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Jodrell Bank Telescope 'Plays the Universe'

23 Jul 2007

Specially commissioned music by Jem Finer and Ansuman Biswas on 3 August

On 3 August 2007, Jodrell Bank Observatory will be hosting a unique spectacle. As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Lovell radio Telescope, a specially-commissioned musical composition will be performed, during which the Telescope will literally be 'playing the universe'.

The event celebrates the Lovell Telescope as a functional instrument for measuring space and time and as a striking sculptural object situated within a landscape. The music has been composed by Jem Finer and Ansuman Biswas. Finer, of rock band 'The Pogues', has previously received critical acclaim for his 'Longplayer' composition, a computer-generated piece designed to last for one thousand years. Biswas has an international artistic practice ranging across live art, music, film, theatre and writing and is best known for 'CAT', a comparative study of quantum physics and yogic philosophy. The piece to be performed at Jodrell Bank is a remarkable collaboration between recognized artists and radio astronomers at the University of Manchester's world-famous observatory.

The weekend of 3-5 August sees Jodrell Bank Observatory hosting the 'First Light Festival', marking the golden jubilee of the first observations with the Lovell Telescope. In astronomy, 'First Light' refers to the first signals that are collected by a new telescope, but in observational astronomy 'First Light' refers to that moment in the evolution of the universe when it had cooled sufficiently to allow light to pass unhindered.

Finer described the audio artwork as 'part of a long continuum'. 'For millennia,' he said, 'people have stood in this place contemplating the star-filled skies above. Jodrell Bank is now a meeting point where invisible signals arriving from the depths of the universe can be seen and heard'.

The 'First Light Festival' at Jodrell Bank uses the 50th anniversary of the first observations with the Lovell Telescope as an opportunity to showcase the observational techniques of modern astrophysics. Dr Tim O'Brien, Head of Outreach at Jodrell Bank, said 'this whole weekend is about the Telescope, the engineering that allows it to probe the universe and the fundamental science it enables. We're very excited about using it in a live musical creation.'

Finer and Biswas, along with Jodrell Bank astronomers, will use the Lovell Telescope itself as a live musical instrument and physical focus. Choreographed to track a number of celestial objects, as it turns and tilts it will relay a live stream of radio data while microphones attached to its structure will amplify the sounds of its motion.
Pre-recorded musical sources will form the basis of an hour long semi-improvised composition, responding and interweaving with the sounds of the Telescope. By relegating the 'performers' to the background, to the mixing of the different streams of sound, the Telescope itself takes centre stage, drawing a direct link between the Telescope and its terrestrial location and the universe's deep expanses of space and time. In a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime event, the performers will create a unique composition in which the Telescope literally 'plays the universe'.

The Telescope will also be illuminated from multiple angles, its movement creating a complex interplay of shadows and light, growing in intensity over the duration of the performance. The sole focus of the performance will be the Telescope and its awe-inspiring engineering and capabilities. The girders, beams, supports and tracks built by British engineers over 50 years ago still stand, still work 24 hours a day, probing the furthest reaches of the cosmos. This one-off event now gives the Telescope a unique voice on the void above.

This event is produced by a collaboration between the artists and The University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory, through funds allocated by the Royal Academy of Engineering 'Ingenious' grants programme, the Science & Technology Facilities Council and the Arts Council England.

Tickets for this event (Friday 3 August 2007) and the 'First Light Festival' itself are available from:

  • The Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre (01477 571339)
  • Jodrell Bank Observatory (01477 571321)

For more information, visit:

  • Jodrell  Bank Observatory website