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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cosmos Chorus

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with physicist Don Gurnett, who has branched out from his usual studies to make music with sounds he’s collected through the years from space. Gurnett collaborated with composer Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet to fashion a 10-movement composition called "Sun Rings."


CURWOOD: Don Gurnett teaches physics at the University of Iowa. He spent 40 years collecting distant clicks, hums, and whispers from outer space.


GURNETT: We just heard a recording of what’s called "Dawn Chorus" which is a plasma wave that’s generated in the earth’s radiation belt that consists of energetic electrons, and these electrons sort of spontaneously get together, and you get these whistling tones.

CURWOOD: Now Professor Gurnett and composer Terry Riley have set these sounds to music.


CURWOOD: The Cosmos and the Kronos Quartet perform together a ten movement work called "Sun Rings."


CURWOOD: Professor Gurnett, what are the sounds from space that we’re hearing in this movement called "Venus Upstream?”

GURNETT: Well, Venus has some very peculiar sounds. When we went by Venus with the Galileo spacecraft, you could hear these rather high frequency, very short kind of notes, and I could hear that in the background there.


CURWOOD: Let’s listen now to "Planet Elf Sindoori.”


CURWOOD: I can hear a pretty strong influence from the Orient in this piece. What sounds from space appear in this movement?

GURNETT: Well, the kind of rhythmic thing in the background, I recognize that as another instrument on the Voyager spacecraft that makes an interfering noise, you know, that kind of ‘bong’ type thing.


CURWOOD: What is it about these sounds that make them particularly good material for music?

GURNETT: In space it seems that there are all kinds of things that have a musical aspect to it. It varies from whistling tones which go (whistles) like that, various tones with sometimes harmonics like a musical scale. That’s one of the amazing things about space is it just has so much variety.

CURWOOD: Don Gurnett is a physicist and professor at the University of Iowa. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

GURNETT: Oh, you’re welcome.




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