Look Up and Out: An Interview With Daedelus

Nate LeBlanc talks to the composer and professor about working with the SETI program in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
By    May 17, 2021

Photo courtesy of Eyl Fedmn.

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When initially approached about this piece, the composer and music professor Alfred Darlington (better known as Daedelus), generously agreed to make some time for a quick conversation. They concluded our messaging with a question:

“Have you ever seen Sun Ra’s application for NASA?”

I had vaguely remembered the document making the rounds on music nerd Twitter but hadn’t actually read it closely. Looking back, it makes almost too much sense that Sun Ra, who explored the spaceways in his vast musical catalog, would consider himself an excellent representative for America’s aeronautical agency.

According to legend, NASA never responded to Sun Ra’s request, instead enlisting better-known, if less connected, artists to represent the national space exploration concern.

These days, institutions are a lot more open minded, and a chance encounter at a forward-thinking music festival led to Daedelus becoming involved in a prestigious program based on extraterrestrial exploration. While there are many differences between Sun Ra and Daedelus, there are a few similarities at play here, which is why I believe Alfred sent me in search of Sun Ra’s application. Both are experimental composers whose music appeals to passionate fringe audiences. Both reach for the sublime with mostly instrumental music, using technology to create new soundscapes. Both believe, and express in their music, that there is more to life than we can see with our eyes.

Daedelus lives at many intersections. Their music often blurs lines between hip-hop and electronic music. More recently they are releasing more music moving away from beats toward a more pure composition. They are also on a new path in life, teaching at the Berklee School of Music, becoming a parent for the first time, and participating in the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)’s Artist in Residence (AIR) program.

Whereas the mythical Daedalus sought to reach the stars with wax wings and gumption, the multi-talented and endlessly curious beat maestro Daedelus uses Zoom calls with astrophysicists, supercomputers, and telescope arrays to see beyond our physical perception. Below is an edited and condensed (for clarity) chat about this important and intriguing work.

Recommended soundtrack: Daedelus’s lovely, perhaps even celestial 2019 album, The Bittereinders. Nate LeBlanc


How did you get involved with SETI?


Daedelus: It is a very strange and circuitous route. I was invited to play at the Sonar Festival in 2017 or 2018. I’ve done it a handful of times before. Sonar’s always a really fun gig because it’s one of the more important electronic music festivals, in my mind. It’s always really cutting edge in a way that’s accessible, they do a really great job of that. They had expanded their offerings to the Sonar+D, which are discussions, effectively. They invited me to do something and this was prior to my teaching gig.

I have a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of ideas, but I often think of it as being a “me” thing and not a “they” thing. I don’t know if anyone else wants to hear what I have to say, but I was grateful for the invitation in part because it gave me an opportunity to come up with a panel. They invited me to do whatever I wanted to do, host a discussion. In the end I did a kind of sonically guided meditation.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the other presenters was from NASA, and on the NASA panel were people from SETI. I’m not particularly comfortable with public speaking. I signed up for music, and I can hide behind the music, often. So I was kind of trembling. So to look out at the audience and see a sea of faces, some of them from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or from SETI, was unnerving but it also gave us an opportunity to cast out a little bit different and further. Knowing your audience was always a big thing to me, but this was off the charts, you know, interplanetary. So I did the best I could and at the end I was delighted that it seemed to make an impact on some individuals and one of those individuals was the person really holding the flame for what’s called SETI AIR, the artist in residence program.

They invited me to join, now the second wave of characters, all interdisciplinary artists but with some science in their back pocket to make it so we could bridge these very difficult conversations.


Is the goal for you, as an Artist In Residence, to make music out of the sound collected from outer space?


Daedelus: There’s a thing called data sonification and you tend to see that in a lot of places where science and art meet. There’s a thing of trying to sort through these massive numbers or these pictographic images and render it into art, and there’s some success with that. But it’s almost always metaphor rather than, like, physical fact rendered art. It isn’t like, you crush the coal strong enough and it makes diamonds. It feels much more like alchemy. And as we all know, alchemy isn’t so much present in our daily lives.

So, data sonification is of limited value. You have to have people who understand the enormity of the data as it’s coming and where it gets pushed to. So in my mind, sometimes it’s successful… pie graphs or charts are great examples of datafication. You can take something unknowable and make it knowable.

