WIRED- feb 2013

The International Space Orchestra pays hommage to Apollo 11 mission

The International Space Orchestra in Wired.

Words by Robert Barry , read the full article here

A team of astronauts and space scientists have teamed up with writers and composers including Bruce Sterling and Gorrilaz to develop an opera about space, performed by the International Space Orchestra. investigates

Back in 1968, Norman Mailer compared wandering around the Kennedy Space Centre's enormous Vehicle Assembly Building to being "in the back of the stage at an opera house". Forty-five years later, Mailer's strange vision was partially fulfilled when the similarly proportioned NFAC Wind Tunnel at Nasa's Ames Research Centre, test bed for Apollo and the space shuttle alike, became the backdrop for a performance of Ground Control, an opera, by the International Space Orchestra.

There have been operas about space before -- Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna featured a trip to the moon in 1777 -- but none that have been written and performed by real astronauts and space scientists, working alongside international writers and composers, from Gorrilaz to Maywa Denki. "Of course now that she's done it it's obvious," says science fiction author Bruce Sterling, who contributed lyrics to one of the opera's arias, of the notion of a space opera by genuine space workers. "Before she did it, it was even more far-out than the domesticated living-room volcano she invented."

That "she" is London-based designer Nelly Ben Hayoun, the creator-producer of the orchestra and director of the documentary film about the group which recently screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Born in Valence, in the South of France, Ben Hayoun was taught by the pioneers of speculative design, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby at London's Royal College of Art. Since graduating, she has developed her own unique experiential practice, with previous projects involving a reclining armchair which realistically simulated the three-stage take-off of a Soyuz rocket, the creation of dark energy in a kitchen sink, and a volcanic eruption in the sitting room of her own flat. "At the end of the day," she tells me over the phone, "experience is about design."

The idea of an International Space Orchestra first came to Ben Hayoun on a field trip to the site of the Chernobyl disaster -- not, she is keen to stress, "that Nasa has anything to do with Chernobyl." But seeing the ruins of the Ukrainian power plant, where one wrong button-push caused unspeakable disaster, inspired the notion that "control rooms were these places where intense human emotions can happen." This, she tells me, made her think of "operatic form: putting tragedy into music." Sterling concurs, "There's a kind of unexamined Italian sadness to opera, and maybe a similar kind of smothered emotionality in a control room. Something about the huge, tragic distance between yourself and the object of your concern."

The central narrative of Ground Control revolves around a re-enactment of the high-wire tension inside mission control during the Apollo 11 mission, written by Ben Hayoun with Rusty Hunt, flight director for the recent LCROSS and LADEE moon missions. Weaving in and around this drama is Bobby Womack's tribute to Armstrong, 'The Bravest Man in the Universe' (a collaboration with Damon Albarn and XL's Richard Russell, arranged by Mike Smith of Gorillaz), plus additional music by Japanese pop conceptualist, Maywa Denki, Arthur Jeffes of Piano Cafe, and the ISO's own musical director, Evan Price.

Having been introduced by a mutual friend, twice-Grammy nominated jazz violinist Price was recruited by Ben Hayoun at a taqueria in San Francisco in July 2012. "We immediately faced some huge challenges," he tells me. "We had no budget, no repertoire, no rehearsal space, no firm commitments from any of the musicians, and no idea of their technical proficiency." But encouraged by Ben Hayoun's overpowering faith in the project, Price persisted and soon a rehearsal space was provided by Nasa and "a core membership emerged" of Ames employees, Seti researchers, plus graduates from the Singularity University and the International Space University. Despite the fact that all the players were volunteers, still working their day jobs, Price says that once signed up they showed the same commitment with which "one imagines they might approach a long-term research project or exploration mission".

Norman Mailer once speculated about the "psychology of astronauts", about the contradiction between their apparent stoicism and the cosmic imagination it masked. "If you want to actually go into space," Ben Hayoun said to me, "you cannot really do it without a creative mind." If you've trained most of your adult life to travel into space, like the ISO's percussionist, astronaut Yvonne Cagle has; or dreamed of the moon but finally accepted the stars will never be your destination, as other Ames employees and International Space University graduates might have -- could music offer you a glimpse of that oceanic weightlessness, that cosmic sublime?

As the International Space Orchestra film begins to do the rounds of film festivals and art galleries, Ben Hayoun herself has greater plans afoot. "I really want to become an astronaut," she confesses. And she's working towards taking the training programme, "becoming a US citizen is the next step." So perhaps future concerts will see the International Space Orchestra playing amongst the stars. "My work is all about designing impossible projects," she tells me.

You can find out more about the International Space Orchestra on the Ground Control website.