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Total Eclipse of the … Sun: Music & The Great American Eclipse 2017

By Paulo Camacho

It was the first of its kind to occur in almost a century, and it was the talk of American media for the better part of a month, leading up to it. An event like it will not happen again for another 28 years. Pictures and videos of it have been shared on all forms of social media — so much so, it’s almost impossible that you haven’t seen a form of it in the last week.

But, with all that said, what does the Great American Eclipse of 2017 have to do with music?

Note: This is NOT what I mean. Like, not at ALL. [Courtesy Diane Croy & Richmond Hill Middle School Science Dept.]

The first total solar eclipse to knife its way through the continental United States for the first time since 1918 astonished spectators all over the country, whether or not they were in the path of totality. For many, it was an unofficial national holiday, and for others, it was an opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime experience — gathering in areas to bask in the total solar eclipse live and in person, recording the point of totality with the power of their own digital cameras, or even getting married under the haunting glow of the eclipse.

For others, still, it was a unique opportunity to pay tribute to such a rare event with the art form of music. Because, simply put, music is as universal and celestial as the stars, themselves — so, why not celebrate with the power of sound?

This is exactly what many did, in one way or another, in the days and weeks leading up to the breathtaking spectacle. Here are five unique examples of music colliding with one of the great astronomical events of the 21st century:

The Kronos Quartet at The Exploratorium in San Francisco

The process of “sonification” literally sounds like something out of science fiction — and, if you’re a fan of “Doctor Who”, you will likely understand this sentiment. In any case, sonification is actually a fairly straight-forward concept, in the annals of audio science: it is simply the process of taking any sort of non-audible data, and turning them into audio cues.

In the case of the Great American Eclipse, San Francisco Exploratorium sound artist and Bay Area composer Wayne Grim created a software program that would process digital information from a live feed of the total eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, and transpose that data into auditory information. In layman’s terms, Grim turned the light of the eclipse into music. Furthermore, the Exploratorium invited the acclaimed Kronos Quartet — a local string ensemble that had been performing worldwide for over 40 years — to perform a musical composition based on the real-time sonification of the eclipse, at around totality.

The result was a unique, three-hour musical experience that Grim dubbed “233rd Day,” referencing August 21 as the 233rd day of the year. If you have the time, you can view the entire 3-hour broadcast of the performance here — or you can simply skip to the Kronos Quartet, who come in at around the 1:25:00 mark.

Georgia Institute of Technology Sonification

In terms of taking the opportunity to turn the Great American Eclipse into a musical experience, apparently, the Georgia Institute of Technology had the same idea. In their case, their sonification lab uses drums, synthesized tones and other sounds to audibly illustrate the solar eclipse.

According to Bruce Walker, one of the researchers who helped composed the piece, built the composition with each individual aspect of the cosmic event in mind. He also designed the piece, in conjunction with AT&T, as a way “to allow visually impaired persons to experience the eclipse.” The digital information required to perform the composition was gathered at the location of totality in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where it would experience a length of 2 minutes and 40 seconds of darkness.

Unlike the Kronos Quartet piece above, however, this supposed “living” composition also used data points tracking other aspects of the weather in both Hopkinsville and Atlanta, including temperature and cloud cover.

Bonnie Tyler on the Total Eclipse Cruise

If anyone were to try associating an eclipse with popular music, the first thing many would likely mention would be the hit Bonnie Tyler / Jim Steinman vehicle, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Fun Fact: the popular song is not even, necessarily, about an eclipse — and, if songwriter Steinman had his way, the tune would have been called “Vampires in Love.”

In any case, the cruise ship “Oasis of the Seas” hosted Tyler on August 21, to sing her seminal hit off 200 miles the coast of Florida, along the path of totality where it leaves the continental United States and hits the Pacific. She performed the full 8-minute version with the popular band DNCE.

Tyler’s song obviously came back into the pop culture spotlight when fervor for the Great American Eclipse began to rise. As a result, her song saw a 267% uptick on Amazon, a 2,859% increase on Spotify streaming, and it rose to No. 1 on iTunes.

Solar Eclipse Music Festivals along the Path of Totality

Because the total eclipse was a nationwide spectacle that would see a path of totality stretching across the entire continental U.S., there were many opportunities for festivals and gatherings of all kinds on the days leading up to, and on the day of, the celestial event.

The biggest music festival along the Path of Totality was likely Moonstock 2017, which went down in Carterville, Illinois, at Walker’s Bluff. It featured names like Five Finger Death Punch, Theory of a Deadman, Papa Roach, and the legendary Ozzy Osbourne.

Other notable festivals centered on the Great American Eclipse: the Oregon Eclipse Gathering in Bend, Oregon, which featured over 300 artists through the week-long event; the Howl at the Moon Festival in “Music City,” Nashville, Tennessee, a Woodstock-type event featuring New Orleans musician and inventor Quintron and his “Weather Warlock,” a large analog synthesizer controlled completely by the weather; and the Moonfest Music Festival in the Idaho Falls, Idaho area, featuring big country music names like Midland and A Thousand Horses.

Taylor Swift upstages the Great American Eclipse?!

Finally, a popular music story that coincided with the day of the eclipse, based on the person who made the headline: pop artist Taylor Swift.

Apparently, it all started on the Friday before Eclipse Day, when the 27-year-old megastar deleted all content from her social media accounts — a sign for her many fans, supposedly, that she was ready to release a new album. And, considering all of her social media “went dark,” her fans postulated that it only meant one thing: she was planning on releasing new music on the day of the Great American Eclipse.

Media fervor ensued when Swift, on the morning of the event, released a 10-second video on her Twitter account, depicting an unfurling snake, with no apparent context. It should be noted, however, that the snake could be referencing an unfortunate episode between Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and herself — one that ended up painting her, in the eyes of many, as a “snake.”

While this seems to simply be a clever way of garnering publicity for her and her brand, it was considered big competition to the Great American Eclipse for the attention of the American public.