Creating A Soundtrack For Stories Of Spaceflight

17:06 minutes

(From left to right) Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and art historian/musician James Merle Thomas. Credit: Shawn Brackbill

Quindar may not be a familiar word, but as a sound, it’s instantly recognizable. During the Apollo space missions, the quindar tones were the bleeps made by the transmitters connecting the spacecraft to ground control. Quindar is also the name of the collaboration between Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and art historian/musician James Merle Thomas. The duo talks about how they took inspiration from sounds in the NASA archive to tell the smaller, human stories of the space program.

[Here’s how Ok Go made that zero-g music video.]

Segment Guests

Mikael Jorgensen

Mikael Jorgensen is an electronic instrumentalist for the band Quindar. He’s also a keyboardist for the band Wilco. He’s based in Ojai, California.

James Merle Thomas

James Merle Thomas is an art historian and musician with the band Quindar. He’s based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

You may not know what a quindar is, but you have definitely heard one.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: The Eagle has landed.


SPEAKER 3: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.


IRA FLATOW: Remember those little beeps in the background? They are quindar tones. They’re almost as iconic as Neil Armstrong’s, “The Eagle has landed” quote. Those tones are created by Ground Control to turn on and off the radio transmitters used to talk to astronauts.

Quindar tones, named after the company that made the equipment, were so ubiquitous during the ’60s Space Race to the moon, and right into the shuttle program, that my next guest took inspiration from them as they combed through NASA’s audio archives all in a quest to make an album– a soundtrack– telling the story of spaceflight. Please welcome the member of the musical group Quindar, and their new album is called Hip Mobility.

Mikael Jorgensen, when he’s not exploring the bleeps and pings of NASA, is keyboardist for the band Wilko. He’s based out in Ojai, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

James Merle Thomas is a musician and art historian based out of Philadelphia. Welcome to you too.

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: James, you both have been trying to collaborate on a project together for a while. What was the light bulb in your head? Why did this NASA material make sense to you guys?

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Well, to tell that story is to go back to about 2011, 2012. And at the time, when I was finishing my doctorate, I was working as a fellow at the National Air and Space Museum. And at the time, I was looking at how artists and architects were collaborating with engineers at NASA to design for space. In other words, what it meant to build something like the interior of Skylab as a kind of house that would be different from a regular spacecraft.

And when I was researching that material, I started encountering a lot of archival stuff– old industrial films, archival audio. And it’s not the stuff of the heroic missions that we always think of. It wasn’t the countdowns. It wasn’t the triumphant sound clips. But it was really the mundane stuff of every day. It was tape hiss. It was microphones that were left on. It was people talking about what it meant to– what it felt like to live in space for a long time.

And it felt almost like a deep portrait of what it meant to live at that given moment in a very unique place. And I thought that would make an excellent starting point for telling a story or making some compositions using those sounds.

IRA FLATOW: And so why did you choose the quindar? What does that sound represent to you? Mikael?

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Well, it– Mikael, do you want to jump in?

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: Sure. When James and I had first had our initial writing session in 2011, we would text each other in between these writing sessions. And I remember saying, Hey, what are those sounds? What are those beeps called? Surely they’ve got a name. And then James was like, Oh, those are called quindar tones. And I was like, Oh, man. Well, that’s the name of this.

And then we further discovered what a quindar tone was. And it is– as you sort of described earlier– it is a handshake between telemetry systems that keep the Mission Control and spacecraft communications open. So it’s sort of like– are you there? And then the spacecraft’s like, Yeah, I’m here. Are you still there? And back and forth. And it sort of talks about some element of what it is that we do musically.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Do you guys consider yourselves geeky? Geeks, I mean? I mean, I was thinking–

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: I– I– I I do. I just own it, yeah.


IRA FLATOW: Of course, I was looking– I know, Mikael, you’re the you’re the keyboardist in Wilko. And was Wilko chosen because of its reference to Roger Wilko, two-way radio stuff?

