Widgets Magazine

Rites of Spring: Music from the Stars, at Custer Institute

Q: You composed the Music from the Stars concert at the Custer Institute, on May 21st. Have you always been a composer? A: Actually, my wife and I are both sculptors, though I’ve always been involved in music too. I started composing electronic music when I was a teenager, and have been big into contemporary music my whole life—40+ years. We also have a lighting design business, Lampa.

Q: Lighting design, sculpture, music; you work in a variety of disciplines. Is there a theme—something you’re usually trying to express—in all your work? Some kind of unifying principle or aesthetic that’s expressed whether it’s music, sculpture or light that you’re working with?

Our lighting line is strictly commercial, not fine art. The design stays design. The sculpture and the music are relatively interwoven. I do a lot of work in language.

The sculpture pieces are based on words, they have a certain sound, an awkwardness, a certain humor. The music has a similar feel, a certain—it doesn’t take itself terribly seriously. Maybe that’s a similarity.


from Baldwin's Language of Light exhibit in Richmond, Virginia

IMG_7551 (1)

from Baldwin's Language of Light exhibit in Richmond, Virginia

I like an art, whether visual or aural that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that is open and friendly. I like to inspire community through my work; I like work that invites. If I can do that through my art, that’s what I prefer.

Q: How is that reflected in your music?

A: I’ve been really inspired by carousel music, and mechanical instruments, orchestrions, calliopes, things like that. A lot of my music sounds like it could be coming out of a merry go round.

Q: The name of the May 21st concert “Music from the Stars” seems very nicely synced with the location, the Custer Institute, Long Island’s oldest public observatory. Is the name a metaphor? What do you mean, Music from the Stars?

A: The music is literally from the stars. The music comes from data describing planets transiting their stars in one corner of the Milky Way.

The Kepler telescope gathers the data and NASA downloads it, lets anyone use it.

The astromers take these observations and determine if these are Earth-sized planets, and whether they are in the “goldilocks” zone of being plausibly life-supporting; close enough to the sun but not too close.

In doing that they’ve discovered some 3000 potential Earths in this one teeny tiny part of our Milky Way galaxy. It was an experiment for me to take this data and sonify it.

Q: What is this data like? Is it a bunch of zeros and ones? What do you mean by ‘sonifying’ the data?

A: The data is all numbers; graphs. The data is measured in ‘light curves.’ If you can imagine, when the planet transits the sun, the planet creates a shadow, and the light dips a bit, and then returns as the planet moves on. Kepler records these changes in light. The numbers might be 2, 5, 7, 11, 6. It’s generally not a continuous tone, but a series of tones. You can get a slide whistle kind of oscillating sound, but in steps.

You take these sounds and assign them to different instruments, and it becomes really fun. I sonified the data into 20 different pieces.

Q: How did you choose which instrument to assign for each bit of data? Did you use some kind of mathematical formula?

A: When I assigned the instruments, I relied on a lot of intuition. I used to be a big John Cage-head, where you’re supposed to not use intuition at all, remove yourself completely, but I’ve changed in more recent years. Stockhausen's writings on intuition freed me from that.

There are, give or take, eight instruments in this performance, depending on how you count.   A string trio, a percussionist, a guitarist who plays an electric double neck sitar and a lap steel guitar…there’s a harpist, a tuba and a lot of electronics. Also a celesta, which is a keyboard instrument that plays bells. Plus there’s an organ, a few other things buried in the mix.

Q: You mentioned creating 20 pieces from the data; do they need to be played in a certain order?

There is a little bit of an arc to the 20 pieces. Each represents a different planet, about 10 planets in all. The data varies, they each have a signature theme that creates a repeatable melody. The pieces are a mix; they start off accessible, get weird and dreamy in the middle, and more accessible in the end. It’s a little bit of an adventure.

One of the planets I use is 452b, which is a planet known as Earth’s bigger, older cousin within the astronomy community. The pieces have titles like: Kepler0114464, Two Days on 452b, 444b Nighttime and 452b Weekend.

Q: Planet 452b is Earth’s bigger, older cousin? What does that mean?

A: It’s the first near Earth-sized planet orbiting a sun type star in the goldilocks zone. But scientists do not know if 452b can support life or not. It’s about 60% larger than Earth. It orbits its star every 385 days, it’s 1400 lightyears away in the constellation Cignus. And its star is nearly the same temperature and mass as our sun. It looks like this star is about 6 billion years old.

Q: Maybe humans have some bigger, older cousins in the universe then.

A: Yeah. One of things I like about this whole project is it puts the focus on other worlds instead of just our own. I think it adds some badly needed perspective. This does that a little bit for me.

Q: So, will the concert be in the observatory, or out, under the stars?

A: We’re shooting for outdoors, that’s the plan. I’ve designed some new lighting for this that will light the performers. This is the perfect opportunity for me to make the pieces happen in a concert setting.

Q: The Rites of Spring is a very high quality, but very new, series of special concerts on the North Fork. Do you have a connection to the North Fork already? If not, how did you get involved with the Rites of Spring?

A: My wife and I started started coming out here in the early 80s, renting in the late 80s in Greenport. We bought that house eventually, got married in Greenport. Those years we were here summers/weekends. About 20 years ago, we bought in Aquebogue and moved our lighting design business there, becoming year round North Fork residents; my in-laws moved to the Greenport house.


I got involved with the Rites of Spring after hearing and meeting Paolo Bartolani. He played a Glass piece at the Jamesport Meeting House that was quite transcendent. He proposed this notion of a classical festival that fused music with local experts in our environment, our local history and our food and wine and we agreed it had to become a reality. It was a natural project that had to happen in this very natural place, The North Fork. We collaborated on getting sponsors, securing sites, and finding talent and Rites of Spring was born.

Q: Was the Music from the Stars something really different for you? Or do you have a big connection to astronomy more generally?

A: I admit I have an interest in space-based projects. I did a piece last year at the Parrish Art Museum called the Language of Light.


from Baldwin's Language of Light exhibit in Richmond, Virginia

It included some films I made from the space station. They shoot a lot of time lapsed photography up there. I was taking all the space station’s still images, and was making time lapse films. The Language of Light pieces are about man-made and natural light in its myriad forms, from cars to carousels to the curvature of the earth. It's true, space is the place.

Get tickets to the concert here; learn more about the music series here.

Learn more about Cliff Baldwin here.