Astronauts love a good orbital jam session. Gemini 6’s crew played “Jingle Bells” in space on harmonica in 1965, for example, and keyboard singalongs have broken out on the International Space Station (ISS). And who could forget astronaut Chris Hadfield’s free-floating 2015 performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”?
This rich tradition of off-Earth music will now be further amplified by the “Telemetron,” a recently-unveiled futuristic instrument developed by Nicole L'Huillier and Sands Fish at MIT’s Media Lab. Unlike the guitars, synthesizers, flutes, and other instruments that have previously made their way into space, the Telemetron is specifically designed for a microgravity environment. Instead of plucking strings or blowing into a reed, to play the Telemetron all astronauts have to do is let it tumble around in midair.
Gyroscopic “chimes” suspended inside the Telemetron’s dodecahedral chamber transmit telemetry about their spin dynamics and collisions with each other. This data is translated into musical tones that are appropriately spacey, with a similar timbre to how music sounds underwater. The instrument can be actively jostled to make louder, high-tempo compositions, or it can be left to passively riff as it free-floats and bounces off surfaces.
The idea, according to L'Huillier and Fish, is to “expand expression beyond the limits of earth-based instruments and performers” and “explore how design and creativity might evolve as we begin to do more than merely survive in space.”
The Telemetron hasn’t yet been deployed in space, but L'Huillier and Fish have successfully tested it on zero-gravity parabolic flights, and Fish gave a talk about the project at the New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference on June 6. Even if the inventive instrument never finds its way off the planet, it raises the trippy possibility that future space-faring cultures might develop their own forms of artistic expression, unique to the microgravity conditions they inhabit.
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