This story is published in partnership with ulyces.co.
A white arrow shoots through the Floridian sky. At the top of its arc, it hangs in the sky for a moment, pointed toward space, then tilts forward and falls precipitously, leaving behind two columns of smoke. On board this Zero G plane, gravity plummets as well. Suspended in mid-air, a young woman in blue overalls floats in the middle of the aircraft. She smiles. Everything is under control. It’s November 2017, her first parabolic flight, and Nicole L’Huillier finds a childlike joy in microgravity. “I wasn’t afraid,” she says. “Generally I’ve expected it not to work, so I’m not disappointed. I was ready to have fun no matter what. Fortunately it worked.”
A parabola in space
L’Huillier, who is Chilean, is not there to have fun. She’s there to test out the curious little thing floating next to her in the plane, tethered to the ground by a harness. Inside this polycarbonate and metal dodecahedron, two cylinders emit a sort of gloomy, electric marimba sound each time the thing bounces off the walls. Nicole L’Huillier conducts this bizarre little concert by moving it by its handle.
“All I had to do to make music was move it,” she says. “I studied the noise as it moved. It was great. It was a new situation both from the point of view of the game and the perception.” The Telemetron is a specially designed instrument for low-gravity environments. An architect by trade, Nicole L’Huillier dreamed it up with the help of the MIT Media Lab in Boston, where she’s done her research since September 2015. Inspired by Bart Hopkins’ book Wind Chimes: Design and Construction, its shape carefully avoids any and all sharp angles. Everything is adapted to flight. That doesn’t make it easy to play.
“At first you try to shake your arms, but you can’t,” she describes. “You have to relearn how to move and relearn what that means. You’re like a baby. Of course you have an idea of how you need to move, but it’s tricky.” For the first 17-second parabola, the young woman is subjected to a simulation of Mars’ gravity. It was “a disaster.” After another round, the device simulated the moon’s gravity. Nicole L’Huillier started gaining confidence. She has 17 parabolas left to play the Telemetron as if she were launched into space.
At last, “I made movements that were impossible in Earth’s gravity,” she says. “I was able to spin the instrument and pull my hands back to create an interactive dance.” On board another Zero G plane in Bordeaux three months later, Marc Marzenit vividly remembers the moment he played the synthesizer without holding the keyboard. Thanks to a “ring controller,” a MIDI controller and a “groove machine controller,” the Catalan DJ composed tracks for the Zero Gravity Band he formed with the artist and cognitive science researcher Albert Barqué-Duran.
“All instruments are created with gravity in mind,” Marc Marzenit explains. “It’s thanks to that that piano keys return to their original positions. So, seven months ago, I imagined one that would adjust itself to conditions on the moon. The engineers I contacted said, ‘Marc, are you drunk? You want to take a piano to the moon?’” But wild advances in space technology, as well as public promises of interstellar trips made by Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have encouraged him to continue. Since “this isn’t science-fiction, it’s reality,” Nicole L’Huillier, Marc Marzenit and Albert Barqué-Duran all believe it’s time to adapt music to zero-gravity. From this perspective, “we’ve been inspired by the history of instruments taken to space by men,” L’Huillier says.
The future has its past
Nicole L’Huillier is nine years old when she touches her first instrument, a drumkit given to her by her parents for Christmas. She doesn’t know it was also on Christmas Day, years earlier, that two astronauts played music for the first time in space. On 16 December 1965, on board the ship of the Gemini 6 mission, Walter M. Shirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford played “Jingle Bells” with a harmonica and bells. “Other instruments have since been brought to space, like a synthesizer, a flute, a guitar and a didgeridoo,” the sound architect says. She also cites the astronaut Robert McNair, whose solo zero-gravity project disappeared with the Challenger shuttle in 1986. The Canadian Chris Hadfield played the guitar several times inside the International Space Station.
But the Telemetron is something special. Because it barely resembles instruments known on Earth, the dodecahedron lets the imagination run wild. “It doesn’t have to be just for astronauts,” Nicole L’Huillier says. “Others can take inspiration from it, too.” On this point, the artist refers less to NASA experiments than to experiments by musicians like Sun Ra. It takes into account the motto of the king of afrofuturism: “Space is the place.” In the 1972 film of that title, he invites the African-American community to escape their condition by going beyond the skies, by searching for a new planet. “I like his way of making us reconsider our relationship to the world,” she says. “Through his music, he empowers a community in the way space exploration can do. We’re all embarked on this adventure.”
