A Galaxy Fit for A Classroom

Not a voice could be heard in the Community Charter Public School’s community room, although it was filled with students. They were all mesmerized by the symphony of space being absorbed by both their ears and eyes.

The Black Hole Symphony is a group of musicians who use science and music to bring one of space’s deepest unknowns to life. They compose music inspired by studies of actual black holes, and then provide a simulated animation to accompany it. The process is called “sonification.”

The school’s assistant office manager, Meg Upton, was the main catalyst for organizing the symphony’s visit. She explained why she felt this experience would be so valuable to the students.

“We’re a project-based learning school, so we teach across subjects,” said Upton. “The symphony is playing across science, math, music, and art. So I thought it would be inspiring for the students to see what their learning can create.”

Upton worked hard for more than three months to make the event possible, and credited an entrepreneur fair and a grant from the Friends of Marblehead Public Schools with helping fund the production.

“Black Holes — inseparable from the story of the universe, and the story of us,” the show’s narration said ominously.

What followed was a mixture of opera, guitar, and piccolo that interacted with the simulations of space on-screen. David Ibbett is the composer behind it all. The son of a chemist, Ibbett took a liking to science himself. However, his passion for music gave him the idea to put his two skills together.

The method used for these performances became possible very recently, so Ibbett and his team quickly got to work and put their passion project in motion.

“The first way to listen to gravitational waves was discovered in 2017,” explained Ibbett. “Having those gave me a good structure for the piece and we made this journey… With that in place I was able to compose freely and have a give-and-take between the really data-driven parts, and then the more freely-composed parts.”

After the performance ended, the school’s curious young minds had seemingly endless questions for Ibbett. They also made sure to give their thanks to vocalist Sarah Coffman, guitarist Dan VanHassel, and piccolo player Jessica Smith for their part in bringing space and music to life at the school.

Ibbett said he hopes to inspire others to make this kind of art and develop the emerging field of sonification.

“I just really want to encourage more people to make this kind of art,” he said. “There are discoveries right under peoples’ noses that they don’t even think about.”