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Hey Lt. Jim, better start composing everything in God's cosmic key. 8)
The Speculative Case for the Cosmic B Flat By JOHN ROCKWELL
Published: January 30, 2004
ho knew? All those philosophers and scientists and theoreticians and composers who believed in the ancient notion of a Music of the Spheres were onto something. There is such a music, and it's the note of B flat.
Or so scientists told us a few months ago when they announced that the Perseus galaxy cluster, 250 million light years from our little planet, was emitting that note, or a series of those notes, which "appear as pressure waves roiling and spreading as a result of outbursts from a supermassive black hole," in the words of Dennis Overbye, a science reporter for The New York Times.
The notes have a period of oscillation of 10 million years, which makes them "the lowest note in the universe." So said Dr. Andrew Fabian, an X-ray astronomer at Cambridge University in England and the leader of the team that discovered the note.
Most of the commentary since has been about the implications of this discovery for the study of black holes and hence of the physical properties of the universe. My interest is, to put it mildly, less scientifically informed and more aesthetically speculative.
These B flats may be the oldest and the longest notes in the universe, but just how universal are they? My eye was caught by another recent article in The Times, this one about a mysterious low hum that bedevils some people, a kind of basso variant of tinnitus, which is a high pitch likewise heard in the ears of sufferers. Are those sounds, I wondered, also in B flat, suggesting an even more cosmic implication for this once-humble pitch?
Courtesy of Mindy Sink, who wrote the article, I entered into e-mail correspondence with Dr. James Kelly of the University of New Mexico, who undertook studies of hum sufferers in Taos. Dr. Kelly first clarified for me the difference between frequency and pitch. "Frequency is a physical measure," he wrote. "Pitch is what you perceive." Since the black-hole B flat is 57 octaves lower than middle C, it cannot be heard, thus only questionably qualifying as a pitch.
As for the hum, Dr. Kelly reported that it was close to 66 hertz, two octaves below middle C. But he suggested that other patients heard hums as low as the lowest E on a piano. No specific correspondence with B flat, but one can always hope.
Back to the macro picture, the black hole B flat. If that frequency (or pitch) is now the acoustical bedrock of the universe, perhaps our entire tuning system, centered on middle C, needs revision. The Western harmonic system involves keys with increasing numbers of sharps and flats exfoliating out from middle C, or from C major, all white keys on the piano. Now, perhaps, we have to exfoliate from B flat. Maybe this is as big a shift in human thinking as that from a flat-earth-centered universe to the solar system. Or maybe not.
As a digression, I thought of the California composer Terry Riley. Mr. Riley, always something of a cosmic mystic, won his first fame in 1964 with his composition "In C," which has been endlessly recorded and played, in part because it's so beautiful and in part because it's so ingenious: a series of simple melodic figures that any group of any kind of instrumentalists may play according to certain simple rules, setting up a dappled tapestry of sound.
Mr. Riley's most recent piece attests to his fascination with the cosmos. It's called "Sun Rings," and although lavishly praised on the West Coast (the Kronos Quartet performs it), it hasn't yet made it to our benighted Eastern outback. "Sun Rings" is based on "space sounds" recorded by Dr. Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa. One wonders idly if B flat plays any special role. To judge from "In C," Mr. Riley is a C man.
According to the music encyclopedias, the Internet and Jamie James's chatty book "Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe," thinkers and artists have been less interested in what might be designated a universal fundamental tone as in the relations between the tones: scales and modes and keys.
Tables ascribing emotional characteristics to keys have poured out over the centuries, back to the ancient Greeks. The most complete compendium of these descriptions was compiled by Dr. Rita Steblin in a book published by the University of Rochester Press and titled "A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries," although she ranges far earlier and later than that. Check it out for $95 plus shipping on Amazon.com.
The descriptions were always highly subjective, but those in Dr. Steblin's book for B flat major (let's try to keep this reasonably simple, avoiding B flat minor) generally call it a happy key. "Magnificent and joyful," as per one early French source. "Noble," thought another Frenchman. "Condescending greatness mixed with venerable seriousness," said a late-18th-century German. "Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope, aspirations for a better world," wrote another. "Tender, soft, sweet, love, charm, grace," according to an Italian.
If we listen to these sages, a B flat universe is not such a bad place to be. And if we buy into August Gathy, a Frenchman who wrote in 1835, the key relates to "noble womanliness," too. Maybe there's something to Erda or Gaia, after all. Check out www.gaiaconsort.com, a site devoted to "music for freethinking pagans, humanists, psychedelics, visionaries, wiccans, mystics." Perhaps Mr. Riley already has.
Before we reluctantly leave the concept of keys, here is a highly selective list of well-known compositions in B flat major; make of them what you will: Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Piano Sonata and Symphony No. 4, Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2, Haydn's Symphonies Nos. 98 and 102, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Schubert's Symphony No. 5, Schumann's Symphony No. 1.
But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves, besides managing to annoy any serious acoustician or physicist or musical theorist. The universe has not yet been detected as emitting music in any key or mode. It is just steadily (and very slowly) singing the note of B flat, over and over. What song did the Sirens sing? What note? What key? We await further word from our intrepid scientists, ears cocked to the cosmos.
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(1 item total, 30 per page)