Watch | What does music sound like in space?

interview with Nick Bignall


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Who for

Teens and adults

Video: Sound in Space - part 1 of Nick's investigation into sound on other planets

Meet the creator: Nick Bignall

Nick Bignall is a musician, planetarium presenter and, most recently, the creator behind Music in Space. This two-part film asks, “What would music be like on another planet?” It was first dreamt up when Nick worked on ‘Hareclive in Space’, a joint project between We The Curious and Room 13, the pupil-run art studio co-located at Hareclive E-Act Academy.

In the film Nick speaks to Dr. Philippe Blondel, a physicist specialising in sound, and then attempts to produce his own Martian music.

I caught up with Nick to find out what inspires him and what first got him interested in making music which is truly out of this world.

Image: Nick creating music in his home studio

When did you first get interested in music and sound?

When I was about 6. My dad enjoyed listening to music around the house and in the car: blues, jazz, rock, classical etc., and he played piano, so I started copying him. He'd then teach me snippets of things he was learning and after a couple of years, I'd get piano lessons myself. Not long after that, I'd start noticing nuances in sound; how some sounds sounded similar, how some rooms sounded echoier, and how some songs on the radio would use samples of others. I didn't know about sampling as a kid, but my ears knew when one song was somehow borrowing from another.

My uncle, the fun uncle whose music taste was slightly more modern than my dad's, would play stations like Kiss and Radio 1. I remember he also had a copy of Beck's Odelay, and at the age of 8 or 9, I remember finding the intro to Lord Only Knows hilarious!

"AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!" it went! After which, there was a chilled drum beat, and a lazy guitar.

On the same album, the first chorus of Where It's At had a voice that sounded funny. My uncle told me he was using a vocoder, and that's when I first heard about voice effects and synthesisers.

Video: Music video for Where It's At by Beck, an early inspiration for Nick

What are your earliest memories of creating music?

My first experiments with audio technology were during the early 2000s, manipulating audio and adding effects to it using Sound Recorder on an old Windows NT computer.

But I wouldn't start creating music until about 2007 after getting my second ever mobile phone; which was a Sony Ericsson K550 if memory serves. On it was an app that allowed you to arrange readymade loops. I spent that summer playing Tetris, and making music and videos on my phone.

Then later that year, I got introduced to Cubase, which would be my first official experience with music software and production.

What got you interested in sound on other planets?

The kids from Hareclive did! Their exact question was "can you make a band in space?". To explore that fundamentally, we had to research how sound and music would behave on other planets, and so the question became "what would music be like on another planet?". It's because of those kids' curiosity that this documentary exists at all, and if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here doing this. Thank you Hareclive for this opportunity!

Image: The pupils of Hareclive E-Act Academy share their questions about space

What was the most interesting thing about meeting Dr. Blondel?

That man knows his stuff! I hit the ground running when I spoke with him, and if he's reading this, I don't know if I actually ever mentioned it to him that I'm no physicist; however, there were some transferrable pieces of knowledge that sound and music gave me, and along with a bit of curiosity and perseverance, I managed to hold my own.

He was charming, funny, and encouraging, and it's always fascinating to hear someone talk about something they're passionate about, and I feel that's what he did when he spoke to us. Thank you Dr. Blondel!

Image: Mars scape from orbit, Credit: Evans & Sutherland's Digistar 6

What do you think the worst thing about living on Mars would be?

If we ever get there, I feel that at first, the worst thing would be knowing you'd be ALONE. It's all very well basking in the fantasy of travelling to another planet, but reality would kick in sooner or later. You'd really have to embrace the fact that for the most part, apart from a crew and some equipment, you'd be on your own.

Life as you know it would be turned on its head: no corner shop, no pets or animals, no countryside or greenery, no buildings or roads, no leisure centres or gyms, no schools or universities, no clinics or hospitals, no pubs, restaurants or bars, no cinemas, venues or theatres, no transport or vehicles, no public services, no businesses or economy, no police, no fire brigade or ambulance, and no history! Completely blank canvas and back to square one: the red stone age if you will.

Video: Live performance by Azam Ali, a musician Nick would like to see in a Martian band, Credit: Paste Magazine

If you could choose any musicians alive or dead to play in a Martian band, who would you choose and why?

Maynard James Keenan of the bands Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, because asides from being a good musician, he knows a few things about living off the land.

Azam Ali who has a profound sound and way of thinking. She'd bring great music and an intelligent, philosophical, and human perspective.

Alicia Keys because she'd bring the soul, as well as some of that New York grit. And I've been looking for a new piano teacher.

Image: Nick at work on his Access Virus TI2

If you could take only one instrument to Mars, what would it be?

The Access Virus TI2 - the most powerful and capable keyboard I've ever owned.

If you could live anywhere in the universe, where would you live?

In a house (or whatever accommodation) with my wife and two dogs. I don't care which galaxy or what sector of the universe, just so long as I'm with her.

A massive thanks to the Year 6 pupils at Hareclive E-Act Academy whose ideas, questions and prototypes have inspired this video as part of our Hareclive in Space project. This video was inspired by the question, ‘Can you make a band in space?' as asked by the Hareclive pupils. Many thanks to Room 13 for their support and expertise and to the Science and Technology Facilities Council for funding this project. 

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