All Ears: Contemplating The Music Of The Cosmos A handful of recent experimental albums reach beyond our material world, turning away from familiar "cosmic" tropes, toward explorations of the elemental, the divine and the unknown.
NPR logo All Ears: Contemplating The Cosmos

All Ears: Contemplating The Cosmos

Angela Hsieh/NPR
What is the song of the universe?
Angela Hsieh/NPR

"For me, thinking about the cosmos has come first from a position of being disappointed in humanity," said Congolese-Belgian producer Nkisi over a Skype call from her home in London. "Only dealing with human information can be very emotionally dragging and can put you in this position where you feel you have no power."

At a time when the machinations of the music industry work to keep interest focused on human bodies — so relatable, so marketable — it feels like something more than a worthwhile counterpoint to look to heavenly bodies instead. "I feel a lot of comfort thinking visually of the cosmos, and the stars," continued Nkisi. "It's kind of this infinite depth; it doesn't have to do with logic."

One of my favorite ways to listen to music is when I'm in motion. On a morning walk when the moon is still showing its face, or on a train as the day melts into dusk; the space between my ears and my headphones can be a portal, and there are few things I find as therapeutic as hitching a ride with an artist in command of their transportive powers. In the early months of 2019 I have been buoyed by a clutch of records, including Nkisi's debut album 7 Directions, that reach for realms far beyond our material world, seeking to open doors to new perspectives.

Over the years, ideas about what "cosmic" sounds like have sometimes become bogged down in the synthesized music tropes that several waves of sci-fi movies have rendered retro. Foreboding tones that tie in with widescreen ideas of space as a source of alien danger, for example, and hopeful crescendos that paint the worlds beyond Earth as ours for the taking; colonisation rebooted. Thankfully, there are plenty of artists for whom sonic exploration is not primarily a storytelling exercise, but a question-asking one.

The producer Nkisi made her debut album, 7 Directions, as part of a desire to think about "what it means to be human in another way." Alan Sahin/courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Alan Sahin/courtesy of the artist

Nkisi is one of the co-founders of NON Worldwide, a collective of African and African diaspora artists who are interested in using sound to explore and challenge societal power structures. She wrote 7 Directions, which came out in January 2019, with a desire to engage with other systems of thought, including the Bantu-Kongo cosmology of Central Africa that dates back a couple of thousand years. "A cosmology is a system of thought about how we view ourselves in the world and the world around us. Here we live in the western cosmology," she explained last month. "Knowing about other cosmologies gives the possibility to start thinking about what it means to be human in another way."

The Bantu-Kongo people, according to Nkisi's research of the work of Kongo scholar Dr. Kimbwandènde Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, believed that their bodies emitted and received waves and radiation, which was a way of sharing unspoken information between members of a community. To gather information from one another, they had to move in seven directions: forwards, backwards, left, right, up, down and inwards. Moving in every direction was key to self-healing, and subsequently to mastering a skill that would benefit the community at large.

7 Directions, then, imagines the cosmos as teeming with knowledge. Inspired by Congolese rhythms, the drums skitter and scatter persistently, chasing questions into every conceivable and inconceivable corner. The synths yawn a warm abyss into existence, sending waves of serenity into a symbiotic relationship with chaos. There are so many moving parts, so many audible directions, and yet the overall sensation is meditative. When I am listening, I feel my molecules vibrating in a way that reminds me that one day they — like everything else on Earth — will eventually rejoin the cosmos.

That's both a comfort and a kick up the ass. The grip of paralysis that often accompanies lived experience can be loosened by listening to music that creates space for the mind to wonder-wander any which way it desires. Spending time with 7 Directions made me think about the cosmos in ways I hadn't fully considered before, and encouraged me to seek out more records just as adventurously spirited. I'd heard American composer Laurie Spiegel's work before, but not her 1991 album Unseen Worlds, which had become a rarity upon its release as the label that put it out folded soon after. This January — the same day Nkisi's album came out, in fact — it finally got a reissue. Bristling with prescient frequencies, Unseen Worlds feels like a dance between knowledge and unknowability. Space and time are stretched seemingly to the point of infinity on some tracks, and claustrophobically constricted on others. There are transient tonal lullabies — to who, to what? — and blisteringly persistent industrial textures that seem to massage senses I didn't even know I had.

In the '70s, Spiegel worked at the New Jersey research hub Bell Labs, helping develop new and experimental computer music systems, and using them to compose her own music, including 1980's The Expanding Universe. (Her interpretation of a score written by a 17th century astronomer was famously featured on the Golden Record, which was sent into space on the Voyager missions in 1977.) She composed Unseen Worlds using a music program called Music Mouse: An Intelligent Instrument that she created in 1985. "We in the arts push the technologies we use beyond what they've been designed to do," Spiegel told me in an email, "because we are always trying to do things that have not been done before." She said she was prompted to create the software after twice losing access to musical tools she'd worked with for years: first, when the computer systems at Bell Labs that she used to compose with were replaced at the end of the '70s; and second, when McLeyvier, where she was in charge of software from 1982-'85, cancelled a project.

