Animal heartbeats and human breath share a story of the universe in Cosmic Time


Cosmic Time is a journey through the elements of the universe. Animal heartbeats, microtonal tubes, singing bowls, and human breath are just a few of the sounds represented across the album’s eight movements: Big Bang, Cosmic Soup, Galactic, Stellar, Planetary, Chemical, Biological, and Esoteric.

This music was premiered in a live percussion performance at the TarraWarra Biennial 2021: Slow Moving Waters. As the work is now released digitally, CutCommon chats with the co-creators — Michaela Gleave, Amanda Cole, and Louise Devenish — about their creation.

What does the new album mean to you, and what did you bring into this Cosmic Time collaboration?

MICHAELA: The Cosmic Time journey began in 2019 when I was approached by curator Nina Miall to create a performance work for the TarraWarra Biennial in Victoria.

I was keen to pursue a music-based outcome for the biennial performance, considering a history of cosmology and connection with a range of practices and beliefs globally that consider humanity as part of a ‘living cosmos’. I wanted the work to be driven by ideas and rhythms sourced from the cosmos that addressed numerous notions and experiences of time.

The possibilities of such a wide scope are obviously endless, so I narrowed the work down to a progression of eight movements that function as a journey through the time and scale of the universe. 

The work begins with the big bang, moving through the period of darkness prior to stars forming, and then to the gradual formation of galaxies, individual stars, planets, then biological life, and finally the internal chemistry of all things. The final movement is titled esoteric, and was envisaged as a dissolve into the astral plane, acknowledging our essentially human perspective on an infinite cosmos, and the relatively minute role we have in it.  

AMANDA: Michaela came up with the concept, title, and a structure of the piece, and came with its own Excel sheet of numbers. I took the materials given to me by Micheala, and made an indeterminate one-page score for each movement.

For example, for the planetary section, I used the planet orbit speeds to make relative tempo tracks for the percussionists to play loops on. In the biological section, I made a click track to be layered by each player, which are the speed of animal heartbeats from the slow elephant to the fast Etruscan shrew.

Louise developed and brought to life my one-page scores through making instrumentation and textural choices. She sculpted each movement with a range of percussion timbres and playing techniques. 

LOUISE: Michaela’s initial conceptual point of departure really lent itself to a percussive exploration, and a whole range of different percussive sound worlds. The work is designed as a sonic journey through different concepts of time as they exist in the world around us and beyond, and personally this was great to think about and explore as a way out of the stasis in lockdown.

Cosmic Time was a beautiful collaboration. – I think we all feel the work is ours, in both the individual and group sense. This was possible I think because of the open communication established from the beginning, which led to an iterative, layered compositional process emerging fairly naturally.

We each have a shared interest in explorations of time in our individual artistic practices more broadly, and what I found interesting was that we each came to the concept with similar ideas, but had different tools and methods for realising those ideas in a performance work. The main tangible contributions I brought were in the instrumentation, activation techniques, and general performative details like dynamics, phrasing, pace of entries.

How do you feel your music represents or translates into these concepts of ‘space’ or ‘time’ — things that in the universe have no sound?

M: In developing the conceptual framework for Cosmic Time, I did a lot of research into different notions of time. I’ve spent the last decade working with astronomical themes in my practice, including being artist-in-resident at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science. Personally, I find an interpretive response to the subject matter far more interesting than a literal translation of data, as it does allow audiences to be able to feel or imagine their way through what can otherwise be overwhelming or largely inhuman spaces.

A: For me, the piece explores various ways to approach time and relative time using percussion instruments. There is the idea of orbits, which are translated into loops of different length with different tempos. There are star rhythms in an electronic track, which were taken from a previous piece Micheala and I made together called A Galaxy of Suns which sonifies live star data. There are animal heartbeats that have a regular pulse, and there are sections where musical gestures are sequenced in rhythmically free loops creating a metaphor for material in the galaxy swirling together to create basic structures. 

L: Sound has an extraordinary capacity to influence and alter our perception of time, and in this work we deliberately play with that by different approaches to rhythmic material. Sometimes, this is led by a conceptual idea; at other times, it is led by the sounds themselves, the resonance of the instruments we are sounding.

The exploration of space and time continues on a technical and performance practice level too. The physical space we perform in influences the resonance of our instruments, and this in turn influences the musical space the percussionists allow between gestures, which influences the character of each movement. For example, instruments with a quick decay like a drum might be activated using friction gestures, which produce a long sound that is full of energy, while instruments with a long decay like an aluminium tube might be struck or bowed to produce a long sound that is also full, but still or suspended. The way the performers breathe, and hopefully the listeners too, changes as we make these gestures.

What do you hope people will feel, think about, or talk about, after listening to Cosmic Time?

M: In my works, I aim to connect audiences with the deeply human; feelings and sensations that are largely beyond words but that inspire a connection with a much bigger, shared experience of humanity.

An important aspect of this I believe is creating a sense of perspective on our position within the cosmos, reconnecting with concepts of deep time, and hopefully inspiring feelings of awe and wonder at the remarkable nature of existence. 

I hope that a sensation of these ideas can be experienced and enjoyed by audiences.

L: The work can be experienced as a ‘concert’ piece, with active listening and looking from an audience, or as a sound bath or sound meditation-style work where audiences lie back, close their eyes, and float away on the resonance. This is how I like to think of it. There is a distinct feeling of floating through time, or a suspension of time that I feel performing the work. The pace compels you to listen to the long resonances of the instruments and encourages slow, deep listening.

I hope people feel relaxed, that they become focused on the gradual introduction of each new sound, and ultimately, I hope they feel connected with the environment and people listening in the room with them. 

A : I hope the people enjoy listening to the piece. 

Cosmic Time by Michaela Gleave, Amanda Cole, and Louise Devenish is now available on Bandcamp and streaming platforms.

Images supplied. Credit Jared Underwood.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

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