Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hypermusic: sounds from another dimension


Images: Katherine Tomkinson

3D movies may be all the rage, but the event I attended at the Guggenheim on Thursday night definitely had them beat. It was an opera in five dimensions.

Hypermusic: Ascension is the brainchild of Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, composer Hector Parra and artist Matthew Ritchie. It premiered last year at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Here at the Guggenheim, the three sat down to discuss their work before treating us to a performance.

Parra explained that he was inspired when he read Randall's book Warped Passages, which explains her ideas about the possibility of a fifth dimension.

According to the so-called Randall-Sundrum model, which Randall developed with physicist Raman Sundrum, our four-dimensional universe (that's 3 space and 1 time) lives on a brane (an object that appears in the equations of string theory), which is embedded in a fifth dimension.

The extra dimension is infinitely big but has a curved geometry. While light and matter are confined to the brane, gravity (being the geometry of spacetime itself) extends out into the fifth dimension. That might explain why gravity appears so much weaker than the other fundamental forces.

Parra began thinking about what might happen to sound in such a strange geometry. After all, he thought, sound maps the shape of the space in which it travels. Changing the shape of space changes the possible vibratory modes of sound waves; conversely, manipulating sounds can create the illusion that one is in a space of a different shape - or with an additional dimension.

Parra conceived of an opera with two characters: a baritone who is stuck in our four-dimensional world and a soprano who ventures out into the fifth dimension. When she gets there, the soprano tries to tell the baritone what she sees, but he is unable to understand her because he is in the "flatland of the voice".

Some complicated-looking charts and graphs offered us a glimpse into Parra's five dimensional process - taking sound waves and imagining what happens to them at different energy levels and in different geometries. "The physiology of the ear is totally pushed to its limits," he said.

When Parra explained his idea to Randall, she was excited to join him. She felt that the fifth dimension provided a powerful metaphor about venturing out into new territory from where it becomes difficult to be understood by those you've left behind. She agreed to write the libretto.

Ritchie was the final piece of the puzzle, needed to create dramatic visual effects for the performance. In doing so he looked to Randall's physics and to physicist Juan Maldacena's ideas about the holographic universe, he said.

guggenheim_3.jpgHis aim was to create a new visual language: one in which spherical shapes denote particles, tetrahedral forms represent unified forces and web-like structures allude to the warped spacetime geometry. He was motivated by the idea of forging ahead into new territories where the arts have yet to define a vocabulary.

"Nothing would be worse than if we assume that we have a visual language for science," Ritchie said.

After the discussion, we all sat down cross-legged on the floor of the famous rotunda, planting ourselves on laser-cut foam shapes presumably made by Ritchie, the awesome white spiral of the Guggenheim rising up all around us.

The soprano began to sing, standing at floor level, half shrouded by a foam sculpture with curious geometries like the ones on which we were seated. Then she began her slow ascent up the rotunda. Each level she reached was then flooded by Ritchie's projections - ever-transmuting shapes and colors, some hard-edged and geometric, others amorphous or fractal like soap bubbles.

As she moved upwards - and presumably further into the fifth dimension - the sounds became increasingly distorted. In this performance, there was no baritone. Instead, we, the audience, played the role of the second character, stuck here in our brane world, trying to understand the words coming from beyond.

In an extraordinary voice, the soprano sang Randall's words:

I will describe this strange landscapeguggenheim_1.jpg
Flesh out its properties
Deduce the geometry
That embraced me
That I wandered through

The sound distortions were unlike anything I'd ever heard before and remarkably they did hint at a hidden dimension. Simultaneously angelic and demonic in tone, her voice was the slither of a snake, a movie in fast-forward, the stutters and clicks and squeaks of a dolphin's sonar, an echo in a hyperspace chamber.

As she rounded the white spiral, disappearing for stretches of time, then reappearing engulfed in the shifting projections, I couldn't help but think of Picasso. In his painting, Picasso imagined what a three-dimensional object would look like when viewed from a higher dimension. Here, Parra was imagining what a voice in five dimensions would sound like in four. The result struck me as similarly modern - and game-changing.

My only complaint about the performance would have to be Randall's libretto, which - perhaps unsurprisingly - was at times far too literal, with passages like:

We have found
we can consistently exist
with an infinite fifth dimension,
without violating known tests of gravity.
The scenario consists of a single 3-brane,
warped spacetime in the rest
and specially tuned tension here and throughout.

That's not to mention the equations that are included, such as those for the action of the system and the Randall-Sundrum solution to Einstein's equations. According to the libretto:

It can be identified as a slice of AdS5.
The solution holds only when the boundary and bulk cosmological terms are related by:
Vbrane = Vbrane' = 24M3k, Λ = -24M3k2,
Which we assume from now on.

I suppose she never claimed to be a writer.

It doesn't matter, though. The profound soundscape and the hypnotic images far overpowered the words, and came together to convey a resounding message: sometimes in order to really understand your reality, you have to step outside of it.

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