It's Our Night at the Museum, & We're Exploring the Universe
Keith Patchel is a composer and musician transforming the way we experience science. His music is ethereal, mysterious and subtly galactic – think Star Trek, the orchestra. I ventured to Mr. Patchel’s recording studio on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side to learn more about music’s role in communicating complex science.
His musical talents, coupled with a fascination for physics, have led to a professional career in avant-garde composition. His work includes composing the 2015 Pluto Symphony for the Hayden Planetarium, the scores for the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary “Finishing Heaven” (2010), and crafting score and sound design for Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” at Columbia University and the Medicine Show Theater.
More recently, science has taken center stage. Mr. Patchel teamed up with Dr. Carter Emmart, Director of Astrovisualization for the American Museum of Natural History, to form the MARSBAND. At the Hayden Planetarium, audiences can now explore the Red Planet accompanied by a live musical performance.
A condensed and edited version of the conversation follows.
Where did your fascination for music and for science begin?
I have loved music since I was a child. My mother played the piano and some of my favorite memories were spent listening to her play Schumann, Debussy, Dvorak. And at ten years old, I was given a guitar. And although I am a professional musician now, I didn’t have a lot of formal training when I was younger. Instead, I loved creating my own combinations, and playing folk and rock guitar. I did do one semester as a physics major in college; but I knew I wanted to become a professional musician. And as I grew into the craft of music, I grew also into the science of music theory. It truly is a science.
Tell me more about that, the science of music theory. What do you mean by that?
You know, when I look at musical notation, I see it as very organic. It feels molecular. And that’s how I think about music composition. You are working with sounds akin to chemical molecules, like amino acids, where you experiment with them. You fuse and form them together.
What’s music got to do with science?
At its most basic level, music is sound. It’s a vibration. Whenever an object strikes, (Keith snaps his fingers), there’s a vibrational pattern set off. There are specific ratios and frequencies in terms of the wavelengths of vibrating objects through the air, and our ear is incredibly sensitive. Those vibrating patterns hit our eardrums and they are measured in the cochlea, a snail-like object found in our inner ear that processes these vibrations for the brain, registering them as frequencies.
Every human voice has a unique signature, just like the fingerprint.
Do you see music has an opportunity to better communicate “scientific language?”
Oh yes. In the last twenty years or so, humanity has crossed an epoch. The ways in which humans communicate and access information has exploded exponentially. This epoch offers a transformation in regards to how we experience big data, information and social media. Sight and sound are permanently wed and reinterpreted in a different way.
In this vein, I’ve been working with Dr. Carter Emmart at the Hayden Planetarium on this thing called the MARSBAND. I’ve composed music to guide Carter as he flies us through these vast data sets displayed on the planetarium’s screen.
Each event is an improvisation for both of us, but a very structured improvisation. As he takes us past Planet Earth and up into the solar system, I incorporate sound elements and pieces I’ve composed to convey musically the different dimensions of time and space we witness.
How did you meet Dr. Carter Emmart, Director of Astrovisualization at the Hayden Planetarium? When did the conversation transition to collaboration?
Carter and I are actually neighbors! We’ve known each other in the neighborhood for years.
You know, the usual, “Hey man how’s it going?”
“I’m good man, how are you?”
Well, one day I was drinking my morning coffee at the local café, and got to talking with Carter, who was also there working. We were sitting and talking to each other, and I kind of looked over his shoulder and saw his laptop screen.
“What is that?” I asked him.
“Ah it’s just my work.” Carter responded.
“What do you mean, your work? What do you do?”
Well, what did you see?
These extraordinary visualizations of planetary objects.
I hate asking people…you know, what do you do…but I simply had to. He answered by telling me he was director of the Hayden Planetarium. He could tell I was interested.
We began working and improvising in the planetarium at night. It was an audio-visual jam session. Carter explained that he offered planetary tours with a playlist but that it was getting boring. That it didn’t have any flexibility. So I started thinking: what if we began making rhythms that were elastic? What if we started making the tonalities, the counterpoint and chord, elastic as well? Music like this shouldn't be constricted by our perception of rhythm.
Tell me in your own words, what's the MARSBAND experience?
The MARSBAND is a journey. We start at home on Planet Earth. From there, sometimes we’ll go to the Space Station, sometimes to the Moon. Then we’ll go to Mars, hop through our solar system. We will then travel outward, where we find ourselves only one of a gazillion galaxies. As Carter takes us further and further out, it becomes awe-inspiring, staggering, how much is out there in the distance. Then we hit something called the electromagnetic background, which is the furthest reach of our understanding of space. You saw that part, where it was visualized with dots and density patterns. Don’t they look like molecules?
They do. It looks like you’ve gone into your skin.
Exactly! It looks like you went into your skin. I have created a musical rendering that I believe represents and reflects this awe we all experience. And when I say elastic, I mean that the music is flexible. Because when Carter sets us off and takes us for a ride, we really don’t know where our destination is.
Do you have a favorite destination?
Yes! Don’t get me wrong. I love our solar system. But by the time we start getting out into the Milky Way Galaxy and hop out of our galaxy. At that moment, Carter explains that there are millions of galaxies. There’s hundreds of millions of galaxies.
Every time, I’m in shock.
And in light of the present consequences of climate change, what do you feel about the notion that Mars is Planet B?
People have this fantasy that if we incinerate planet Earth, or if we destroy planet Earth, we’ll simply hop to Mars. This notion that we’re going to jump on one of Elon Musk’s commuter rockets and save ourselves? That’s science fiction. Mars is sand dune after mountain after sand dune. I like summer and winter, the beach, the snow, the mountains. There’s none of that there.
So what is the alternative to you?
I think we must enforce renewable energy deployment, negotiations, de-escalating the war effort and our war culture we’re in right now.
Do you see the MARSBAND as an opportunity to demonstrate commonalities over differences?
I sure hope so. When all is said and done, Carter and I are just trying to get people really excited how beautiful Planet Earth is and how we have to preserve it.
So I'm sure you're wondering: how can I see this too? I've got good news. The MARSBAND team is will debut their first outdoor concert and tour of the universe this summer in New York City. And stay on the lookout for more events at the American Museum of Natural History. I'll be sure to alert you guys via Twitter and Instagram if another MARSBAND show happens soon.