Sónar festival sends a musical birthday message to aliens that includes Hong Kong composer

As the second edition of Sónar Hong Kong coincides with the Spanish festival’s 25th anniversary, music from Hong Kong producer Choi Sai-ho has been chosen to be part of a message sent 110 trillion kilometres to planet GJ273b

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2018, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2018, 6:03pm

Most music festivals would celebrate their 25th anniversary by releasing a commemorative T-shirt, or maybe cracking a few bottles of champagne at an exclusive after party.

But not Sónar. Fittingly for a forward-thinking event that is widely regarded as the world’s top electronic music festival, the Barcelona-based Sónar is going the extra distance to mark its quarter century.

To be exact, it’s going a remarkable 110 trillion kilometres – that’s the distance between the earth and the planet GJ273b, where Sónar is sending transmissions of music in an attempt to make the first human contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence.

GJ273b lies in the habitable zone around Luyten’s Star, located in the Canis Minor constellation about 12.4 light years from earth.

For the first transmission, the Sónar Calling project collected short clips from previous Sónar artists including French electronic music pioneer Jean-Michelle Jarre. The music was then converted into a self-decodable digital signal by the Messaging Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (Meti) programme. It was sent from the EISCAT international scientific association facilities in Tromso, Norway, last October and will arrive at Lutyen’s Star towards the end of 2030.

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Sónar organisers held an open call for music to send in a second transmission in April, and in the lead-up to the second local edition of Sónar coming up on March 17, also invited Hong Kong music producers to contribute to the project. A clip by local experimental composer Choi Sai-ho was selected for the next transmission.

When asked how the project was conceived, Sónar founder and co-director Ricard Robles said: “After a project we featured at Sónar Santiago in 2015 in collaboration with the Alma radio telescope array in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Artists were invited to create their own tracks using a library of sounds created from cosmic radiation.

“When it came to creating an idea for our 25th anniversary we realised that the idea of an antenna searching for advanced sounds was a great metaphor for Sónar’s mission over the past 25 years. We decided to turn it on its head: what would happen if instead of receiving, we transmitted this music to a specific destination in space?”

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Robles said music was chosen as the medium for the message because it served as a universal language. “Music is unique in its ability to speak across cultures and above politics, uniting people through the constants of rhythm and melody. This is also what has inspired Sónar to travel the world, hosting events in cities such as Hong Kong, Reykjavik or Istanbul, in attempt to foster local scenes and provide a space for the best international acts.”

Of course, just because planet GJ273b is considered potentially habitable, there are no indications that it harbours life and the Sónar team are aware that the project is a long shot.

“As improbable as it may be that we receive a response, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. History has shown us that only by attempting the wildly improbable do we advance as a collective.

“If all of the variables come together, and they choose to respond, the earliest an answer could conceivably arrive is in just more than 24 years. Which coincidentally will be just in time for Sónar’s 50th anniversary.”

Sónar Hong Kong, March 17, 11am-3am, Hong Kong Science Park, Pak Shek Kok, New Territories, HK$180 (Sónar+D programme only), HK$880 (all music performances and Sónar+D programme), Ticketflap