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: You know, it’s part of the band history that– I wasn’t around at that point, the genesis of the band. But it’s certainly– it is also part of– it speaks to this disconnected transmission of musical ideas or of emotion through radio waves. And you would– you know, back before the internet, you would listen to music on a discrete box that had a battery, and you could take it with you and hear this music. And I think that the Roger Wilko is also sort of an acknowledgement of a communication received.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, let’s– enough of talking about your music. Let’s listen to some of it. Because people want to hear how you’ve got the quindar tones into your music and all these other background music. So I’m going to play a clip called “Honeysuckle”. And let’s listen to “Honeysuckle This is Houston”.


IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. I like that. James, what was your approach to putting that track out there?

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Well, I think when we started listening to this audio– and indeed, the first part of making a Quindar record is sitting around and listening to hours and hours of archival audio. One of the first things that leapt out to us right away is that you hear that difference in the two tones. They’re actually at two different frequencies.

And we were struck by the fact that this is basically a synthesizer that NASA is playing, right? This is a kind of complex note structure that’s being beamed out into the ether. And so we immediately started thinking, well, what if we push and pull with this fixed industrial standard and think about it less like a precise measure of communication, and think about it more like an expressive instrument?

And it was a really short path from that way of thinking to then thinking about, well, what was happening with synthesizers at this same moment? And what were composers like Stockhausen or John Cage doing when they were using similar devices to create sounds?

And in that very same track, if you listen a little deeper, later on you start hearing these really rich, dense textural sounds that sound a lot like an organ. The quindar tones are throughout the whole record. You hear them in a lot of different ways.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s actually play. I’m going to play a quindar, so the actual quindar sound. And people want to– you’ll recognize it immediately.

And actually, if you listen, there are two tones to it.


IRA FLATOW: They’re not quite exactly the same frequency, are they, Mikael?

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: No. They’re not a musical interval apart. But they are I think something maybe like 100 Hertz or something different from each other.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. And there are two tones. One just to sort of turn on the transmission, and one to bring it back?

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: Yeah, exactly.

IRA FLATOW: And you heard that? I mean, that’s sort of an iconic sound for anybody who listened to the Space Race over the ’60s and into the ’70s.

I’m going to play another one of your cuts called the “Choco Hilton”. And I want people to listen to “Choco Hilton”, and we’ll talk about it.


IRA FLATOW: Now, what was your inspiration for that?

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: Well, that– the– you can probably make out that there is some sort of astronaut-sounding chatter going on there. And I thought it would be interesting to take the actual– to maybe just work with the sound of the transmissions rather than the information that was part of the message. So it is really using the shell of the information.

And I took those conversations, and I sliced it up in the computer and was able to access different parts of a phrase and then resequenced it with a rhythmic pattern. And that, to me, was– it was more of a percussive element, or a shaker, or a drum kind of element. And I thought it was kind of interesting to take what typically is the focal point of a song, where in a traditional sense of a person playing acoustic guitar or piano, and then singing lyrics. You know, take that and subvert it a little bit.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because it does have that sound back in the ’60s– that kind of rhythm to it. And I know, James, you studied NASA during the Cold War era. Why is that period interesting to you?

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Well, I think it’s another chapter in the American experience. I think– I approached it– I’ve been working on a lot of this material from the perspective of being an art historian, and someone who’s really interested in aesthetic questions and how different kinds of media intersect with technology.

So a good parallel to all of this would be an artist like Robert Rauschenberg, who was actually invited by NASA in July of ’69 to travel to the Cape and to witness the launch of Apollo 11. And Rauschenberg was– he was an official guest of the agency. And like a number of other artists, he was asked to provide some kind of interpretation of the experience .

Only Rauschenberg didn’t set up an easel and paint like everyone else. He immediately started rooting around in the engineers’ trash cans and found schematics, and blueprints, and tourist maps from Cocoa Beach. And he really upended the narrative that NASA was trying to create and made a wild, kaleidoscopic set of collages. They’re called Stoned Moon.

And I think that there’s something in the spirit of rewriting a narrative, of maybe thinking differently about the way a countdown works, or the way that we’re told a story, and to reshuffle the order in which it’s told. And I think there’s something in that way of thinking that really informed the way that we were thinking about composition on this album.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. This is all quite interesting stuff here. What’s the meaning behind– we just played the “Choco Hilton”. What was the meaning behind a little “Choco Hilton”? What does that mean?