Laurie Spiegel in 1985, with footage of NASA's first Jupiter fly-by projected on the screen in front of her. After twice losing access to tools she used to make her music, Spiegel invented a computer program called Music Mouse that she used to create her 1991 album Unseen Worlds, which was reissued this year. Enrico Ferorelli/courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Enrico Ferorelli/courtesy of the artist

Laurie Spiegel in 1985, with footage of NASA's first Jupiter fly-by projected on the screen in front of her. After twice losing access to tools she used to make her music, Spiegel invented a computer program called Music Mouse that she used to create her 1991 album Unseen Worlds, which was reissued this year.

Enrico Ferorelli/courtesy of the artist

"I wanted a way to do music on computer that was entirely my own that no one could suddenly deprive me of," Spiegel explained. "Another important motivation was that, being largely self-taught until late in my college years, I wanted to fight against the entrenched elitism that music had always been vulnerable to. I wanted to enable more people who love music but lacked the training, coordination or physical ability, the knowledge of music notation... I wanted to provide a means of musical self-expression that didn't require any of those."

Using Music Mouse, which was widely commercially available for home computers, Spiegel was able to realize a sonic cosmos all her own on Unseen Worlds. "I wanted to be able to do the equivalent of playing an entire orchestra live, a full range of timbral controls, a dense polyphony, a rich multitude of sonic resources, all under control while improvising live in real time," she wrote. "That would be too many variables to control all of by hand, but by automating some of them, by building into the software ways of handling various kinds of harmony and counterpoint, I was able to do that."

While she explains that the title of Unseen Worlds "relates more so to the worlds of feeling that lie inexpressibly within us ... than to phenomena out in the cosmos," Spiegel's lifelong curiosity has its roots in her formative love of science in all its manifestations. As a child, she had a chemistry set that she used to do her own experiments, and when she was in 4th grade she went through a phase of wanting to be an astronomer when she grew up. "I didn't have access to a telescope, but I built myself an altazimuth," she told me. "The beauty of the night sky full of stars, that so little was known after thousands of years of people studying them, passionately wanting to know more, their unreachability, and the methods and practices of science all fascinated me."

Spiegel's depiction of the night sky makes me think of Nkisi's description of the cosmos as "this infinite depth." Separated by almost three decades, the records these two artists made share a tendency to map unmappable spaces, and while sonically distinct, use sound in ways that offer not only respite from dominant modes of expression, but the space to ponder new ones. They also both seek to broaden access to knowledge: Spiegel with her invention of the Music Mouse software, and Nkisi with her highlighting of Bantu-Kongo cosmology. I hear the searching in both of their albums, and with it a reminder that listening can be a form of learning; an opportunity to hear the world anew, to feel life's vibrations on a sensual level, to process existence outside the daily grind.

Musical consideration of the cosmos, says Nkisi, "opens up the possibility to think outside of a human-centric position and understand the entanglements of being." Some of the world's most enduring and influential music stands by that point. From German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's sprawling, abstract Sternklang (1971), which was designed to be performed outside at night, to Afrofuturist pioneer Sun Ra's sci-fi jazz opera Space Is The Place (1974), the canon positively fizzes with works that stretch established ideas of what music can be into invigorating new shapes.

2019 might only be two months old, but it is not short on releases that have the legs for a lifetime of sonic voyaging. Experimental musicians Ellen Fullman and Okkyung Lee, for example, very recently released a collaborative record called The Air Around Her. The former plays a 56-string, 26-metre long instrument of her own making, the latter a cello. The album's two works were recorded live in Sweden in 2016 and sit either side of the 20-minute mark, curious soundscapes that vibrate with a world of ambiguous meaning. Strings, air, human bodies, all vibrating; decipherable only to one another and perhaps time-space itself.

There's also Moksha Black, an Afrofuturist-leaning duo that uses a mix of field recordings and acoustic and electronic instruments to stir the subsconscious. The work of American producer-composer-musician King Britt and a like-minded musician who wants to stay anonymous, the duo made its debut EP, 009, in one charged 17-hour session. "Moksha Black refers to the liberation of black people thru self-realization and realizing the divine light within," Britt wrote in an email from the road. "For me, the divine is the ultimate, where the cosmos originate. An energy beyond our comprehension. I feel we will find out one day in the next phase."

Music that reaches for unknowable knowledge and new forms of expression is music in conversation with the cosmos, whether intentionally or not. If a piece of music opens your mind to new possibilities, or makes you think about other systems of knowledge, or speaks to your body before your brain, or leaves you with questions you want to spend time exploring, then it can be considered cosmic — even if, especially if, it doesn't sound like outer space.

"I think musicians are magicians a little bit, because what we do is push energy and frequency around," Nkisi told me. In Bantu-Kongo cosmology, she explained, hearing is the most valued of the senses because it's through waves and frequencies that all information is received. In today's visual culture, that is something worth ruminating on. Preferably on a long walk with your headphones on, or at home with your screen off and your windows wide open to the night sky.