The International Space Orchestra is prepping for liftoff

SountCtrl, january 2013

The International Space Orchestra is prepping for liftoff

Words by Kira Grunenberg for SoundCtrl

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Last november, the story of Axel Boman and the Radioactive Orchestra talked of a project that literally combined science as we humans know it, with the innate sound of the elements that exist around us and the potential for making music with them. The idea of such a unique pursuit comes across as the kind of project one would only find once in a blue moon. Unconventional thinking is wonderful for perspective and growth but what could possibly stand alongside something as unorthodox as a “Radioactive Orchestra?”

Almost as a perfect response to the above question, where nuclear researchers in Sweden went sub-atomic and within, through the Radioactive Orchestra, aeronautics scholars and scientists are taking the practice of music conversely outward to the final frontier with The International Space Orchestra.

This experimental and somewhat unpredictable concept was originally conceived by Nelly Ben Hayoun –an award-winning director and self-described “experience designer.” (Hayoun’s work makes quite the extensive CV, equally bridging the scholastic with the imaginative). The “ISO” and its first performance effort debuted last year in September at the ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose, California but is returning to the public eye through this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival in the Netherlands.

The orchestra itself is comprised of people from the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute, the NASA Ames Research Center, the International Space University and Singularity University. The film mirrors the objectives of the live event in San Jose. Quoted from the project’s “About” page, the purpose of bringing these groups together and making this film is…

to introduce the public to the emotional nuances of space science technologies, the people working with them and the challenges and opportunities of an exciting new era of commercial space exploration.

Exposing the public to the intricacies of space exploration and the work involved therein is one half of the impressive nature of the ISO. Musically, Hayoun has not cut corners on collaborators either. Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, and two-time Grammy winner Evan Price, known for his classical crossover albums, are just two of the heavy hitters involved. Bobby Womack, with whom Albarn has collaborated in the past, is also part of the project, as well as Arthur Jeffes, and Maywa Denki, known for his intriguing art and experimentation with atypical instrument form.

Fully disclosed on the “Team” page of the group’s website, the scientists and their musical contributions are as diverse as the specific duties and research fields they attend to for the sake of space exploration. Instruments featured span from the triangle to the ukulele, saxophone and even a gong, among the more familiar orchestral suspects. Adding to the instrumentalists, an entire choir was put together as well.

The project might seem like an odd pairing of both people and industries but that is what gives the idea so much power and value. Importance of science versus a lack of importance toward music is an ongoing battle within many American public school systems. Seeing accomplished, established people of science showing a side of themselves that connects to a world typically deemed less crucial to human success, shows just how much these individuals are primarily about exploring new territories, regardless of how that occurs – using just science or incorporating forms of art and not concentrating on upholding a wall between the two.

This sentiment is well expressed in the clip below: “You know, science is black and white and music probably isn’t but it still takes a creative mind to do it.”