Music for aliens – 1970s coded message transformed into musical composition

In 1974, a coded message was sent to a distant star cluster in the hope it might be picked up and deciphered by intelligent extra-terrestrial life.

The Arecibo message included 1,679 binary digits spelling out the numbers one to 10, details of the structure of DNA, and information indicating the position of Earth within the solar system.

Developed by, and sent from, the Puerto Rican observatory of the same name it will take just shy of 25,000 light years to reach its intended target.

But now, just over four decades since the message was created, it will form the foundations of an exclusive musical performance at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival, taking place at the University of Plymouth from March 2-4, 2018.

Conceived by Dr Alexis Kirke, the piece – also titled Arecibo – uses the marimba as its main instrument and will then incorporate different musical elements to represent the seven sections of the original messages.

Dr Kirke, Senior Research Fellow within the University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), said: 

“The Arecibo message was an outstanding piece of experimental science designed to demonstrate what humans can actually achieve. It was created by some of the great scientific communicators of the 1970s to give an insight into our planet and the ways of life on Earth.

“By decoding the message and then recoding it as music, I hope to open it up to a whole new audience to help them appreciate what those scientists were trying to achieve. I guess there is also the chance that, some day, it too could be used to try and communicate with extra-terrestrial life to show them the marvels of life on Earth.”

Arecibo builds on Dr Kirke’s existing body of experimental work, which has included transforming the University’s state-of-the-art wave tank into a percussion instrument.

He also worked with the Head of Behavioural and Quantitative Finance at Barclays to create a ‘reality opera’ inspired by the ebb and flow of emotion and money on a stock trading floor, collaborated with Heaven 17 and Human League founder Martyn Ware to transform David Bowie’s music and success into new compositions, and fitted audience members with sensors to create a new take on the plays of William Shakespeare.

Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival 2018: Decoding Life

The Decoding Life is the theme of Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival (PACMF) 2018, which celebrates the internationally renowned research combining music, engineering and the life sciences developed at Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR).

Decoding Life proposes a weekend of musical allusions to human endeavours to understand, modify, simulate and even create life.

Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR)

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