When Beatie Wolfe beamed music into space
Meet the artist embracing silence and musical jackets
This is the age of streaming. So how do we put meaning back into music? Beatie Wolfe is making music more tangible – and it’s even taken her into space
Beatie Wolfe is in her home studio in L.A. It’s where she produces music. It’s also where she gave a remote talk and musical performance to the Nobel Prize Summit, following right after Al Gore and Sir David Attenborough – who did not sing.
An artist unlike any other, the innovator has a fascination with creating musical experiences that stay with people and bridge the digital and physical worlds.
One day, a very young Beatie discovered her parents’ record collection. She explored the artwork, the album jackets, and the grooves in the vinyls, discovering where the different tracks were – like a map of the music.
“I saw those musical books as such a way into the album and such an intrinsic part of the listening process and experience,” Beatie remembers. “I connected music, not just with the songs and the sounds, but the way the record looked and felt.”
And then, as Beatie grew up, music became more and more digital. The rewinding of tapes morphed into the lyric books in CDs, which evaporated into digital downloads and eventually became streaming. She wanted something tangible, ceremonial, and with an element of story.
“I felt that when you had that physical listening music experience, the music could go in in a way where it stayed with you. It imprinted and became a part of your DNA,” Beatie says.
But now, in a world of streaming, she sees noise and access. No value or curation. Music floats around with everything else online. With all this in mind, Beatie wanted to create a new way of listening.
Theatre in your hands
“Every one of the records that I’ve created for my albums, the physical components for the release, was always a new format. It was a first of its kind,” Beatie says.
Her debut album, 8ight, came in the form of a theatre for the palm of your hand. Listeners slotted their phones into a palm-top theatre, and a 3D experience unfolded.
The second album, Montagu Square, was anything but difficult; Beatie unveiled a musical jacket that was woven with her music in the fabric, and which was cut by the tailor who dressed Bowie, Hendrix, and Jagger. She recorded the music in the same room where McCartney wrote Eleanor Rigby.
Skip forward to Beatie’s most recent album release, and it’s what she (rightly) describes as a modern-day Fantasia experience. Raw Space was performed as an anti-stream in the Bell Labs anechoic chamber, in Murray Hill, New Jersey – what was once dubbed the quietest room on Earth. It was an antithesis of streaming culture.
“There are very few places on Earth that I think I’ve had such an immediate and profound response to,” Beatie says.
“There was this understanding that engineers couldn’t spend longer than 15-20 minutes in this room, because people would freak out. They’d hear the blood in their veins. It’s just you and silence. And for a lot of people that silence is incredibly loud.”
“Music exists because of the silence between the notes,” she says. She wanted to hear the music in this raw space, without modifications or corrections.
Music exists because of the silence between the notes.
“We’ve got so close to airbrushing out all of the cracks. So hearing what real music sounds like, I just loved it,” she says.
In the chamber, a record player sat on a constant loop for a week. People logged in to the live 360 video to hear Raw Space, and they were immersed in an augmented reality experience.
Animations and lyrics
streamed out of the vinyl
and the artwork surrounded the listeners.
Each track had a visual landscape
telling a story.
“It was meant to feel nostalgic and familiar and inclusive, and like anyone could access it,” Beatie says. The technology was not the main focus, but what she calls the magic dust that turns something ordinary into art.
As well as the anti-stream, Beatie also performed live in the chamber. The music, her voice, were completely exposed. The audience sat just outside in the antechamber and watched Beatie through the glass, as animations came to life around her and lyrics streamed out of her mouth, as if she was the record player from the anti-stream. The audience took a moment to walk into the chamber too, and hear Raw Space in raw space. Beatie even did a private performance for Stephen Fry and his partner.
“It was in part – anechoic chamber, guitar, voice, very stripped back – technologically very old school, but then the whole room was being filled with the lyrics as I sang them, and the artwork was coming off the guitar. And so it was this sort of beautiful mix of those two worlds coming together,” Beatie says.
Beam me up
So much of her work, Beatie says, has been completely serendipitous. She’s followed her creative instincts, and it’s led to unexpected places. One of which was beaming her music into space.
