Jamming with the cosmos: CERN and the music of physics

This week at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, the Petit Palais was filled to capacity for a truly stellar performance inspired by CERN and the cosmos.

As part of CERN’s 60th anniversary celebration, four saxophonists, a jazz pianist, two satellites and several hundred cosmic rays performed music to showcase the second edition of ‘The Physics of Music and the Music of Physics’.

The Donald Sinta Quartet performed Roger Zare’s classical composition ‘LHC’, inspired by the ATLAS and CMS experiments’ search for the Higgs boson. The performance was complemented by CMS physicist Piotr Traczyk’s video featuring images from the two years leading to the discovery. The saxophone quartet concluded with ‘Z(4430)’, a composition inspired by the April announcement of the LHCb experiment’s discovery of a new 4-quark particle.

The Donald Sinto Quartet perform a piece by Roger Zare at the Montreux jazz festival (Video: Noemi Caraban Gonzalez/CERN)

The next two acts brought music from the edges of our solar system. Domenico Vicinanza, Arts and Humanities manager at DANTE in Cambridge, UK, presented various compositions created from transposed Higgs boson data. He then took the audience on a voyage to the end of the solar system, with transformation of data from NASA’s Voyager dual missions – two interstellar satellites that have travelled further than any other man-made object – to form a haunting melody.

ATLAS physicist Steven Goldfarb and composer Domenico Vicinanza discuss the transformation into music of data from NASA’s Voyager probes (Video: Noemi Caraban Gonzalez/CERN)

“It was so nice to see people fascinated with physics and music. Art is a unique and powerful way to speak to the heart and soul of people. When art and science are together, nothing less than magic can happen,” said Vicinanza.

The grand finale featured a duet between jazz pianist Al Blatter and the Cosmic Piano, an instrument developed by particle physicist Arturo Fernandez Tellez. The Piano, built from components prepared for the ALICE experiment, is triggered by cosmic rays. These energetic rays are produced by the collision of high-energy charged particles with the Earth’s upper atmosphere and pass through our bodies all the time. They come from events occurring all over our universe, some of which happened billions of years ago. When a cosmic ray passes through one of four separate detector pads of the Cosmic Piano, it triggers a musical note and a colourful flash of light. The random intervals of the arriving rays combined with Blatter's piano skills made for some fantastic polyrhythmic jazz.

Al Blatter jams with cosmic rays on the Cosmic Piano (Video: Noemi Caraban Gonzalez/CERN)