The voyagers of the U.S.S. Enterprise entertained themselves with some far-out instruments for years (how can you forget Spock getting into a totally illogical jam session?), but will real astronauts en route to the moon or Mars or the farther reaches of deep space just be staring out the window into the fathomless dark with no soundtrack?
That could change. Sure, Earth instruments have been ventured into space before—Gemini’s crew got into the holiday spirit and broke out into a harmonica rendition of “Jingle Bells” in 1965—but there has never been an instrument specifically developed for space. Telemetron is the first of its kind. Unlike the guitars, flutes, and futuristic-sounding synthesizers that have previously taken off into space, this dodecahedric instrument was designed to be played in microgravity. Because it floats.
Developed at MIT’s Media Lab by Nicole L’Huillier and Sands Fish and just revealed, the Telemetron only has to go anti-gravity to start making music. You literally don’t have to do anything. There are no keys, no strings, no piano teacher over your shoulder freaking out when you miss another flat. This thing just plays itself as it somersaults around and around.
“The environment of zero gravity affords a unique medium for new modalities of musical performance, both in the design of instruments and human interactions with said instruments,” said Fish and L’Huillier when they recently spoke at the New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) Conference. "To explore this medium, we have created and flown Telemetron, the first musical instrument specifically designed for and tested in the zero-gravity environment."
Telemetron makes its own music with sensored gyroscopic chimes suspended inside, which transmit the instrument’s telemetry, or what it reads and records about the chimes’ spins and collisions. It can just be left to float there or moved around if you want to crescendo into something louder and uptempo. What does it sound like? Think of all that spooky, spacey background music in sci-fi movies and TV shows, the kind that starts playing when humans venture into the unexplored caves of a distant planet. It’s something like that, with a timbre that echoes musical sounds underwater, so both aliens and space mermaids would probably rock out to this.
The Telemetron might not be a survival necessity, but survival is not the only thing the human race will be thinking about as we start to rocket through the monotone blackness of space to the uncharted territories we could previously only explore through satellite data and images. We need some music with our oxygen.
This is why L’Huillier and Fish stressed that they created this instrument to “expand expression beyond the limits of earth-based instruments and performers” and “explore how design and creativity might evolve as we begin to do more than merely survive in space.”
You also can’t deny that floating people playing a floating instrument in zero-G is all sorts of awesome.