Black holes are the most massive gravitational engines in the universe, yet what most of us probably know about them could fit into a thimble. A new collaboration of music, art, and science by the Multiverse Concert Series offers an opportunity to learn a lot more about these mysteries of the cosmos. As part of the Museum of Science’s Summer Thursdays series, “Black Hole Symphony” will premiere to a sold-out crowd on June 23 (additional performances July 28 and Aug. 25) at the Charles Hayden Planetarium. With live, original music composed by Multiverse Concert Series’ founder David Ibbett, the new show features research from scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and experts from Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative, with visuals designed by the MOS’s planetarium team.
“It’s a beautiful and wondrous immersive experience that really takes everyone on a journey and allows people to get closer to a black hole than they’ve ever imagined,” says James Monroe, the museum’s producer of adult programs and theater experiences. “Even though there’s a lot of mystery around black holes, there’s a lot that we do know, and I’m excited for audiences to come and learn about these objects that have so fascinated the world.”
Three years in the making, the multimedia project was conceived by Ibbett after a conversation with Harvard astrophysicist Anna Barnacka. “We started talking about black holes, and there’s so much more there beyond that void we think of,” Ibbett says. “They radiate incredible energy and are at the center of every galaxy.” He calls them “gravity at its most extreme and wacky.”
Black holes seemed like an ideal subject for his Multiverse Concert Series, a nonprofit collaborative of musicians, artists, and scientists started in 2017 to create immersive multimedia experiences that stimulate wonder and curiosity about science. As a composer and visiting professor at Berklee College of Music and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Ibbett found the universal language of music an especially effective pathway for sharing the richness of scientific discovery. “Music has this special way of engaging the whole person — mind, ears, emotions,” he says. “I believe the sound and emotional power of music can help tell us about the world we live in, in language that can reach broad groups of people.”
A native of Coventry, England, and the son of a research chemist, Ibbett doesn’t have a science background, but childhood visits to his father’s lab kindled a curiosity for scientific inquiry. After getting a PhD in composition with a specialty in electronic music, Ibbett settled in Boston eight years ago and created the nonprofit Multiverse to combine his love of music and science in live performance. So far, he and the organization’s projects have focused on fluid dynamics, coral bleaching, and subatomic neutrinos — Ibbett was the first guest composer at the particle physics and accelerator laboratory Fermilab.
To create music for the 42-minute “Black Hole Symphony,” Ibbett turned frequencies of light into sound waves based on the electromagnetic spectrum of an active galaxy containing a supermassive black hole. “Within it, you can break apart the frequencies to see the ‘color’ of each component, from dust torus and broad-line clouds to relativistic jets of plasma and the blazing accretion disc,” he elaborates. “Although these frequencies are too widely spread to visualize, we can listen to them by mapping light frequencies to sound waves, which become the musical notes of a ‘black hole chord’.” Orchestrating his symphony for chamber orchestra and electronics, he composed a work fusing classical and electronic styles, with special themes for different features of the black hole.
Ibbett’s goal is to provide an experience of science “in the moment, using as much data as we can to be accurate and using music and visualization to be immersive, hitting the ear and the mind. You’ll feel some of the frequencies coming through the floor. I hope it will be an emotionally powerful experience as well as an intellectually enriching one.”
The project marks the first full-scale collaboration that Monroe’s adult programming production team has created with outside partners. “What I love about the Multiverse Concert Series is that they fuse together art, science, and technology in unique ways to provide access points to these complex STEM subjects,” says Monroe, “so anyone is able to engage in these conversations and learn.”
The show was created to tour — with live music or a prepackaged version using recorded sound — and Monroe says other museums and planetariums across the country have shown interest in engagements following this summer’s world premiere. “I’m convinced this will have life outside of Boston and return engagements here as well,” he says. “David’s work as a composer is incredibly beautiful, and it’s such a unique fusion where every component is ingrained in science research, which is unique in this field. It’s changing the landscape of science communication, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”