The following year, Sun Ra gives a concert at Paul’s Mall in Boston, on Boylston Street. In the hall, a student with a passion for music from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) becomes fascinated by Sun Ra’s intergalactic “Arkestra.” Having come on the advice of a friend, Bill Sebastian decides to drop his studies to dedicate himself entirely to the construction of a new instrument: the Outer Space Visual Communicator (OVC). For four years, he develops his huge machine using computer components from the company Eli Heffron, where he works. Holed up on a Texas farm for the last days of its creation, he returns to Boston to present it to Sun Ra at a new concert. Moved, the jazzman invites Bill Sebastian and his OVC on stage. From then on, Sun Ra’s concerts are colored by images that activate this huge keyboard played with both hands and feet.
Living in a house in the Roxbury neighborhood south of Boston, Sebastian shares common areas with members of the group The Johnston Brothers. He also sells his talents as an engineer to other musicians like Peter Wolf, who remembers his room-cum-recording studio as “the tube room.” Busy setting up a real studio, Mission Control, the Texan gradually abandons the OVC, which becomes too tedious to program. The instrument ends up in the garden of a house in Westford that he buys with his wife Rita, where they raise their daughters. There, at the end of the 1980s, the father is reinspired to make a version with 3D images. But he needs money, and the engineer has his daughters to take care of.
During this period, Nicole L’Huillier is growing up far from Boston. In Santiago, “the living room was full of instruments for children,” she says. “I played with my three brothers for a while, then I got interested in electronic music.” An architecture student at the University of Chile in the capital, she participates in the creation of the Condor Jet group in her spare time. Hired by the studio of friends, she then works alone before creating her own structure. “I was an architect by day and a musician by night,” she says. “It was hard to know which one I wanted to be. In the end, I realized I wanted to be both, but not one before 6 pm and the other one after.” So she starts combining her approach to space with her work in music. From that she makes artistic installations. “For me, music is a construction, which means that sound is space. So yeah, ‘space is the place.’”
The wall of sound
Like Bill Sebastian, Nicole L’Huillier has good friends. On the advice of one of them, she applies to a master’s program at the MIT Media Lab in Boston, determined to complete her architecture training through art studies. The research center has the advantage of mixing the two disciplines. One of her former residents, Jeffrey Ventrella, for example, is both a musician and a computer developer. He had exactly the right tools in his belt to help Bill Sebastian develop the visual language for his new 3D OVC. This keyboard “puts music within reach of our strongest sense: vision,” he boasted in 2013. “We really think that it’s the art of the 21st century.” But Nicole L’Huillier has another idea.
Even though she thought she had no chance, L’Huillier is finally accepted into the MIT Media Lab. In class, she meets an American as passionate as she is for the canopy of stars, Ariel Ekblaw. “I was always obsessed by space in a bizarre way,” L’Huillier confesses. “I didn’t grow up in a scientific environment, and I didn’t know the names of the stars, but I always liked this imaginary world, especially in science fiction. I’m fascinated by extraterrestrials. At first I was afraid, but now I adore them.” After her master’s degree was complete, Ariel Ekblaw founds the “Space Exploration Initiative” at the research center. Her friend applies for a project to create an instrument in zero-gravity. And she’s accepted once again.
Naturally, astronauts didn’t wait for the Telemetron to play music in space. But each instrument must be scrupulously checked before boarding. Electromagnetic radiation emitted by a synthesizer, for example, can cause interferences. To get around that, astronauts need to take synths with metal housings instead of plastic ones, says NASA engineer Mike Pedley. Acoustic guitars, for their part, are flammable. So Nicole L’Huillier and her colleagues designed a dodecahedron that can move freely without hitting the walls of a ship. “The astronauts told me they needed artists,” she says.
For small missions, the instruments “have a sentimental use, like a reminiscence for people whose hobby is music,” says Ellen Ochoa, who brought a flute on the STS-56 mission in 1993. But the longer the voyage, the more their importance grows. “It’s a connection with home,” Carl Walz says. After leaving Earth on 5 December 2001, the American spent 196 days on board the International Space Station. “You have a lot of free time, especially on Sundays.” When he was embarking, teams of psychologists asked him what he would like to take with him. “I said a keyboard would be nice, and they said they would think about it.”
Of course, the Telemetron doesn’t correspond with Walz’ idea of a “connection with home.” “We’re born with our classical music, with what we know,” Marc Marzenit says. “It’s hard to make something out of nothing, something not influenced by what’s already on Earth.” Nicole L’Huillier knows that other researchers prefer to adapt flutes, guitars and other pianos to microgravity. But she is “more interested in exploring new possibilities.” From this perspective, “the Telemetron is just a first step, a glimpse.” For her future versions to catch on with musicians, “we might need a new generation,” Marzenit guesses. The way is already clear.