Monday, July 18, 2011

The origin of "Distance to Jupiter"

On October 23rd, 1999, the planet Jupiter was very close to Earth. Jupiter was at opposition (opposite the sun as seen from Earth). This opposition occurs every 12 years or so—it's happening again this October—but the distance to Jupiter from Earth varies. On this particular day, the distance was about 3.96AU (592,407,567.93 kilometers, or 368,104,996.78 miles). I was at my parent's home, in their backyard, with a telescope (a 9" reflector), gazing up at Jupiter and its sparkling moons. I'm not sure exactly when, but at some point during this simple run of observations, I had come to the decision to start releasing experimental electronic music. I know that makes little causal sense, but I had always been drawn to music which tied itself thematically to the wonders of the Solar System, perhaps the result of growing up to the tune of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I owned the soundtrack to that series and I'd usually fall asleep each night listening to Vangelis' "Alpha" and "Heaven and Hell, Part 1" on perpetual loop, my mind voyaging out there, watching safely from my spaceship of the imagination as inscrutable space empires waged war on the other side of the Milky Way.

So on this cool, October night in 1999, I found the phrase "distance to Jupiter" stuck in my head. The media had hyped this moment (Jupiter's proximity to Earth), and perhaps that's why these words were lodged there. But my mind was oscillating between two powerful forms of awe: 368 million miles was an immense distance, but it was also minuscule, especially when compared to more distant planets, objects, or other stars. I remember thinking that someday, a journey of 368 million miles would seem trivial to the human species; that at some moment in the future, a sight-seeing day-trip to Europa would be common for the citizens of Earth.

The distance to Jupiter is important in other, less-fanciful ways, too. The planet is close to the inner Solar System, and it possesses a vast gravity well. Many astronomers believe this casts Jupiter in the role of protector, partially shielding the planets closer to the Sun from comets and asteroids; some astronomers believe that Jupiter has the opposite effect—drawing comets from the Kuiper belt dangerously toward Earth. Either way, the distance to Jupiter from Earth might affect our survival or destruction. Beyond Mars, Jupiter and its moons could harbor extraterrestrial life. There is evidence that the moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto possess underground oceans of liquid water, capable of possibly supporting simple plants or micro-organisms. All these ideas are tied, in some way, to distance.

Yet after returning home that evening, those three words—"distance to Jupiter"—did not immediately coalesce into a designation for my music project. Even though I'd been recording tracks since 1996, it had simply never occurred to me to "name" the project, since my rig was so crude and simple. It consisted of a solitary Roland MC-303 Groovebox (music sequencer/synthesizer) and a consumer-grade Sony Minidisc deck. I had tied these two devices together to record live performances. As awful as that might seem, the performances themselves were constructed with loops—sequences of notes and rhythms—not just single tones or random keyboard wanderings. The loop-based approach led to surprising complexity, and the maximum approach to minimalism on the hardware side led to focused creativity. Thus, inspired by visions of Jupiter, I cracked open a fresh MiniDisc and inserted it into my deck to try to capture some of what I had been feeling a few hours before. The unit asked me to name the disc, and I pulled my keyboard close. Those three words emerged—perhaps solely as an honorific—and I've never once reconsidered the project's name.

Later, I extracted the music from the MiniDisc and brought it to my friend Chris Bailey, who put a final mix together. I called the album "To Sleep To Music" (a nod, perhaps, to that habit of childhood) but the title's palindromic quality then caught my eye, and "Music To Sleep To" was released via on October 31st, 1999.