iris notation draft

Space Music Art: "Spinning Up"

You can track Satellite 0c66 (NORAD ID 40956) here! It's currently over Turkey!

This is a song (with chords & lyrics) about the Doves of Planet Labs - small satellites that are ferried to the ISS and released into low-earth orbit, to circle the Earth sixteen times a day, powered by solar-panel wings. They will eventually image the Earth once per day, enough observe changes in the environment and the movement of large object clusters – down to 3 square meters.

Each flock stays up for a while, then burns up on re-entry, leaving no trace.

In 2014, along with other Pier 9 artists in residence, I submitted a side panel design to ride on a spacefaring little Dove. I was across the globe in London, and worked up a demo on the guitar, then created a simple new rotary musical notation – “iris notation”. Eventually, seven of our designs were selected, to continue the space gallery program that Forest Stearns founded at Planet.

“Spinning Up” includes a slightly modified quotation from Yuri Gagarin:
“Облетев Землю, увидел, как прекрасна наша планета. Будем хранить ету красоту, и приумножать её!”
– Orbiting the earth, I saw how beautiful our planet is. Let us preserve that beauty, and foster it!

The iris notation is inspired by:

The following was mostly written a year and a half ago. I’m so happy to finally share. :)


Etched panels, first view




This project synthesizes a few of my favorite media: music, language, and visual arts… plus, of course, space and robots! The end result is surprisingly tiny, particularly in this horizontally-challenged blog format…



1. Invented notation

Something futuristic, developed organically. The first couple of versions reminded me of microbes with flagella.

I started with an attempt to represent different lengths of metal bars, like on a kalimba, or string divisions, as on a violin, or amounts of water in a glass, that would give relative pitches dependent on ratios. These frequency ratios would be constant, regardless of the size of the string or metal piece, meaning that the tune would work on a large variety of implements. I was going to have three different musical parts, which would interweave when played on three types of instruments.


But this was far too ambitious – considering, for once, the practicality of collecting/building three instruments, then practicing and recording the result… I needed something more streamlined and elegant.

The above version includes annotations for rests and repeated notes. I then twisted it into a circle, connected everything together, and decided to simply leave rests as empty spaces. It’s more prettier and more intuitive, so it won out over my attachment to the underscores. (Same reason I switched to Sindarin-style Tengwar, back in the day.)

I kept the central part of the notation — holding to a Western scale, pretty much just the notes of the scale on a numbering scheme, starting with one dot above the bracket as “middle C”. Two dots for the next note in the scale. Three dots, four, and then a circle. A dot below the bracket for the first note downward (“B”). And so on. There aren’t many accidentals in the song, so I haven’t had to deal with sharps or flats yet :)

I added chords by writing the component notes of each chord next to each other… C – E – G for a C major chord, etc. (That’s the top-left chord among the six above.)

The trickiest part here was wrangling Photoshop and Illustrator, which, until tonight, I didn’t have on this computer. Oy vey.


2. The theme

The first concept was dropped, though I’d still like to use it someday: Three tunes, based on historical photographs of the Earth — starting with the Blue Marble (three interlocking parts, going from clouds/ice up to a watery middle third and then the desert); we’d zoom out to Earthrise; and finally, we’d gaze from afar at the Pale Blue Dot.

My second concept began as a sort of reverse lullaby or waking-up song for the Earth, and became the current set of lyrics, sung by the Doves to the people of Earth. Like most songs, this started out with a simple hook (“you sent us spinning up”) popping into my head while I was eating something after noodling around for a while.

[That's the first draft I submitted; check out the new rough draft here!]


I’ve been reading a lot of singularity-focused scifi lately, including Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’ The Rapture of the Nerds, and Charles Stross’ Accelerando. Plus, my job with Pinoccio focuses on mesh-networked robots — and I’m now hooking them up to my brainwaves. Together, these lead me to see the Doves as a sort of sensory extension for the human race — as though we, as a collective, have become a cyborg; the satellites, as a collective, are an introspective set of eyes. The images they send back to us are low enough in resolution that they don’t capture individual humans. We cannot help but see ourselves in aggregate, along with the consequences of our actions upon the Earth, de- and reforestation, floods that affect our neighbors.

Having recorded the song in Garage Band (using the “Megaphone” filter for the Gagarin quotation), I pulled the mp3 into Praat (an amazing program I used for Phonetics/Phonology in college). This shows you waveform of your song, which contributes a nice horizontal component to the design (as the satellites’ side panels are so flat). If you zoom in further, you can also see the spectrograph, or a sort of Fourier transform slice for each instant in the track, shaded from light (little activity in that frequency) to dark (strong activity). It’s quite something!



3. All together now

Finally, I traced and trimmed everything together in the correct dimensions, as a vector image – which required smoothing the waveform down into something simpler. I’d prefer to have it actually reproducible by alien species, but hey, we’ll get there…

Why, after all, a song? Well, music has stoked my own fascination with the bittersweet majesty and crushingly grand scales of space. A few chords can evoke emotions that may not be captured by visuals or words. A few favorites:

I won’t pretend I’ve wrought something on a level with those. But, however my submission fares, I’ve had a wonderful time assembling a new artistic work from all those lovely stimuli.


Dove 0c66



Special thanks to Forest Stearns, Emi Watanabe, Sarah Brin, Noah Weinstein, and others that I’m doubtless forgetting, for pulling this show together. You’re amazing!

And to Ted Scharff and the Wolfram Cloud team for help with pulling and using the TLE satellite data for future projects. Rock on.


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