The Boston Globe on Hubble’s celestial visual project
About a year ago, New York-based guitarist Ben Greenberg began spending days zoning out at an IMAX theater, watching enormous celestial structures drift by overhead in the long-running “Hubble’’ film. He’d begun work on music for a solo project that took everything he’d developed to that point and stripped it to its essentials, and the widescreen astronomy showcased in the film seemed eerily familiar to him.
“I saw it at least eight times,’’ he says over the phone from Brooklyn, crossing streets and huddling under the racket of elevated train tracks. “There were just so many parallels with how the information generated by the telescope can enter people’s consciousness and what I’m trying to do with music – putting together organic material and technological material.’’
The parallels have officially continued. Greenberg has not only released his first album as Hubble, he’s also introduced an intricate video collaboration with an actual NASA-contracted telescope specialist that serves as the perfect introduction to Greenberg’s unique sense of proportion. It’s music whose details can be just as daunting as its large-scale wholeness.
Greenberg has spent the better part of the last 10 years honing his craft in projects like the cerebral, obsessive band Zs and the blunt punk of the Pygmy Shrews, both of which are still going strong. He’s made a rock-solid practice of crafting amorphous music out of spidery figures maneuvered by hummingbird-like fingers. But Hubble is his most focused, lean work, and it’s the first that fully belongs in its own orbit.
Hubble comes to Boston Wednesday night in a special quadraphonic Hubble Superposition format, his guitar work split into four separate channels blasting from different corners of the room. The debut album, “Hubble Drums,’’ was released last month on recently opened experimental label Northern Spy Records.
Tiffany Borders is a research and instrument analyst at a facility called the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, focusing mostly on the Hubble Heritage Project. As she describes it, her job is to interpret data coming in from the orbiting telescope, interpret it into visually compelling (yet scientifically accurate) images, and get them publicized. “I do what I can to bridge the gap between science and art,’’ she says.
Borders was introduced to Greenberg through a mutual friend with the video collaboration in mind. For Greenberg, it was a dream come true. For Borders, it was her first chance to work so artistically with images she’d spent her career configuring and archiving.
“In the beginning, the conversation we had was about the scale of the universe,’’ she says. A plot began to take shape, centered on the human realization of how overwhelming space can be. “We wanted to start out traveling through space going to a galaxy, which contains hundreds of billions of stars. And then go to objects that would be found inside that.’’
Borders gathered possible images, which included a Milky Way-like spiral galaxy called M81 and an ethereal, dying star’s remains called the Cat’s Eye Nebula. Meanwhile, Greenberg excitedly wrote the music, dubbed “Hubble’s Hubble.’’
It’s an information-heavy piece, with tiny fragments of guitar (“I’ve always been drawn to little mini-riffs,’’ says Greenberg) overlapping each other for over 11 minutes. But it moves at the pace of a sunrise. Hubble hinges on actions, reactions, and microsecond reflexes triggered by small-scale figures that evolve into sweeping, 20-minute epics. The “Hubble’s Hubble’’ video creates a pensive, clear-minded approach to a subject that’s usually treated with big, Wagnerian orchestration. Greenberg uses thin drones and wiry, percussive string attacks to shuttle us across the universe.
“In the IMAX film, there was a lot of discussion about how time works and how things can be really slow and really fast at the same time,’’ Greenberg says. “That was what I’ve always tried to apply to music, as well as studying how these abstract readouts of the sensors turn into this simple, visual material.’’
In that regard, Borders was the perfect person with whom to collaborate, as someone who works with images so that readouts of supernovae and radioactive dust clouds look more compelling than scratchy ultrasound printouts or interstellar coffee stains. Once they’d assembled their images, artist Sheena Callage put in countless hours animating the entire project into the final, mesmerizing product.
Meanwhile, Greenberg’s own Hubble project continues. Greenberg’s performances are still the very terrestrial phenomenon of one guy with a guitar and a delay pedal, something he’s looking forward to adapting for the rest of his life in DIY spaces, rock clubs, art venues, and beyond.
“Because what I’m doing doesn’t fall into a specific genre,’’ he says, “I can take it anywhere.’’
Matt Parish can be reached at email@example.com.