Signal Tide

Here is a little story of how art and music meet science with Berlin-based duo Kovács/O’Doherty . After reading an open call from the LACMA, they submitted their idea of using audio from an abandoned, resurrected satellite that had been in orbit around the earth for the last half a century. Signal Tide would become a “sound and extraterrestrial radio installation.” The project was a perfect combo of science, music, and art, and they were selected. The happening starts on September 21st in Los Angeles; we will follow the satellite signal on the LACMA ground thanks to the 3D-printed DIY speakers made by the artists, accompanied by sounds from Montréal post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor – who, by the way, are releasing their new album Luciferian Towers and just started a European tour.

Read more about the full project below or on the dedicated blog.

Spectrogram image excerpt from the signal of the LES-1 satellite

This satellite, named the LES-1, is a mysterious machine that came back to life after almost half a century of silence. It was launched in 1965, and abandoned in 1967 as space junk, after malfunctioning and falling silent. However, in 2013, the signal from the satellite was received again, for the first time in 46 years. Experts suspect that the degrading of the onboard battery has slowly caused a short-circuit between the solar panels and the transmitter, which has allowed the satellite to transmit again, but only when exposed to sunlight.

“This was our starting point — the poetic idea that an abandoned object would come back to life and keep on working, like a faithful servant,” says Kovács. She and O’Doherty have been researching the LES-1 satellite for the last year-and-a-half, putting together the hardware (including home-made, hand-built antennas), software, and research time needed to turn this ghostly remnant of another era into a fully-developed sound installation. Along the way, they have worked together with engineers at SpaceX, and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to overcome the technical challenges they faced in creating the work.

soldering speakers into 3d-printed shells

But the finished piece will not just use the sound from the satellite. Kovács/O’Doherty have collaborated with David Bryant, of Montréal post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who just released their new album Luciferian Towers and just started a European tour, on the accompanying music and sound that will serenade the satellite in the final installation. “We worked together with David, and through him, we met Drew Barnet and James Hamilton, both Montreal musicians, who also became collaborators on the project,” says Tom. “Along with a few others, we recorded in David’s studio for two weeks earlier this year.”

Tracking satellite signals, Stolzenhagen, Germany, May 2017

The music that they created is based on melodies used in sacred harp hymns. Sacred harp singing is a distinct folk tradition of American and Canadian a capella music, sung for over two centuries in the New England and Quebec regions, as well as further afield. “The LES-1 satellite was built at Lincoln Labs, at MIT in Boston,” Kata explains. “It’s a high-tech place, but it’s also located in a city that is one of the centers of this folk singing tradition. We wanted, in a way, to anthropomorphize the satellite, and serenade it with music that is from the place that it came from. To welcome it, as it passes overhead, with sound that is from the place where it was created. We’re interested in the artistic applications of technology, but more than that, we are interested in working with ephemeral moments, with ghosts, with traditions and their reinvention, with memory — Signal Tide is a combination of these different motivations.”

During its four-day happening, the piece is only active for the times the satellite is passing overhead. The LES-1 takes around three hours to circle the globe, and so, as it zooms through the sky over the site of the installation, the piece will come to life, receiving the signal from the satellite and playing it from overhead speakers. At the same time, speakers on the ground will play the accompanying sacred-harp-derived music, serenading the artificial moon with an earthbound tide of sound. This accompanying music is made up of many individual strands of sound, which are controlled via a generative, software-defined process – so each pass of the satellite never repeats in the same way, and each pass becomes a unique experience connecting us with outer space.

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