But with music, at least where I’m coming from with music, it’s not there are these hard, fast things that I’m singing about in form, it’s a little bit more metaphorical. I haven’t done the data sonification thing. You will see things, like NASA just released a data sonification of their huge astronomical numbers about the universe. It’s cool, but oftentimes it just ends up just being like the top line of an article and then you read through and you’re kind of like “I don’t know what i’m hearing, I don’t know what I’m seeing.”


That’s certainly true for me. One of my professors in college was involved in SETI and would share little dribs and drabs about it and her published work sometimes during class.


Daedelus: That’s awesome. Here’s the thing, part of our job as SETI Artists In Residence, if there is a job to it, is to simply be in awe and witness of the science at play and be advocates and stand-ins for a public that is wondering if there’s intelligent life in the universe. We’re all wondering about exoplanets and the place that humanity can exist in the firmament. As artists we’re there to do what art often does, to be a humane stand-in in the face of unknowable things. And that’s the vibe, generally.


That’s beautiful and really really helpful actually. Would you say that this association or your involvement in this program has influenced your art in any way yet?


Daedelus: Absolutely, and part of it is because I came into this super enthusiastic. Last March is when I was first invited, super excited to be on the precipice of this enormous adventure. And then the pandemic closes it down. I’ve never felt fettered in my art. I’m not mainstream enough to have someone breathing down my neck. I once had an A&R tell me that I should put more bells in my music. That was hilarious. But people are mostly like, you do what you do and we’re either going to mess with you or not. That’s worked out for me, generally speaking.

But this is a writing prompt that is so much more in depth. Both because I’m supposed to hold up the flame for this subject that I only know so much about. I can only peer into what’s been explained to me in somewhat dumb terms. And I love that. I love being the dumb one in the room asking innocent questions and then hopefully getting fulfilled and then spitting it back out. But in this case, it’s kind of hard, because I’ve been robbed of this chance thus far of being in that witnessing approach. So, I’ve been tinkering and toying, and it’s kind of left me paralyzed.

I haven’t been able to do the significant work that I’m interested in doing. I know it’s building, I know it’s coming. It really does put me in this position of, like most of us, glancing up at the stars and just trying to understand. But I also have the added layer of , I’m supposed to make some kind of music out of this. So I really do feel that my work at the institute is yet to bear fruit. We’re all dealing and coping with the current situation as best we can.



Absolutely. So, how does it work, is there a group chat, is there a Zoom meeting? Do you communicate with the other AIRs, do you communicate with the scientists? Do you have carte blanche to ask questions? How does it work?


Daedelus: Ok, so I’ll tell you about the perfect word, then our world…

Perfect world I’ve already gone to one of the telescopes, I would have gone to Santa Cruz to the beautiful radio array. It’s not a single eye gazing up, it’s this random chaos array that’s looking up at various coordinates in the sky trying to use a shotgun mic for the universe. It’s a very strange operation. I would have been able to sit down with a spectronomist, understand not just the overall purpose of SETI but what the specific viewpoint of that scientist is and maybe be able to pinpoint on their chart, triangulate what got them excited about the sciences, maybe derive some interest from that.

We’ll talk in a minute about Fast Radio Bursts and things that are just now being figured out. In that movie Contact, there’s a regular array of radio bursts that are coming through the sky that derive and mean alien intelligence. But what if it’s gravitational waves? What if it’s quantum mechanically-addled something that is an actual advanced intelligence attempting to communicate?

We’re just on the precipice of even having detection that could even get there, much less the luck to find it. So SETI’s already found interesting phenomena, some from the natural world, some that are very elucidating for the natural order of the world, the history of things. But we still haven’t completed the mission of absolutely clarifying “is there life?” Let’s not forget to mention what’s going on with the government right now, just saying “there are UFOs, here’s the documentation.”


Right. And the main response to that has been “can you guys hold off on that, we have a lot going on right now. We thought that we would care about this but now that we’re presented with the information, we don’t really know what to do with it.” [laughs]


Daedelus: One thousand percent. So in a perfect world we’d already be sitting down with the aliens having a conversation. It would be Close Encounters all over again. We’d play a little melody and they would play it back. In the actuality of things, we have these little meetings once a month where the artists get together and the scientists when they have time.

