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These bizarre instruments play a symphony that only aliens can hear

To a human audience, they sound like nothing. But that doesn’t mean the latest project from experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats doesn’t send a message.

In April, the music department at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, hosted an end-of-year orchestral performance. While the stage was filled with instruments, not all of them could be heard by the human audience.

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For experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, who composed the performance in conjunction with UNCA music students and faculty, that inaudibility was the point. The composition was not just designed for a human audience–it was intended to reach any life form in the universe that might have been listening. “We can’t assume that beings elsewhere in the universe are like us in any way whatsoever, including at the biological level of having sensory organs that are like ours,” Keats says. His orchestra translates the fundamental principles of music and sound to a format that other beings in the universe could perhaps respond to.

[Image: courtesy Jonathon Keats]

To Keats, this effort represents a long-overdue revolution for the realms of arts and culture, something he has been pushing for in his work for years. Once the Copernicus proved that the Earth is not the center of the universe, and one small player in a much larger solar system and network of galaxies, further discoveries abounded, Keats says. “But the arts remain all about Earth, and all about the idea of ‘me.’ So I thought if the arts were able to undergo a Copernican revolution, and abandon their geocentric way of thinking, they could tap into something really profound.”

[Image: courtesy Jonathon Keats]

Keats has long been preoccupied with decentering Earth and the human experience in the way we think about modern existence. In a previous project, Keats created a series of cosmic welcome mats, designed to signal a universal message of welcome to extraterrestrial beings and humans alike. On the mats, Keats used an amorphous red blob to represent life forms, and showed the blob fitting into various backgrounds to represent how our planet could adjust to accommodate different beings.

In trying to send this message of welcome to extraterrestrial life forms, Keats was careful to abandon human-centered iconography and messaging. He did not represent aliens as “little green men,” nor did he try to forge a connection with them by overloading them with information about human life, as did the Voyager Golden Record, the most notable previous attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials.

Instead, Keats went with the fundamentals: how a being of any shape can fit into a space. With his orchestra, he pared the concept of music down to its most basic form, in order to achieve a greater universality. “If you think about what sound is, it’s the modulation of amplitude and frequency over time,” Keats says. “That’s what happens in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, that’s what happens when Taylor Swift sings.”

Gravitational Cello [Photo: Jonathon Keats]
The universal instruments (collected under the name Intergalactic Omniponics) he and his students at UNCA created produce waves and disruptions, as traditional instruments like violins do. They’re just not the type of waves that humans can necessarily register. For instance, there’s an ultrasonic organ, which Keats created by organizing a collection of dog whistles (procured from eBay) along a hollow wind chest, and as the musician pumps air through the chest via a set of bellows, the whistles emit sounds at a much higher frequency than humans can hear. He also developed a pair of bells that utilize gamma rays, which reach frequencies far beyond the human sensory range. One bell uses a uranium marble, and the other a radium watch dial. Both are covered with a lead bell, and the performer can raise the bell to varying degrees to emit different levels of radiation. And lastly, Keats devised a cello-like instrument that creates gravitational waves via the swinging of a metal ball bearing.

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All of the instruments will be on display at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco beginning July 24, and visitors will be able to experience what it’s like to play music for someone other than themselves or the other visible beings in the room. While visitors to the showroom won’t receive the full orchestral experience of the initial performance in Asheville, they will perhaps come away with an idea of how to play an instrument they can’t hear, and why it’s important to do so.

Keats is still ironing out how to translate popular music into this more universal format, but he’s already made significant inroads in rectifying a previous misguided attempt at universality. In 1971, the UN Secretary General commissioned a Hymn to the United Nations, which was meant to serve as an alternative to more nationalistic anthems, but nevertheless used a classical structure and English lyrics to carry the message of peace and unity. To devise his Universal Anthem, Keats used a principle which all life follows, whether its aware of it or not–the Second Law of Thermodynamics, otherwise known as entropy. The progression from order to disorder defines all forms of life, Keats says, and as such, it could define a universal music. The score for Keats’s Universal Anthem, which the UNCA students performed in April, is presented in a series of images designed to depict levels of entropy, or chaos. The calmer images dictate more controlled playing (less movement of the gravitational cello, just a slight raise on the gamma-ray bells), and the more chaotic images indicate to the performers to let loose. This type of score could apply to any form of instrument, including those we know well.

Keats hopes to nudge people who listen to the orchestra or interact with the instruments to step outside their own experience and consider the value of creating not just for themselves, but for a greater audience. “Humility is one quality that comes out of this,” he says. “Right now, he adds, our society is so incredibly arrogant, but this type of universal music “creates a greater sensitivity to others and others’ experiences, and a greater sense of the full gamut of experience, and an awareness of what we don’t know.”

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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