Martians, Dolls and a Cellist’s Dog: The Many Worlds of Jennifer Walshe

A few weeks ago, Jennifer Walshe was backstage at a concert hall in Essen, Germany, searching for the exit when she paused near the green room. A double bass bow was laid out, ready for the evening’s performance; attached to it, wobbling in the air, were several black-and-white balloons. Walshe grinned and pulled out her phone to snap a picture.

This esoteric musical apparatus had been prepared for a new piece, composed by Walshe, that would be premiering in a few hours’ time. Called “Some Notes on Martian Sonic Aesthetics, 2034-51,” it invites a chamber ensemble to impersonate a musically trained crew who have set up a colony on Mars and are beaming performances back to Earth.

While researching the piece, Walshe, 49, said that she had asked NASA how sound waves travel in carbon-dioxide rich atmospheres (“you don’t hear high-end frequencies”). She had also requested that packets of freeze-dried food be placed on the percussionists’ tables, so that the audience could hear the sound of astronauts chowing down, along with cans of compressed air to imitate the hiss of airlocks opening and closing.

And the helium-filled balloons? Here to make the double bassist’s bow feel 60 percent lighter, as though he were playing in Martian gravity. “I’m a hardcore science fiction fan,” Walshe said as she strode onto the street. “I want things to be as accurate as possible.”

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