I often think of the artist’s life as a grind. You have to wear all the hats and constantly be on, it’s 24/7. No. Science, apparently, is so much crazier. You’re less funded, it’s basically a passion project. If they wanted to go into the hard sciences that paid dividends like some cryptocurrency it would be far easier, but astronomers are always gazing up on this mission and the universe does not sleep. You have this very limited array of senses, let alone time in our lives to do this major work and so they’re on it all the time. They’re driven in ways that as a musician I can only dream of. Or, I do dream of, and I have felt moments of, but not that whole all-consuming, all the time, to no public acclaim.

There are some people that know SETI’s mission, and of that number there are some people who see the importance of it. But let’s be real, especially as the world is burning, it can feel pretty strange to be spending our time looking up and out. I would offer though, that without a gameplan to do the up and out, we’re not doing much on the near and now.


Do you believe in aliens? Is it a matter of if, not when?


Daedelus: There is not a universe that does not include life elsewhere. By percentages, hard math, numbers, my belief is irrelevant. I can barely see the enormity of the subject. If you really start to parse out numbers, it’s just impossible. There are probably a handful of individuals in this world who can fathom the enormity and understand some of the phenomena at play. But on a galactic scale, it’s happening, it’s real whether or not I believe it.

There are some great thinkers like Pauline Oliveros, who is not only a great musician but also a thought provoker. John Cage as well. There was this generation that came out of World War II, and the after effects of so much carnage. How do we make sense of a world that has been consumed by so much war and death? And so some of it is sense, and some of it is nonsense and they were driven to these incredible places, and part of it is this idea that is born out very much in quantum physics, that as you listen to a recording, you affect the recording. It isn’t simply that you listen and you are affected by the recording, you kind of listen upstream and you affect “the listened-to.”

I contain this belief as well for looking at the stars and listening for aliens. There’s always been life elsewhere, but the simple seeking of like also creates it as well.


Beautifully said, I’m going to be thinking about that for weeks. Let’s talk about Fast Radio Bursts. Like you would explain it to a 5-year old, what are they and how do they relate to the work you’re planning to do?


Daedelus: You have these cosmic phenomena that create these extremely small radio bursts. There are theoretical purposes for why it exists. So, according to those theories and the borne-out physics, it helps detail the cosmic ageing of things. Any of these things we’re receiving on Earth are millions of years, sometimes billions of years, in the rearview.

Because these are moving so fast and in such tight organization, with clever math and computing power that is world-scale, we can actually figure out things about these galaxies far away as well as exoplanets and it’s almost like we’re getting a kind of mapping, and echolocation of these planetary places. So it’s not, like, proof-of-life stuff, though it could be cleverness in the messaging. But it’s basically the universe casting shadows that we can sort of read what the physical bodies, or the not-so physical bodies, look like.

One of the things that makes it so interesting is we’re just on the precipice of having antennae that can do that. And again, with the silliness of psychic abilities, we think that we know certain things and we go through life with certain beliefs, then something comes along and upends our ideas. Some of this stuff has been foretold for some time, or kind of hinted at in science fictions or fantasies, and then because we get more sensitive detection or we figure out the space in between, it becomes something that’s more elucidated. And I feel like this is going to start happening really fast. We’re going to keep on discovering phenomena, keep on looking out at things that are millions of light years away that are revealing themselves to us.


That’s amazing. What’s the best resource for people to want to learn more about this or keep tabs on this work?


Daedelus: Subscribe to SETI. It’s amazing how this organization is there to do exactly this, They’re already doing an amazing job with the messaging. They also just have a fascinating feed. My father was a subscriber to Science Magazine. I remember him getting all these theses in the mail in the jargon that science tends to work in. It’s fascinating but kind of impenetrable.

I love that SETI is doing all the hard science work but then doing the lifting to explain for lay people like myself. And then equally delighting in the fact of what their mission is. There’s a reason they’re not NASA, there’s a reason they’re international in their focus. Governments tend to have their own priorities. It isn’t the kind of Carl Sagan thing where the universe is there for all of humanity to pluck like an apple from the sky. It’s much more about the Space Force. And boring shit, but really important to be speaking about, but the militarization of space is something that affects all of us in ways that aren’t just our cell phone reception.

So SETI exists as this sense of optimism and hard science, and those two don’t always meet. Musically though, what is the galactic soundtrack, and how do we get it away from these cliches and move it toward something new? As artists, we need to define what a global sound is.

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