There’s a hypnotic crackle before a buzzing sound flies from ear to ear. It is followed by a celestial chorus that can be the whistle of whales, the song of frogs or the chirp of an alien bird. It sounds heavenly because that’s what it is. The noise is the Northern Lights: the northern lights.
The vivid green lights that sweep across the Arctic sky emit electromagnetic waves when solar rain meets Earth’s magnetic field, and these can be translated into sounds that are audible to human ears by a small machine.
These eerie and sweeping noises are celebrated by a new Radio 3 documentary that follows biologist Karin Lehmkuhl Bodony out into the desert on her dogsled to record the soundscape, which has now been turned into music by an Alaskan composer.
Bodony lives in the remote Alaskan village of Galena. You can see the lights from your porch, and 16 years ago you discovered that you could also record the sound of the lights using a very low frequency (VLF) receiver.
“Hearing those ‘whoosh-whoosh’ sounds, which are so much like what you see, is really special,” he says in a call from home. “There are times when it’s just normal background chatter, crackling sounds, and then there will be other times when it’s really cool – beautiful whistles and a chorus that sounds like the call of frogs. If it was always the same, it wouldn’t be so much fun to go out and listen. “
by Songs from heaven, which will air on December 26, Radius 3 commissioned the composer Matthew burtner, which works with natural sounds and scientific environmental data, to make a piece of music derived from the sounds of the aurora.
Northern Lights listeners must stay at least four miles away from human-made sounds and other electrical sources, such as power lines, to avoid interference to VLF receivers, so Burtner had to walk in nature with his daughter.
“What’s really amazing is that you can listen to them at any time of the day,” he says. “We tend to think that they happen at night because that’s when we see them, but the fact that you didn’t have to go out at night was amazing. We could pull out the VLF recorder at any time and just listen to them through the cloud layer. “
Burtner found that the device recordings were not very clear, and therefore assigned the frequency and amplitude profile of the sounds to a high-quality synthesizer. “Then you can alter the timbre of the sound and have the northern lights play different instruments. That allowed me to really orchestrate with the Northern Lights, using their input as a controller, ”he says.
Instead of a composer writing the notes on the page and the musician honking, the Northern Lights honked and wrote the notes on the page. So I went out and let the lights paint that. “
Burtner created a six-minute piece that he hopes will express the dialectic between humans and the natural world. “That is what I always look for in music: there is something of the real natural system that is not touched by a person.”
He believes there will be more Northern Lights music. “The sounds themselves are quite varied. It will be interesting to keep recording and keep listening and discovering new things about their behavior. That could inspire different compositions based on the same theme. I don’t think my piece completes the expressive work of the northern lights. “
The show also explores the traditional meanings of the Northern Lights in the rapidly changing Arctic environment, where temperatures are rising faster than in many parts of the world.
According to Bodony, traditional Inuit interpretations of the northern lights are often benevolent, with the lights telling hunters how they will find food or assuring the bereaved that loved ones have moved to a better place.
But there are more sinister mythologies related to the Northern Lights, which have also symbolized danger in certain stories.
“Our atmosphere protects us from the sun’s radiation and manages to warm the planet, but not too much, it is a shield, and this display of the northern lights is a representation of the fearsome force of the sun on our planet that could make it uninhabitable,” he says Burtner.
“It is interesting that mythology here has led science. Many Alaskan villages where that mythology developed are experiencing severe global warming and severe melting, so much so that they have to relocate entire houses and villages because the shoreline has eroded because ice no longer protects the shoreline. “
For Bodony, the perspective derived from his rural subsistence culture – and the experience of the Northern Lights – can correct the broader human attitude towards the planet, which is “like insolent children whose father is away and we are destroying the house.”
“We are a culture that depends on our environment and we are integrated with it, not a power over it,” he says. “We are often drawn to natural experiences like the Northern Lights because they represent something beyond us. It makes you feel like you are a small part of a massive universe that is out of our control, and it is very healthy in that sense. “
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