NASA uses a fleet of satellites to observe Earth—its weather patterns, atmosphere, sea levels and ocean currents, winds and storm warnings and freshwater resources. This piece represents the orbital movement of these spacecraft using a large-scale immersive sound system. Dan Goods and David Delgado, both artists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, initially developed the concept, and then commissioned me to compose the soundscape and Jason Klimoski of Studio KCA to design the form. Jason’s idea for the massive nautilus shape was inspired by the thought of holding a shell close to the ear and hearing ocean-like sounds inside. In this case, listeners walk into the shell and are immersed in a soundscape played over a hemisphere of loudspeakers.
The piece is in two parts, each with one sound following the path of a satellite. One section demonstrates the movement of the satellites by compressing a day’s worth of trajectory data into 1 minute, so listeners are enveloped by a symphony of 19 sounds swirling around them. The other section represents the real-time position of the spacecraft: each satellite in currently in our hemisphere will “speak” in sequence, and when a sound is playing, if a listener points to the direction of the sound they are pointing to the satellite orbiting hundreds of miles above us. The position is translated to the latitude/longitude of each new location of the exhibit.
I want the composition to evoke something about the satellites, both where they are and what they study. When the sounds are representing their real-time location, I want people to think about the actual spacecraft out there in orbit working away, so I chose electronic and mechanical textures, playing with the types of sounds that hopefully make people think of satellites. When the orbits are sped up, I decided to focus more on the missions, which is a combination of the data being collected by the satellites and the people down here making it useful. These satellites are all part of Earth science missions, studying our atmosphere, oceans and geology — they are helping us better understand how our planet is changing, and potentially how we can be better stewards of it. In that way I see them as kind of sentinels or protectors. To evoke this I created a soundscape that relies on field recordings mixed with musical tones, creating a symphonic ecosystem that is intended to be both enveloping and comforting.
Exhibited at the 2015 World Science Festival and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Currently on display at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, CA
Sound Composition, coding + system design: Shane Myrbeck
Pavilion Design by STUDIOKCA
Creative Strategy: Dan Goods and David Delgado, NASA/JPL