by Stefano Giovanardi and Angelina Yershova

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Dear Astronomers Without Borders, nice to meet all of you from the pages of this blog! We really appreciate this opportunity to talk about our project as Astro Artists of the Month. As we share with you a passion for astronomy and space, in the following posts we will try to give you the flavor of our efforts in communicating the essence of its beauty and the emotions raised by exploring and understanding the cosmos. Our goal is not educational,  rather it is an attempt to elicit an individual awareness of our cosmic citizenship. Music and storytelling are the keys to a personal discovery of - and engagement with - the emotion of science.

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Angelina Yershova and Stefano Giovanardi, founders of the Astroconcert project

The Astroconcert project started in 2008, when Angelina Yershova, a musician from Kazakhstan, visited the Planetarium of Rome and there met the astronomer Stefano Giovanardi. We both came from different paths of life and of study, a musical career versus a scientific one, but talking to each other we discovered a reciprocal attitude: curiosity for the inspirational power that astronomy could bring to music, as much as music could bring to astronomy and science. Sharing this interest toward each other’s work established a common ground – and language – upon which it became quickly clear that some exciting intersection could arise, on the professional level.

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Stefano and Angelina after a performance at the International Festival of Electronic Literature in Naples, 2013.

While Stefano was deeply involved, by his activity at the Planetarium, in a continuous research of new languages to present astronomy to the public, Angelina, on the other hand, was interested in creating multimedia projects and cosmic music that could “talk with the stars” – or even touch them. Literally.

Thus, in January 2009, the very first event that the Planetarium of Rome produced for the International Year of Astronomy IYA2009 was “Stellar Vibrations”, our first Astroconcert. It was a live performance specifically composed and designed for the planetarium dome, where the audience was immersed within a dizzying space journey, following mysterious orbits across the sky, with a different chromatic and musical atmosphere. Angelina's music is created live by the reading of celestial maps, where the sounds of the stars are assigned and modulated according to their astronomical parameters. The spectral type of a star is compared to the sound spectrum; the magnitude of the star corresponds to the intensity of the sound. The musical score is played by a movement of the hands, touching the stars to evocate their vibrations. A specific software allows to define a “score” by associating sounds to selected areas of a bi-dimensional image.

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Angelina’s hands could be seen projected among the stars, touching their light to produce a sound via a specifically coded digital interaction. A 8.1 digital surround system allowed the sound to move physically across space, in sync with the visual events occurring in the wide planetarium sky. In fact, as those unheard starry notes propagated inside the dome, for each piece Stefano arranged an astronomical setting with visual effects and daring movements that were never seen before in a optical planetarium. They went from animating undefined glowing objects along twisted geometric trajectories among the stars, to simulating a 3D effect by overlapping slides of a globular cluster to the rotating sky. The performance of Stellar
Vibrations also featured a special guest: artist Simone Pappalardo, who played the enigmatic tones of his self-built modified violins. Added metallic and electronic components made of them entirely new musical instruments. By moving a magnetic element in the surrounding space, the player induced mysterious resonances, with gestures similar to those of a shaman.

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The result of this game of acoustic and optical illusions was mesmerizing: after the concert, somebody asked us “what did you smoke before?”, saying it had been their best “trip”.
This was the beginning of a long lasting collaboration that has since then evolved to reach a higher level of interplay and fusion between the musical element and the scientific one: if Stellar Vibrations was essentially a concert, where the musical performance was winding around an impressive visual set, the vocal and verbal ingredient acquired further relevance over time. Scientific storytelling – by the voice of Stefano – later became the second “soloist” instrument of Astroconcert, as we learned to achieve a dialectic balance between music and narration, a crucial element of the Astroconcert formula.

