The Star Womb Environment is an artistic collaboration with artist/sculptor Barbara Yontz and astrophysicist Daniel Wolf Savin. The sound design is based on the mathematical data from Daniel’s experiment into the probability of molecular hydrogen occurrence after the big bang. Molecular hydrogen provides the cooling, condensation effect that births stars from the flux of energy after the big bang; hence the name “Star Womb.”
The Sound Design uses raw sound taken from a video of one of Barbara’s exhibitions at the Phoenix gallery in Chelsea (New York City) — a combination of ambient city noise and steam pipes — which was tuned to an Indonesian gamelan scale to represent the voltage input from that laser array that powers Daniel’s experiment. There are five speakers — each on their own independent sound source and timeline — representing the laser voltage, cosmic background noise and the three states of Hydrogen: positive, negative and molecular.
The initial data was presented in columns of numbers that had no musical/harmonic correlation. Finding a pattern that could be represented in the scale of sounds was a challenge. The only regularity in the numbers was the voltage step down the energy input into the laser array. This column had a regular division by a factor of 10. The first thought was to use the pentatonic scale over two octaves — this would represent 10 divisions — but it was not equal. There is, however, a world scale that divides the octave into five near equal division, the Slendro gamelan scale used in Indonesia. While the origins of the Western scale can be shown to be calibrated off the third harmonic, the Slendro is calibrated off the seventh harmonic and produces intervals that are roughly 240 cents per division (100 cents is a semitone), so the intervals are almost one whole tone and half a semitone wide.
In the Star Womb project, I extracted a piece of resonant noise from the sound track of a video taken during an earlier exhibition in the Phoenix Gallery. This show was in the winter, so the sound was layered with city ambience and white noise from the steam pipes. I chose this sound as the corner stone for the sound design because I wanted to illustrate that musicality or meaning can be extracted from random sound if the harmonic precursors are sketched in through auditory processing. Working with Daniel Wolf Savin we determined that the resonance frequency of hydrogen was close to C# in the A440 standard. I rounded this off to a bass note of 70 Hz. Using harmonic math I boosted the frequencies of 70 Hz, 140 Hz, 210 Hz, 280 Hz, 350 Hz, 420 Hz, 490 Hz, 560 Hz, to generate a tonal sound from the noise to represent Hydrogen. To represent the different states of H that Daniel’s experiment is set up to measure, I simply removed either the odd harmonics, (leaving 70, 140, 280, 420, 560,) or the even harmonics (leaving 70, 210, 350, 490,) generating tonally different sounds from a common source.
What constitutes a musical experience (by that I mean an experience that influences emotion and/or intellect) is perspective, or point of view. Recently I answered an interesting question from someone who has heard the Star Womb soundtrack. He asked how i had chosen the reference tone or key note (70 hertz), and I explained it was a conjunction of the math from Daniel and the frequency range of the 10 inch speaker we were considering for one of the channels. He remarked that while he found the sound different and slightly challenging, it was also in some way oddly comforting. However, if I had chosen another reference four or five octaves higher it would most likely have been annoying. So frequency is one of the determinants of perspective.