Fresh from the anti-stream, Beatie heard about the nearby Bell Labs Holmdel Horn Antenna, which was used to detect the background radiation leftover from the Big Bang, leaving the scientists involved with Nobel prizes. One of those scientists was Dr. Robert Wilson, and he wanted to meet Beatie.
“We were just chatting about all sorts of stuff, we really hit it off,” Beatie says. “And I said, ‘So you’ve used this to receive, but have you ever used it to transmit?’”
No, the scientist told her.
But in theory, Beatie wanted to know, would it be possible to beam her album, Raw Space, into actual space?
The answer, to begin with, was no. The soundwaves would only get to a certain point in the Earth’s atmosphere. But a month later, Robert got back in contact. He’d figured out a way to do an update on the whole antenna.
“We can do the space broadcast of your record if you still want to do it,” he told Beatie.
“And I couldn’t really believe it,” Beatie says. “This brilliant, Nobel Prize winning scientist has gone away and thought about this and wants to do this whimsical experiment.”
And so a recording of Raw Space, without enhancement or autotune, became the first album to be beamed into space.
This album was never meant to be about space, it was about the anechoic chamber. But now, space was exactly what it was about. The journey was continuing.
Back on Earth
COP26, for most of us, meant watching from afar and awaiting any sign of positive news for the future of the planet. For Beatie Wolfe, it involved projecting her environmental artwork ‘From Green to Red’ onto the Armadillo building, the site of the conference. Part music video and part protest song, the statement of our time showed 800,000 years of rising CO2 levels, from climate data that a friend at NASA had given her. The whole building was awash with a ribbon-like graphic. Green strands flowed to the right, until they suddenly turned red and frayed away.
The artwork was initially installed at The Barbican, and then shown at the Nobel Prize Summit. Next stop – the SXSW conference centre, where Beatie will project the protest piece and feature on a panel with musician Brian Eno.
Beatie wanted to create a piece inspired by the data, but which stirred emotions. She wanted people to see it and think, “This is what human impact on this planet looks like.”
“Once people become aware of something, it’s very hard to become unaware of it,” Beatie says. The song itself was inspired by the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and will soon be etched into glass as part of a preservation of the world’s most important cultural documents.
Now Beatie’s launching an environmental documentary series looking at local initiatives in California that are rethinking the urban landscape. Each will be a mini documentary, telling one story. And later in the year, the National Academy of Sciences will launch the eco documentaries.
In one episode, Beatie meets people rewilding the West Coast aquaculture, and in particular kelp forests and abalone, which are kelp-eating sea snails.
“The kelp forests are one of our most effective carbon capture systems. So really vital for ocean health,” Beatie says.
Californians, she says, have noticed that abalone are disappearing.
“I think it’s a really wonderful way of making people realise – how many other species are we losing and not realising?” Beatie says about the episode.
In another instalment, she meets people planting trees in the right places and finding better solutions for the end of their life cycles. Trees which were once being mulched are now becoming guitars – and they’re the guitars that Beatie plays on.
“The thing that connects these different land forests and sea forests, and the different areas that I’ve been exploring, is the guitar,” Beatie says.
And it won’t end here. Beatie’s already got an album coming together, and had pre-pandemic plans (which have been put on hold) to present it as a secret communication system inspired by Austrian-born American film actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, and the frequency hopping code she invented. She’s also curating a September takeover of Denver, Colorado’s outdoor screens with an environmental awareness theme, exploring the power of art. Beatie wants people across the world to get involved by submitting two minute pieces of video art.
At the core of her work, between the ceremony of music and the storytelling, is an intention to remind people that art and nature are core to our humanity. All Beatie Wolfe’s projects come back to this.
She’s reminding us about our connection with nature, and how we need to protect everything creative about Planet Earth, even when that means looking back at it from space.
Inspired by Beatie Wolfe? Of course you are!
See if you also share Beatie’s vision of utopia
What’s so good about this?
Beatie Wolfe is reinventing how we listen to music. She’s finding ways to make music tangible, ceremonial, and with an element of story, and in our fast-paced world with everything at our fingertips, it doesn’t hurt to make moments of meaning. But beyond this, she’s using her art to influence.
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. Follow @Katie_Dancey.