This Is Your Brain On Moogfest: S.F. and the Synthesized Sound
In Omni Reboot‘s panel at Moogfest, “S.F. and the Synthesized Sound,” participants gathered to discuss, embody and create the sounds of the future. Claire L. Evans, lead singer of YACHT and editor-at-large of Omni Reboot, chaired a diverse group that included scientist Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, writer Martine Syms, composer and producer King Britt, and Evans herself, who set the tone of the panel with the question, “Is it possible to future-proof music, making it timeless not only for a handful of human generations, but for our expansion into the cosmos?”
More often than not, we egoistically imagine the music of the future as reflecting our current cultural moment. Evans’s talk pointed out humans’ shortcomings so far at imagining a music of the future (examples of failures included the hilarious hippie-cum-cultist concert in the Star Trek episode “The Way to Eden” and the infamous “cave rave” from The Matrix Reloaded) and posited that the definition of a truly “objective music” might end up being the exact opposite of what we think of as music today—“single tones created by machines” rather than sounds that conform to human ideas of aural beauty.
In our vision of the future, she noted, there is little place for the analog in all its imperfections. Electronic music might, then, be the preferred mode for enhanced or even alien ears. “Analog instruments, in their perpetual journey towards entropy, […] are not precise,” according to Evans. “In our minds, however, the future is nothing but precise.”Evans also suggested that music of extraterrestrials, like the alien orb from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” might be totally incomprehensible, even destructive, to the human mind. And it might “be a symphony of pure data understandable only by analogy.”
Following Evans, Martine Syms asked us to imagine the not-so-distant future in a live reading of her “Mundane Afrofuturist”1 screenplay, Most Days, with music composed by Neal Reinhalda. The piece, due to be released on Mixed Media this year, presents us with a day in the life of a young black woman in 2050 L.A. who takes on extra work as a doorman at an exclusive nightclub, Silk, and ingests a strange and slightly unnerving drug called Future that dilates her pupils “like an anime character.”
With a cast of characters that included Nalia, a racist glamour queen with a show at the Singularity Institute, the mysterious Bobby, Silk’s manager who prefers not to be bothered and “wears the latest glass technology,” and Mikka, who gifts the protagonist with her first taste of Future, Most Days was notable for its deliberate pacing and lack of action, which forced the audience to focus in on the small details, like the little daily inequalities that shape the protagonist’s workplaces, the “high-end retail playground” Republic, where she works by day, and Silk, where she has the power to turn people away unless they’re on the “black list.” In many ways, the world of 2050 looks pretty similar to today. Syms noted that she views the script “as a speculative form itself,” open to “layers of interpretation” that can vary across—and during—the live reading.
Douglas Vakoch struck an optimistic note in his exploration of the messages we might communicate to alien races. Opening with a history of fictional 19th century moon voyages, his talk moved into speculation about how we might introduce ourselves to extraterrestrials. Working under the obvious assumption that any alien race we receive a radio signal from will have some knowledge of math and science, Vakoch proposed several possibilities for messages, including representations of the binary numeral system, the double helix, examples of human morphology, and a diagram of a telescope. One of the most interesting points of his talk was inspired by the 2003 conference “Encoding Altruism,” which explored how we might communicate concepts that are particularly important for, and possibly unique to, the human race. The attempt to communicate altruism resulted in “interstellar morality plays” that Vakoch presented visually in renditions of humanoid stick figures alternately choosing to save or ignore other stick figures in perilous situations (this was far more moving than it sounds here).
Vakoch ended his talk by returning to the panel’s theme. In Cyrano de Bergerac’s A Voyage to the Moon (1657), the moonmen speak a melodic language rendered visually as musical notes. Vakoch pondered the question of how extraterrestrials might divide an octave, noting that the way we divide scales “says something about how and what we hear—the syntax of music reveals something about our brains and describes how we put the world together.”
As far as Vakoch’s own ideas about alien races, he admitted that his greatest fear was that extraterrestrials would be akin to “hyperintelligent cats—they know we’re here, but they just don’t care.” Vakoch and the SETI Institute plan to press on in spite of the possibility, and invited others to join them by submitting their own messages to earthspeaks.seti.org. Although there are currently no plans to transmit in the works, SETI hopes to collect a diverse range of submissions that showcase cultural and geographic variety. So far, as with our imaginings of future music, the messages tell us a lot about ourselves and our current moment—two of the most common words that appear are “Please” and “Help.”
The panel ended with a performance from King Britt, whose “60% improvised” piece was composed on a piece of Moog technology he was using for the first time. Britt, who recently created scores inspired by artwork from the Omni archives, drew the session to a close with sounds that manifested organically as man interfaced with machine. You can hear the results of his music collaboration with Omni Reboot here:
If this is what the future of music sounds like, I’m convinced that the future is bright. Check out Omni Reboot for more visions of how “today turns into tomorrow.”