Marcus Schmickler
Studio Piethopraxis

Bonner Durchmusterung

(Bonn Patternization)  Composition based on the sonification of astronomical data with projections.
Even in early period of astronomy, relationships to music are found: in the so-called music of the spheres the Pythagoreans claimed to observe in the movements of the celestial bodies the same proportions as in the overtone series of musical tones and harmonies. Today the use of computers allows complex astronomical data to be electronically translated into sounds. Schmickler's Bonner Durchmusterung (The Bonn Patternization) takes up this tradition and attempts to attain an epistemological exchange between music and astronomy. The arrangement of the musical structures on the basis of the astrophysical data was created in close collaboration with the composer and music scientist Alberto de Campo. The projections by Carsten Goertz are based on the same data. The interdisciplinary project was specially initiated for the International Year of Astronomy by astronomers Dr. Michael Geffert from Bonn University's Argelander Institute for Astronomy and Dr. Kerstin Jaunich of the Deutscher Musikrat. 

The eponymous starting point of our project is the Bonn patternization drawn up by the astronomer Friedrich Argelander (1799-1875) and his co-workers. This is not only the most historic work ever to have been conducted in Bonn; it also includes every star that can be seen in the night sky with the naked eye or a small telescope. The locations of the stars alter so little that today's night sky can still by-and-large be described by the data of the Bonn patternization. The observation of the stars was carried out by means of a very primitive but effective procedure: the main observer looked through a solidly installed telescope, facing south.  The stars of a strip of the sky passed through the field of vision in this telescope. The main observer estimated the magnitude of a star and its height of passage and at the moment that the star moved across a crosshair exactly in the middle of the field gave an acoustic signal (a stamp of the foot). A second observer sat in front of a clock and recorded the time for every signal. More than a million observations of stars were carried out in the course of the patternization and resulted in a directory documenting more than 300,000 stars.Sonification is the process of examining scientific data by which they are “audified” in order to gain potential new insight through this alternative presentation as differentiated tonal phenomena. The basis of our sonifications consists of readings for different stars, star clusters and galaxies, as well as their properties such as light, distance and coordinates. In addition, sounds are generated from systems that arithmetically simulate astronomically relevant phenomena such as the interaction between celestial bodies due to gravitation. 

A fundamental prerequisite of composition on the basis of scientific data lies in understanding the objects and phenomena underlying the data. The understanding of the data and objects in these dimensions is problematic: even the raw data are deeply dependent on a theoretical model of the world on which the measuring procedure is based. To make it more difficult, some observed or calculated phenomena in astrophysics behave counter-intuitively and not infrequently run contrary to the ideas of physics we experience day-to-day. When astronomers observe a distant galaxy today, they are measuring the light it emitted millions of years ago. The theory of the curvature of space-time and other calculations pertaining to the structure of the universe play with our imaginations; the Big Bang for example did not occur in space-time, but rather was the beginning of space-time. In the sub-microscopic sphere of quantum physics things are odder still: here, not only some but practically all of our habitual ideas regarding space and time crumble, and research in this area demands interdisciplinary work between specialists from mathematics, theoretical physics, phenomenology and statistics. For composition with data, a form must be found or invented that is both scientific and as consistent as possible. On the other hand much more fundamental questions arise concerning the relationship between data and reality of the observed objects, whose “own nature”, if there is one, is at first unknown. How does one come from a complex series of numbers to an understanding of the objects or even to a consistent phenomenology of the cosmos, and what role could sound play in this? Conversely there is an appeal in deriving interesting acoustic events and musical structures from complex theoretical models of particle physics and astrophysics.Science today is the production of symbols and their usage: an immensely differentiated and efficient usage that creates knowledge and manipulates opinions. Their use is ambivalent, ancient and in part paradoxical. However it is seldom the picture to which the scientist provides the answer, but rather the content of the picture, which has come to be created through the intense distillation of a mathematical process. Why, we ask in turn, does mathematics describe the physical world the most precisely? It could be argued that mathematics is just a product of the mind and thus merely a manifestation of brain structure, which in turn must be a product of those evolutionary forces that formed our knowledge in view of the world around us. In the end all our intuitive perception is an immediate depiction of reality generated by our brain and its experience of the world, formed during a process of evolution. As Kant described with his “Copernican change”, we know that we do not observe the thing itself or even its own appearance, but rather the thing as it is for us; we mostly see just what we expect to see, which is why the history of astrophysics has produced a variety of completely different views of the world. Alongside the observed or calculated events it is also these knowledge processes that interest us in this project. 

