Jeff TALMAN (b.1954)
Nature of the Night Sky (2011) [50:20]
No recording details
NEW DOMAIN RECORDS ND-11011 [50:22]
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 it.
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 was born!
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 earlier.
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 http://www.flowingprose.com/
Will relax and 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!
See review by Dominy Clements
Brief Interview with Jeff Talman on his work Nature of the Night Sky by Margarida Mota-Bull for MusicWeb International
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 went through.
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.