Discover more from MUSIC x
✘ Radical agency and science-fictive exploration in sound
And: Sounds from Mars; Trees from the moon; Star Trek Sleep Sounds
Hi all, here we have the last article in the MUTEK Festival and Forum takeover of MUSIC x. It’s a special one, because it’s by an artist who’s music I love: Stefana Fratila. She’s a a Romanian-born artist, composer and sound designer based in Toronto, Canada. She is also a DJ and co-founder of Crip Rave, an event platform showcasing and prioritizing Crip, Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Sick body-minds within safer and more accessible rave spaces. You’ll read here about her take on the performative aspect of sound in space and how she’s tried to capture that through her Sononaut project: 8 open-source VST plug-ins that emulate the atmospheric conditions of the planets in our solar system in collaboration with NASA scientists and Jen Kutler. Take a breath and step into the creative world of this amazing artist.
The universe is an ever-expanding place of noise, constantly vibrating and emanating an infinity of sounds. Particles shift against one another creating an array of sonic occurrences that are at times inaudible to us. Although sound waves require conduit material forms in order to travel, sound is not limited to existing exclusively within oxygen-rich atmospheres, in the way that our bodies are.
Sound has both audible and inaudible properties and can be experienced beyond the narrow constructs of a hearing-centric understanding. In other words, and other worlds, sound exists in places where our bodies, for the time being, cannot. For example, the sound of lightning striking on Venus (discharging electricity accompanied by the sound of thunder) still occurs regardless of our physical presence there. Just because our bodies cannot breathe on, nor listen to sounds on, other planets does not mean that we may never be able to, nor that we should limit our imaginations in this regard.
These thoughts and considerations formed the conception of my project Sononaut, 8 open-source VST plug-ins that emulate the atmospheric conditions of the planets in our solar system. How might embodied subjects perceive sound waves as they travel through the different atmospheres of our solar system? How would the vibrations of Mercury feel to a fleshy form? If we were to put our ears to the ground, or lie down our bodies, would we not feel the Mercuryquakes below the surface? And isn’t feeling sound the epitome of experiencing it?(1) These questions constituted my conversations with scientists and researchers at NASA between 2018 and 2019. Like artists, scientists are accustomed to suspending their disbelief in order to imagine different possibilities. A sound artist’s conceptual fantasy carries similar meaning to an atmospheric scientist’s hypothesis: both work spatially, trying to understand speculative frequencies, tracking in registers that might not be perceivable at first– manifesting different imaginary spaces through descriptive circumstances and senses. But human senses are affected by the circumstances of the body. Notably, acoustic perception plays a major role in the way we relate to space; in matters of being, belonging and orienting oneself. Through my conversations with NASA scientists, I began to imagine the planets as sonic chambers I could exist within.
At its core, Sononaut and my corresponding album I want to leave this Earth behind is an exercise in speculative fiction.(2) It reflects on what it means for a disabled person, such as myself, to be leading an imagined exploration of outer space. Part of my interest in considering music and outer space exploration from a disabled positionality is that our solar system’s planetary bodies are inherently prohibitive, even in regards to Earth’s most “able-bodied”, or non-disabled subjects. Outer space is, in essence, a disabling force. I find this overtly ‘disabling’ element of other worlds compelling and relatable, since my own experience of disability often renders my own lived environments (places constructed within ableist paradigms of so-called “abilities”) into spaces that impair my body, through their very design. In this sense, I am responding to an experience of exclusionary settings, whether it be through seizing forms of radical agency and science-fictive ambitions, placing all human subjects within new worlds, or through projecting ourselves onto the interplanetary bodies of our solar system through my own sonic daydreaming. In her poem, “On that one-way trip to Mars,” Marela Chertock writes, “If I didn't have a bone disorder / I would go to Mars / and never come back.”(3) Science fiction has a long history of destabilizing social conventions, such as political and gender tropes, by making speculative spaces accessible conceptually– perhaps it is no coincidence that so much science fiction takes place in outer space, a setting without ending, an environment made up of ostensibly infinite possibilities.