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: There’s was a great back story there. I think– well, especially on a day like this whenever– it’s the anniversary of Armstrong and crew coming back from the moon. We’re thinking about the kind of pristine spaces that they occupied, right? The clean rooms, the pressurized chambers, the quarantine space on the deck of the Hornet, and whatnot.

Well, there’s a whole other side to NASA to think about. I was really struck by the fact that in the run up to all of these missions, the astronauts had to do a lot of training in the tropics and in extreme climates to plan for different kinds of possible outcomes. And Choco Hilton is an affectionate name given to the shack that the astronauts were staying in whenever they were doing training in Central America and were encountering any number of indigenous persons at that time.

And I think the idea of NASA in the tropics is a very different image than the one that we normally associate with the agency.


I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI– Public Radio International.

OK. So you just joined us. We’re talking with Mikael Jorgensen and James Merle Thomas about quindar. Quindar– you have to say it correctly.

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: So nice it beeps twice.


IRA FLATOW: Well, Mikael, as a musician, the technology that was coming out of NASA must have been pretty– speaking of– must have been pretty interesting to you.

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: Sure. As a lifelong fan of 3-2-1 Contact and Newton’s Apple, my space and science fascination was early and profound. And in hindsight, too– because we live in a time that is so digital, and and the NASA missions were very unapologetically– and, mean, they didn’t really have a choice– but analog. There was 16 millimeter film and magnetic tape going up into space, capturing sounds and images.

And the advances that were made due to the space agency funding directly inspired and made technologies available for commercial synthesizer apparatus. You know, the quindar module being a prime example. The– that– this– let’s see.

My dad was a recording engineer in New York City, and he brought me to the studio where I first saw my first control panel, where I was like, Wow, this is amazing. And not only is this seductive, and blinking, and view meters wiggling, there’s people playing music on the other side of the glass. And having that sort of experience as the foundation of my musical and technical career, in a way– this intersection of NASA and electronic music sort of, to me, was a logical extension of all of those interests.

IRA FLATOW: Before our time runs out, I want to get to another track. There’s a track about two spiders who were sent to space. Let’s listen and talk about why that story interested you.


IRA FLATOW: Now, Mikael, the sound of interest on that one was right at the beginning. Sort of in the background, right? That’s where you hear it.

MIKAEL JORGENSEN: Yeah, that’s right. That moment, actually, was a Jim genesis, so I’ll let him take the reins on this one here.

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Well, the sound in question came from a microphone just being dragged across the table before a press conference. And it’s indicative of the way Quindar works. Sometimes we start with a sound. We build a song around it, and then we scale it out and pull it back in. And then the only thing that’s left is this fragment or trace of the original archival sound.

So in that case, the prelude to the actual message was the sound that we kept. But you were alluding to the message, the humble story or the poignant story there. And I like to think of the song as a elegy to the two spiders that that so prominently figured into some of the Skylab experiments. There’s something sweet about making a song for a grade school science experiment that a number of astronauts helped to realize then.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Well, I wish you great luck with your album. They’re really– it’s really interesting music. And we have a little bit from Hip Mobility on our website at sciencefriday.com/quindar. Thanks for evolving the music with us.


IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Thanks for all you guys do, and it’s quite interesting stuff. Thanks for coming on.

JAMES MERLE THOMAS: Thanks so much. It’s wonderful to speak with you.

IRA FLATOW: Mikael Jorgensen is a keyboardist for the band Wilko. James Merle Thomas is a musician and an art historian, and they both make up the group Quindar. And as I say, there is a little bit of a clip from their album, Hip Mobility, on our website at sciencefriday.com/quindar.

Charles Bergquist is our Director. Our senior producer, Christopher Intagliata. Our Producers are Alexa Lim, Christie Taylor, Katie Hiler. Neil Rauch engineered our show today. Also, thanks to Brian McCabe and all the folks over at NPR for their studio help this week.

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Have a great weekend. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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