave me permission to use their work,
but the files were very different sounding and processed with
different scalings and had no consistency between different
astrophysicists. This is not a fault of theirs; only that I
wanted something consistent with itself before proceeding. I
came upon an article that featured Daniel in it regarding work
he had done. We hit it off immediately and it became a real
collaboration working up the sound in a consistent manner for
numerous stars so that all were relative to each other and at
a very high sound value for use in an art work.
MMB: How did you get interested in this type of media and
why does it fascinate you or why do you enjoy working with such
media and experimenting with sound?
JT: Even before I was educated as a composer, I always
had a notion that the flute, oboe, violin, etc. sounded terrific.
But reading into Conceptual Art in visual art I was struck by
Joseph Kosuth's "Art after Philosophy," in
which he says: "If you make paintings you are already accepting
(not questioning) the nature of art. One is then accepting the
nature of art to be the European tradition of a painting-sculpture
dichotomy." I decided to try stopping my acceptance of
the nature of music via classical instruments, but rather to
question the art of sound itself. Ironically, I moved to Europe
to escape the way I had been thinking, lived in Prague, and
many times visited St. Vitus Cathedral, not for religious reasons,
but because I heard something there. Eventually, I realised
that I was quite clearly hearing the resonant sound of the space
itself and that somehow I would try to make that kind of sound
become my work. Since then working in and around the edges of
resonance has been a wonderful adventure in which I've
been able to shift the playing field, introduce sculpture or
video and continually work with many different fascinating spaces.
All that I gave up with instrumental music was replaced by an
entirely new possibility in which my imagination could work
on problems completely different from tradition-bound music,
but no less important as problems/solutions to the art work.
As an artist it is absolutely thrilling because, in addition
to composing, I often have to become an inventor of sorts.
MMB: Was the sound installation, Nature of the
Night Sky, originally presented in a Bavarian forest,
a commission from the Bayerische Waldverein of Furth im Wald
or did you suggest it to them?
JT: I had put up three installations previously in the
forest in that general area, so I know the people pretty well
by now. Last winter, I approached the Berghof Gibacht and asked
if there might be interest in the area in having a new installation
go up in 2011. They kicked the idea around for awhile and said
yes, could I make a more formal proposal. I had been working
with Daniel for about 6-8 weeks by then and the sound was really
coming along. Also, the idea of an outdoor night piece seemed
appropriate to me, a good way to get a different sense of the
forest. So, I put these elements together and the "Night
Sky" proposal evolved out of that. At that point the Berghof
Gibacht contacted the Waldverein and other funders and logistics
people, regional and local politicians, etc. and the proposal
MMB: I presume you were present when the installation was
first shown, how did people react?
JT: Yes, I was there for about a week installing the
work and to make a presentation at the opening. The people were
wonderful and very good listeners! Because this was my fourth
installation there, they are familiar with my work now, so that
is a really wonderful thing. I can try different things and
since they have a context they hopefully can make the leap.
Though this work was much more abstract than previous work,
the audience stayed fully attentive and remained extremely quiet.
Fifty minutes later when the work was over people remained seated
or lying on the ground. No one stirred or said anything or seemed
to move. They just remained there and quietly looked at the
stars. Finally, I was the first to move after about five minutes.
We had not planned to end the evening with any talking, but
it occurred to me that I should just say a very quick statement,
a startling fact about the number of stars, their density in
a very small region of the sky and to thank them for attending.
It framed the presentation so well that we used that same statement
every night afterwards to close the evening.
MMB: Have you ever considered presenting this installation,
“Nature of the Night Sky”, for example in the middle of the
Arizona desert at night? To my mind, this would make the sound
very powerful. Would you agree or disagree? Please comment and
describe your thoughts.
JT: Yes, I want to present it in the desert and have
been in touch with several parties, but nothing has been decided
on yet. Expenses are always a concern in this tight economy,
but I believe it will go up again at some point. I've
been approached also by commercial concerns that seem to want
to co-opt the work, but I've been really rigorous with
how it must be presented and commercial interest has fallen
away. I believe though that it would work extremely well in
a desert setting, on the seashore, in the dead of winter with
snow all around – in short in pretty much any natural setting
that has a good clear view of the stars available without road,
urban or community views or noises in the background. But I'm
also very interested to get a new work up soon and am working
on a couple of different possibilities.
MMB: In the information about the CD, it is mentioned that
you will be collaborating with Dr Daniel Huber very soon for
a project based on the sounds of the sun and entitled “Moments
from the Sun”. Could you elaborate a little on this, please?
JT: The sun oscillates as the other stars do. But because
we are so much closer the readings that we get from it are extremely
detailed – I'm very interested in exploring that detail.
Stellar bodies have tens of thousands of resonances, not just
the greater spherical harmonics that were the sound elements
of "Nature of the Night Sky." With the sun I should
have a much richer palette with which to work. Otherwise, I
haven't explored as far into the work such that I'm
ready to say much more about it yet.
MMB: Where will the sun installation be presented (assuming
there will be one, as part of the project)? If yes, why?
JT: There have been discussions about a possible indoor
presentation for this piece, but it hasn't been decided
yet – I'll keep you posted!
MMB: I really hope so. Finally, I must thank you for your
time and wish you all the very best with your future work.