With my music and the Sononaut plug-ins, my underlying presumption is that I can not only access interplanetary travel, but that I can also breathe in outer space—in other words, transforming interplanetary atmospheres into spaces that are conducive to a living body. The solar system’s weather patterns are similar to Earth’s but often defined by extremities– supersonic winds, burning and freezing temperatures, violent storms, dust devils, and so on. Outer space is already off-limits to so many of us, so I permit myself (via a combination of scientific research, speculative fiction, and coding) the capacity to suspend earthly limits and to bring forth, into existence, interplanetary weather and travel.
Planets and their frequencies
While at NASA, it became immediately apparent that every planet (except for Mercury) is incredibly windy. My mind was racing, imagining the planets as windy tunnels and reverberant rooms: if I could turn the wind off, what would my voice, or my songs, sound like then? To find out, I had to imagine the interplanetary weather patterns and geographical features as music, as if the thunder clouds and volcanoes were musical instruments in and of themselves. Every planet has its own frequency; if we decide that Earth is middle C (261.63 Hertz), each other planet would also have its own pitch based on its own surface pressure, surface temperature, gas components and atmospheric density. What might the songs of one of my favourite artists, the blind musician Pauline Anna Strom and her seminal collection, Trans-Millenia Music, sound like if played in the pitch of Jupiter? Or what about Sun Ra’s famous Afrofuturist record Space is the Place in the pitch of Saturn?
Yet, despite the rich history of musicians and artists making work about outer space exploration, NASA only very recently sent microphones into another planetary atmosphere. The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover was the first spacecraft equipped with microphones that successfully captured subtle recordings of the weather on Mars.(4) I remember touching the microphones on a visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2019, and wondering if the recordings would incidentally amount to an experimental sound art piece, created by Mars via NASA (not unlike how a field recordist might record a dust storm on Earth). Or whether the strength of frequencies and vibrations on Mars would even register to the tiny microphones I held in my hand. In my mind, the power of playing with speculative fiction and scientific research is that it bridges the gap: it fills in the frequencies that our technological tools inevitably miss.
(1) I am a co-founder of CRIP RAVE™, a Toronto-based collective and event platform showcasing Crip-identifying talent and prioritizing Crip, Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Sick body-minds within safer and more accessible rave spaces. During a consultation with Deaf Spectrum, we were pointed towards the SUBPAC vest, which is a tactile audio system developed in Toronto, and that some Deaf people use to experience music through its vibrations. “How deaf dancer Chris Fonseca uses SUBPAC to feel the beat,” CNN, 15 December 2020, accessed 21 February 2022
(2) I incorporated the Sononaut VST plug-ins into my album’s production
(3) Marela Chertock, On that one-way trip to Mars (Los Angeles: Bottlecap Press, 2016)
(4) NASA, “Hear Sounds From Mars Captured by NASA’s Perseverance Rover,” 18 October 2021
Stefana’s interesting links
“NASA engineers combined three segments from the raw audio file recorded while the Perseverance Mars rover rolled across a section of Jezero Crater on sol 16 of the mission. Sections 0:20-0:45, 6:40-7:10, and 14:30-15:00 were combined into this 90-second highlight clip. There has been processing and editing to filter out some of the noise.”
🌒 We Almost Forgot About the Moon Trees (Marina Koren)
“Stuart Roosa, one of the Apollo 14 astronauts, took a small canvas bag of tree seeds with him on the journey. While his fellow astronauts walked on the lunar surface, Roosa and the seeds flew round and round the moon until the crew was ready to come back. A few years after the astronauts returned home, some of the seeds—sycamores, redwoods, pines, firs, and sweetgums—were planted across the United States, to see how they would grow, or simply to keep a piece of moon history close by.”
Stefana’s music recommendation(s)
Tujiko Noriko’s “Crépuscule I & II’:
Lucy Liyou’s “Dog Dreams”: