Given the vastness of the known universe, very few musicians across all genres have looked to the heavens for inspiration. There are of course notable exceptions––like the astral traveller himself Sun Ra, the galactic funk of George’s Clinton’s Mothership Connection and Gustav Holst’s classic ‘The Planets’ to name a minority that have made that journey. It’s not surprising that most musicians prefer to preoccupy themselves with more earthly themes, but given the current advances in space exploration, maybe it’s time they embraced the Cosmos as well.
One Sydney artist who has done just that is flautist, pianist, composer and avid stargazer Kenya Wilkins, who recalls:
“I have always had a fascination with astronomy, ever since I saved up to buy a telescope aged thirteen. My skills lie in music though, not quantum physics. We are a very tiny niche in an infinite universe.”
Kenya explained that she had been looking to make her music more interesting, using a found sound. It was when she eventually came across the website of astronomer Professor Paul Francis that the connection finally came. Francis had constructed a series of space sound MP3s drawn from NASA’s electromagnetic data. Kenya made contact with him and he was more than happy to have his material incorporated into a musical suite.
So what is it about ‘space sounds’ that really inspires Kenya? She notes:
“To me, they sound similar to whale sounds. They have pitches that are closely related to the harmonic series. They are beautiful and immediately take you to an alien ethereal place and away from mere human concerns. My compositions have been angled towards astronomy for a long time, so I already had a lot of material before the project was devised.”
She continued: “They explore astronomical ideas a number of ways, such as using the angular shapes of craters to inform melodic material, using the ideas of repetitive orbits to inform bass lines and using the ideas of voids and space to inspire a zen-like improvisational state, as well as using the actual pitches in the space sounds to base melodies and rhythms on.”
Together with Ellen Kirkwood on trumpet and Elsen Price on double bass and loop pedal, Kenya has formed the Ephemera Trio to produce a show that transports the audience through a universe of pulsars, craters, planetary atmospheres, stars, sun and void. The trio’s free flowing jazz, incorporating the soundtrack constructed by Professor Francis, is set against a backdrop of dazzling space projections.
Kenya remembers that she has always enjoyed watching astronomy documentaries, especially when they include actual probe footage.
“I found that there is a lot of this freely available on NASA’s website (as long as you acknowledge it, of course). We are using images from the Grail Mission in 2012 to map the Moon in detail, Cassini’s Saturn exploration from 1997 to the present, the Mars Rover Curiosity from 2012, and various comet fly-bys such as Rosetta in 2004.”
Each member brings their own unique voice to the ensemble, drawing from a multitude of musical backgrounds. Elsen is a new music specialist, Ellen is a celebrated jazz trumpeter and composer, and Keyna herself is a jazz/classical/flamenco musician and composer.
Fasten your seatbelt as Ephemera Trio take you on an adventure in space and time.