Twinkle, Twinkle, little Supernova,

Twinkle, Twinkle, little Supernova,
How I wonder what you…



Bossa nova ….

If there is anything more difficult than finding a legitimately good rhyme for the word supernova, it would be composing a piece of interesting and engaging music. Seriously, it’s much harder than you think (the rhyme, that is.)

I have long had an interest in Astronomy. Learning about the vast distances, stellar mechanics and variety of objects in the universe has always captivated me from the time I was a child. The science of space continues to amaze me. And I still mourn the loss of Pluto as a planet.
So it should come as no surprise then that the combination of astronomy and music draws my attention. I once heard a performance at the Boston Conservatory of a wonderful piece combining a prerecorded audio file of sounds from Voyager, a spacefaring satellite, with live solo clarinet. It was amazing.

But the mere combination of something space related and music does not always achieve greatness. I’m looking at you John Cage-Atlas Eclipticalis.

Enter The Supernova Sonata.This piece was “composed” by observing a section of the night sky and cataloging supernovae explosions within it. These explosions are caused by the nuclear reaction of a star breaking down, essentially causing it to blow up and expel most of its matter into space, releasing more energy than our own sun emits.
These observations were then transcribed as follows:

Volume = Distance: The volume of the note is determined by the distance to the supernova, with more distant supernova being quieter and fainter.

Pitch = “Stretch:” The pitch of the note was determined by the supernova’s “stretch,” a property of how the supernova brightens and fades. Higher stretch values played higher notes. The pitches were drawn from a Phrygian dominant scale.

Instrument = Mass of Host Galaxy: The instrument the note was played on was determined by the properties of the galaxy which hosted each supernova. Supernovae hosted by massive galaxies are played with a stand-up bass, while supernovae hosted by less massive galaxies are played with a grand piano.

The full details of the method for creating the work can be found here. Although this isn’t a true “sounds of the cosmos” or even the actual tones of an exploding star (which technically has no pitch because sound needs density of matter to travel and the vacuum of space being empty prevents the transmission of any sound wave [if you don’t believe me put a microphone in space and try it out for yourself]), it is interesting nonetheless.

But from a musical standpoint, the method is irrelevant. No one should care more one way or the other if a good piece of music is composed diatonically, through serialism, or any other ‘onic ‘ism or system. Duke Ellington said it best: If it sounds good, it is good.

The video below also shows where the supernovae occurred, allowing you to follow along like reading sheet music.

Enjoy, or don’t.

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