The Art of Science: Bouncing Beethoven Off The Moon

Some of The Moonlight Sonata as received in code from the moon.                    Katie Paterson, 2007

Some of The Moonlight Sonata as received in code from the moon.
Katie Paterson, 2007

For centuries, artists have been inspired by the beauty and mystery of the moon, and for the last 50 years, by the tantalizing possibility of traveling there.  An exhibition in London, The Republic of the Moon, takes those imaginings a few steps further. The show, at Bargehouse in London’s South Bank, “combines personal encounters, DIY space plans, imaginary expeditions and new myths for the next space age,” says its organizer, Nicola Triscott of The Arts Catalyst.

One especially intriguing piece is a sound and data based work called Earth – Moon – Earth, by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.  Paterson translated Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into Morse code and “bounced it off the moon” via Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) transmission.  The artist explained:  “The moon reflects only part of the information back – some is absorbed in its shadows, ‘lost’ in its craters … Returning to earth fragmented by the moon’s surface, it has been re-translated into a new score, the gaps and absences becoming intervals and rests. In the exhibition space the new ‘moon–altered’ score plays on a self-playing grand piano.” (You can listen to a clip of it here)

(Full disclosure: I thought Paterson was totally making this EME stuff up. A brief consultation with my friends Google and Wikipedia, however, convinced me that it is indeed possible to bounce a signal off the moon’s surface and people have been doing so since the 1950s. Incidentally, streaming Beethoven to the moon sounds like a perfect project for noted music-and-moon-lover Newt Gingrich. But I digress. )

Is Paterson’s piece a metaphor for the cultural loss that often seems to go hand-in-hand with scientific progress?  Maybe. It’s also intriguing that she chose Beethoven, not only for the “moonlight” theme, but because he couldn’t even hear all the notes himself.

If you’re in London, you have a few more days to catch The Republic of The Moon before it closes on February 2nd.  You can also see her work in upcoming shows in Berlin and Adelaide, Australia or on her website.

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