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During the momentous IYA2009 we took part in another cornerstone event: 100 Hours of Astronomy (April 2009). The emphasis on the long duration of that event gave us the opportunity to explore another side of the personal approach to observing the sky: time – more precisely, the length of time needed to adapt the vision to darkness, to find the orientation, to locate the stars and even to point a telescope until the desired target is finally framed within the field of view. For all these reasons, star gazing takes time; usually quite a long span of it. Consequently, the rhythm of an observing session is generally slow, and it includes some “dead times” sometimes extending for several minutes – or more. Yet at the same time (!) we wanted to give a positive value to all that time, apparently wasted, and transform it into a new kind of experience that was still unexploited at the Planetarium of Rome: inviting the visitors to “take their time” inside the dome, to slowly adjust to darkness and, without any guidance, find their own way to the sky. By themselves. In was the concept behind “Astrotherapy”, our second performance and also the most minimalistic one. People would be allowed inside the Planetarium for 8 consecutive hours (the full duration of our event), with the possibility to stay as long as they wanted, for a relaxed and personal exploration of the sky. Every hour the astronomical setting would change without any advice or commentary: the location would shift from Rome to the North Pole, to the Tropic of Cancer, the Equator, the Antarctic Polar Circle, the South Pole and finally back to Rome, to let everyone experience the sight of the sky at different latitudes. The only visual effect was the rotation of the sky, set at rates so slow that it would became apparent only when a proper amount of time would be taken to notice it – and “feel” the difference between various latitudes. What was the role of music, in Astrotherapy? Angelina composed quiet sequences of electronic effects that would follow the decaying ambient lights and slowly, yet progressively, accompany the audience toward complete darkness – and complete silence! We thought that just like the loss of light was the natural introduction to the night vision, the loss of sound was the parallel consequence to awaken our hearing (just try to remind how much your senses are tense when you practice star gazing). Only at random times, scattered throughout the session, faint sound effects would emerge from nothing to further stress the density of silence as an integral part of the Astrotherapy experience. Considering that this happened in daytime in a crowded city like Rome, Astrotherapy intended to offer its public a free chance to enjoy darkness and silence – both very rare to find in a big city - while the world outside flashes, jams and screams. 

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During the Summer of 2010 there was some turmoil in Italy because the Berlusconi government seemed on the verge of closing down a few important public research institutes. As a contribution to the popular protest against that short sighted project, in collaboration with the Network of Public Research we produced – after only two weeks of intense and hard work – “Cosmic Echoes”, an impromptu trip lifting off from Rome to explore the solar system in order to show the contribution of several scientific disciplines to the knowledge of the planets. For example, one stop was near the Sun, to learn about nuclear energy and energy supply. Another was by the Moon, to look for water and its importance for life; then on Mars, to study its silent volcanoes, and off to Venus, to monitor the greenhouse effect.

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The concept was to create an echo from space back to the Earth, reflecting the importance of each branch of science and its relevance to understand also our home planet better. In other words, each planet became the mirror of a different field of study, to remind the audience – and hopefully politicians too - how important it is to fund public research and to save the institutions working on it. To deliver its political message, Cosmic Echoes was not simply a concert: in fact it was the first Astroconcert production where narration was equally balanced with music. The event was hosted by the Democratic Party in a open air location near the Caracalla Baths in Rome; our performance was supported by a huge 16 meter stage and reached the largest audience, estimated to be over a thousand people.

The trend toward an infinite game of reflections from the sky, each time with a changed meaning, that had been inaugurated by Stellar Vibrations, was bound to reach new heights – in perspective, so to speak – when we produced our third Astroconcert, for the Astrosummer program of the Planetarium of Rome, in August 2011. The new production was appropriately named “Destination Infinity”, and consisted in a set of eleven new “cosmic” tracks by Angelina, who introduced a wider use of her voice, singing next to her electronic atmospheres. For the first time Stefano’s voice became part of the performance too: as an invisible narrator, speaking scattered sentences from out of this world to impersonate the idea of a curious mind, lifted up in space for a cosmic journey of discovery. The endless voice of research. The performance presented a new range of rhythms and musical atmospheres, that were the basis for a whole new set of visual inventions with the planetarium projector: in Destination Infinity we calibrated more carefully than ever the connection between music and visuals, creating a dialectic synthesis between all their features (rhythm, beat, pitch, intensity, tone, melody versus brightness, motion, velocity, size, shape, density – just to name a few). It is perhaps unusual that the last piece of the concert, after a crazy swing all around the heavens, was a lullaby, to end the performance with a sense of peace.

After these early works, that were conceived primarily for a Planetarium dome, our experiments shifted progressively toward open, frontal settings. Just like a small bird getting out of its egg, the next Astroconcerts were ready to get out of the dome to face the open air and the real sky. Let’s talk about them in our second post, next week.


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