Fifty years ago this Sunday, humans first noticed the flash from a particular kind of cosmological beacon. Analyzing radio-telescope data, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, then a Cambridge University doctoral student, noticed an anomalous signal coming from the constellation Vulpecula. (The readout, dated Aug. 6, 1967, is in the archives of Cambridge’s Churchill College.) The signal’s regularity caused Bell Burnell and her adviser, Anthony Hewish, to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence, but further analysis revealed a collapsed, spinning star, spouting radio waves: a pulsar, the first ever observed. The discovery won Hewish and fellow astronomer Martin Ryle (though, controversially, not Bell Burnell) a 1974 Nobel Prize.
Art often takes cues from science; the discovery of pulsars, though, might have been anticipated by the musical zeitgeist. The nature of their signals — ranging from slow, metronome-like beats to repetitions so fast they blur into pitch-like steadiness — echoed an increasing modern-music fascination with pulse. Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example, beginning with his 1955-57 “Gruppen,” had extensively explored the implications of that pulse-to-pitch continuum. And minimalist composers had started to organize musical structures around implacably steady, pulsar-like beats — whether the omnipresent, repeated-note scaffolding of Terry Riley’s 1964 “In C” (an idea suggested by fellow composer Steve Reich) or the anchoring grids of Philip Glass’s early, additive-rhythm works, like “Strung Out” or “How Now.”
Pulsars themselves became musical subjects — collaborators, even. The most elaborate homage might be Gérard Grisey’s 1989-90 “Le Noir de L’Étoile” (last heard here in 2015, performed by Sound Icon). Six percussionists spin sounds, pulsar-like, around the encircled audience, their rhythms derived from the periods of two particular pulsars, 0329+54 and the Vela pulsar — the electronic signals of which make guest appearances. (More recently, pulsars offered similar astronomical accompaniment on Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s 2012 album “Mysterium Tremendum.”)
But perhaps the most prominent musical appearance of a pulsar was entirely visual. For his 1970 PhD thesis, astronomer Harold D. Craft Jr. mapped pulse profiles of 12 pulsars, visualizing them by superimposing the collected plots of each pulsar into graphs resembling topographical maps. From there (as traced by Jen Christiansen, senior graphics editor at Scientific American), Craft’s graph of the same pulsar Bell Burnell first flagged back in 1967 was reprinted in Scientific American and later in “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy,” where it was noticed by the English band Joy Division, who made it the cover of their 1979 debut album, “Unknown Pleasures.” T-shirts, posters, and numerous parodies made the image famous. Still: What better emblem for music’s tenacious ephemerality than an undead star, defiantly pinging into the void?