Signal Tide · A sound and extraterrestrial radio installation

About the music

The music for Signal Tide has been specifically written and recorded for use in this work. The sound played in the work is generative, and so never repeats in the same way — thus each pass of the satellite has its own unique accompaniment. The recordings include contributions from David Bryant and Sophie Trudeau of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Drew Barnet, James Hamilton, a choir of Montréal sacred harp singers, and others — a full list is provided below.

This generative musical accompaniment is derived from melodies used in sacred harp hymns and anthems. Sacred harp singing is a distinct tradition of American and Canadian shape-note choral music, which has a centuries-long history as Christian sacred music, with distinct ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ schools. One of the areas where the ‘northern’ tradition is particularly strong is in Boston and the wider New England area. The LES-1 satellite was designed and built in Boston, at Lincoln Laboratory in MIT, and so Signal Tide serenades the satellite with music that is part of the folk traditions of a place which is, in an anthropomorphised sense, its home and point of origin.

Each pass of the LES-1 (during daylight hours and within antenna range of the site of the installation) lasts approximately 35 to 40 minutes. The installation is active only during these passes. During these times, a row of overhead speakers plays the audio derived from the live signal of the satellite. Simultaneously, a series of ground-level speakers plays a unique, generative accompaniment, accompanying the satellite as it passes overhead. The satellite then takes approximately three hours to circle the earth before returning, and so these times when the installation is active are approximately three hours apart from each other.

The lyrics of sacred harp songs often consider themes of ephemerality, hope, and transcendence. The metaphorical potential of these beautiful, haunting songs, as an accompaniment to the weary and lonely LES-1, has been an artistic point of departure in considering the musical elements of this work. The process of research for the work has been ongoing since mid-2016, and the majority of the music used in the work was recorded in The Pines recording studio, Montréal, in April 2017. The process through which the music is played and generatively combined is software-defined, using Substrate.

Participants and contributors:

Work on this project has also been assisted by singer, musician, and sacred harp scholar Tim Eriksen.