Visualization is the pictorial counterpart to sonification and already has a long tradition from the point of view of the scientific disciplines. We deal every day with the depiction of data, technical images whether a pie chart or a computer-generated view of telescopic images – they are, for us, immediately readable and a self-evident part of our alphabet. We can observe that the repertoire of symbols seems constantly to broaden, indeed to become more specific. This pictorial process of alphabetization is becoming continually more important and constitutively effective as regards our conceptions of the world – because the social agreements on what reality is are to a considerable extent argued through pictures. That makes it necessary to use this alphabet not only with scientific methodology but also to shape it out of the other great visual discipline: art. Art often takes up a position antagonistic to science. It questions the applied grammar of the pictures by transferring technical images into other contexts of meaning, experimenting with alternative methods of picture production or just altering the algorithms.Where science searches for universality, art attempts to formulate a singularity. That is anything but easy or undemanding; it can occur by means of an uncertain shot in the dark and often emerges as a distressing impossibility. It is not possible to methodically manufacture the unforeseeable as the regularity; difference is not easier than repetition. Everywhere we seek the Absolute, and always we find only things. (Novalis, Blüthenstaub) In view of this evident dichotomy, however, it makes one wonder why Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, of all people, after they had described quantum mechanics, saw in poetry something resembling the last way out for the ultimate science. The construction of reality, science and art is thus even more intricate, because the described antagonistic stance is only the simplest artistic position. In the same way, scientific aesthetics and methods are to a considerable extent verified in art and design or combined with the artist's own methods. Where the systems do not define themselves by means of opposing delimitations, but rather become involved in an interplay, a poetic interpretation, depiction and contextualization of scientific knowledge takes place. The political and social effects of science become visible. In this way a qualitatively new position is created that can be enriching in both directions. Literally enriching: a step forward towards a diverse understanding of reality, the spectrum broadened rather than simplified and consequently increasingly able to do justice to an endless cosmos. This much humility is only appropriate, as we are 'all€“ artists, scientists, philosophers and theologians' merely the plumbers of the universe, trying to plug the black holes in the drainpipe. 
10.2 channel audio, projections. Duration: ~33 mins.

Commissioned by IYA 2009 (International Year of Astronomy) and Deutscher Musikrat 
Premiered at Kunst- und Austellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, May 2009 

Marcus Schmickler: Composition 
Alberto de Campo: Sonification 
Carsten Goertz: Projection 
Dr. Michael Geffert: Supervision

1. Reionization / Dark Ages
300,000 years after the Big Bang, matter had cooled down enough for the first atoms to form. The two predominant elements are helium and hydrogen, whose spectrums are sonified here. In the case of stars, the spectral lines reveal surface temperature and chemical composition and, together with the absolute magnitude, the weight of the created star.  

2. Solar eruptions 
Solar flares are clear proof that the sun is in no way the quiet star that it sometimes appears to us from Earth. A solar flare is a formation of increased radiation within the chromosphere of the sun, which is thrown outwards through magnetic field energy. These eruptions even have an influence on the weather on Earth. We hear and see the 600 sunbursts that were recorded between 1 January and 30 April 2000.  

3. Eccentricity of the elliptical orbits of our solar system 
From the physical laws follow relationships between orbital parameters such as the semi-major axis of a planetary orbit and the orbiting time of the planet. The role of the observer, who is himself on the moving planet Earth, plays an important role in interpretation, for example in declining movement. The excentre value and the length of a year on the planets and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter are sonified. 

4. Historical maps of the cosmic background radiation 
The properties of radiation allow conclusions to be drawn about the properties of the celestial bodies emitting it. In this way precise measurements of the observation angle deliver information on the position and structure of the celestial body in question and examination of the spectrum indicates the chemical composition, the temperature and the movement in the direction of the observer. In addition to electromagnetic radiation, demonstrably cosmic particles provide further information.  For the future the evidence of gravitational waves promise a new type of observation of objects in space such as neutron stars or black holes. Five different maps are sonified and visualized.  

5. The Bonn patternization 
Argelander's cartography only supplies information on magnitude and coordinates. The first 200 objects are selected five times, and each time the length of the final note is doubled until a static spectral cluster is created. This cluster is harmonized in the next step. The background for this is the consideration that, if the universe was infinite in time and space, the cosmos would be brightly lit (Olbers' paradox).  

