Scoring the Big Bang: Music and science help alumna examine the universe’s opening chords

Choir singers performing inside Richmond's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
Ander Mikalson's “Score for the Big Bang” is performed at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond. (Courtesy photo)

There are some who describe the start of the universe as a cosmic hiss, at a pitch lower than the human ear can register. That primordial sound built up over time, becoming louder and deeper as the universe expanded. Denser patches of dark matter pulled light in, creating sound waves. The peaks and valleys of those waves formed the structure of the universe, eventually becoming the stars, galaxies and empty spaces we observe today.

It’s a sound that slowly unfurled for 400,000 years. Or — in the mind of Ander Mikalson — about eight minutes.

As a first-year graduate student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts Department of Painting and Printmaking, Mikalson re-created a phonautograph, the earliest sound recording device, and wanted to use it to replay the sounds of the very beginning of time.

“That’s when I realized that I needed to work with that sound, directly,” she said. “That sound actually preceded the structure of the universe that we see today.”

After eight years of work, and multiple collaborative efforts, Mikalson’s “Score for the Big Bang” finally came to life in a performance this fall. 

The long road to that performance started in graduate school when Mikalson found the research of Mark Whittle, Ph.D., an astronomer at the University of Virginia who had collected data on the sound of the Big Bang. Mikalson worked with the data for more than a year before getting the courage to reach out to Whittle, barely expecting a reply. Whittle wrote back immediately; he was intrigued and became a collaborator. 

“He helped me figure out how I could faithfully represent that sound and translate it, but within the range of human possibility,” Mikalson said. “We were mapping all of the data points within the human vocal range, and then translating that into musical notes.

“It was arduous, squeezing 400,000 years into eight minutes. I feel fortunate to have found a scientist who’s able to understand and connect with the poetic and the emotional side of things.”

An excerpt from Ander Mikalson's "Score for the Big Bang," performed publicly for the first time Oct. 12 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

Mikalson found other partners at VCU. With Stephen Vitiello, an electronic musician and media artist who is now chair of the Department of Kinetic Imaging, she learned more about sound and performance art. James Elliot Shelton, a composer and student in the music department, helped her translate the sound. The VCU Commonwealth Singers, along with former director Rebecca Tyree, brought Mikalson’s sound to life on stage. 

In 2012, Mikalson’s graduate thesis project, “Score for the Big Bang,” was performed privately at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond as part of her graduate thesis project. Soon after, Mikalson graduated and moved to New York City. But “Score for the Big Bang” never felt fully realized.

“With performance, you have to put it out there,” she said. “The process of learning from it and developing it, stepping back and continuing to work on it — that happens as you re-perform the piece.”

A year after graduating, Mikalson had a chance to revisit the score with Caroline Shaw, a New York-based vocalist, violinist, producer and composer. Just a few months later, Shaw became the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices.”

“We spent an afternoon talking about the piece and then she just got it and gave me this very nuanced, delicate, beautiful, organic expression of my ideas,” Mikalson said. “I knew she was great, but then she got that incredible award and I felt even more lucky that I had gotten to work with her.”

It was arduous, squeezing 400,000 years into eight minutes. I feel fortunate to have found a scientist who’s able to understand and connect with the poetic and the emotional side of things.

Still, Mikalson’s score lingered, feeling unresolved. When she was approached by Vaughn Garland, Ph.D., artistic and executive director of Sound Arts Richmond, about performing the piece during this year’s festival, Mikalson knew this was her chance to bring the work back home and give it new life. 

After eight years — and with the collaboration of an astronomer, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a student composer and a collective of singers — “Score for the Big Bang” was performed publicly for the first time on Oct. 12 at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond. More than 80 singers from Richmond Symphony Chorus, VCU Commonwealth Singers, Handel Choir of Baltimore and Third Practice, a Washington-based chamber vocal group, comprised the ensemble, which was directed by Erin Freeman, director of choral activities in the VCU Department of Music, and Brian Bartoldus, artistic director and conductor of the Handel Choir.

The ensemble was amplified by a century-old pipe organ and the cathedral’s four-second reverb, bringing an implicit spirituality to the piece. 

“I’ve always wanted to perform it at the scale that would be fitting for the entire universe,” Mikalson said. “It’s just an awe-inspiring space. It’s where we go to think about what’s greater than ourselves, and where we reflect on the meaning of the universe and our place in it.”