6. Gravitation models 
How does it sound when galaxy clusters of 30 objects reciprocally influence each other by means of gravitation? We hear the collisions of first two and then three simulated galaxies. Gravitation is one of the forces in the universe with the greatest effect, and it appears to operate differently on Earth than it does on a grand scale between galaxies great distances apart. In April 2009 scientists of the Argelander Institute called Newton's law of gravity into question. 

7. Pulsars / neutron stars 
Together with seven other European institutions, the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Effelsberg has undertaken a comprehensive cataloguing of pulsars. Each pulsar has a specific rotation profile. 16 of these profiles are sonified using a special synthesis method into tonal properties such as dynamic, repetition velocity, formant frequency and spatialization. The discovery of the first planets outside the solar system was considered a scientific sensation. In 1992 scientists detected the first exoplanets in orbit around the pulsar PSR B1257+12. In the meantime, however, well over 200 exoplanets in more than 180 systems are known. 

8. Expansion / redshift / dark matter / dark energy 
The higher the redshift of an astronomical object, the longer its emitted light has been travelling and hence the further back in time we see it. From the redshift the distance of the object can be determined, though in expanding space-time this can no longer be unambiguously defined. Speckle interferometry is the hazy picture of a point-shaped star that is distorted by the movement of the atmosphere and takes the appearance of a round star when exposed for an extended time; the bending of light leads even more fundamentally to the fact that every observation is altered by the process of observation itself. We sonify the auditive counterpart of the redshift of light, the spectral displacement towards deeper tones. 

9. Gamma ray bursts 
Gamma ray bursts, often shortened to GRBs, are short, violent outbursts of energy in the universe, accompanied by large amounts of gamma radiation. Their duration ranges from only a few seconds up to a maximum of a few minutes; the single known exception (GRB 060218) lasted 33 minutes. In ten seconds they release more energy than the sun does in billions of years. We sonify the scaled duration, intensity and light curve of eight different GRBs. 

10. Quantum spectrae / multi-dimensionality 
Quantum physics is the field of physics concerned with the behaviour and the interaction of the smallest particles. In and below the order of magnitude of molecules, experimental measurements produce results that contradict classical mechanics. In particular, certain phenomena are quantized, that is they do not run continually, but rather occur only in certain proportions – the so-called “quanta”. In addition no meaningful difference between particle and wave is possible, because the same object behaves either as a wave or a particle depending on the kind of investigation. The particles each have different spectral properties, which are sonified. We attempt to portray the discontinuity of the behaviour in space as a tonal paradox, as an auditive worm hole. 


  • 2024 04.18 › Düsseldorf ›  Weltkunstzimmer
  • 2023 06.19  › Rom  › Villa Massimo  Sommerfest
  • 2017 10.28 › Berlin › audible data streams - sonification festival and conference 
  • 2016 12.03 › ZKM › Symposium Strömungen Karlsruhe Bonner Durchmusterung / Multichannel presentation and talk 
  • 2014 03.06 › Stanford › Bonner Durchmusterung / Multichannel presentation at CCRMA 
  • 2013 28.08 › Print : MusikTexte 138 › "Sonification in the Context of Composition" by the Author (German) 
  • 2013 20.04 › Providence › Performance and Talk at Brown University 
  • 2012 10.05 › Deutschlandradio Kultur › feature 'Bonner Durchmusterung' until April 1st. Kickoff show 
  • 2012 10.01 › New website online › Bonner Durchmusterung (offline as of Aug.2015) 
  • 2012 02.22 › Radio WDR3 › Elektronische Musik "Praxis - Making of Bonner Durchmusterung" Live 23.00 cet 
  • 2010 02.25 › Graz › "Bonner Durchmusterung" Sonification of astrpophysical data at at Science By Ear conference IEM Cube 
  • 2010 06.10 › Düsseldorf › "Bonner Durchmusterung", Institut fuer Musik und Medien 
  • 2010 09.26 › Berlin › "Bonner Durchmusterung/ WFS Version" at SC-Conference Berlin, Technische Universität 
  • 2010 12.03 › Pforzheim › "Bonner Durchmusterung" at Hochschule für Gestaltung 
  • 2009 05.29 › Bonn › Premiere of "Bonner Durchmusterung" and "Rule of Inference" at Kunstshalle des Bundes