Jonathon Keats will debut his Universal Orchestra at UNC Asheville on April 19

WELCOME, ALIENS: Jonathon Keats has created music designed to communicate hospitality to life-forms who may not speak Earth-based languages. Photo by Akim Aginsky

Press release from UNC Asheville:

Using instruments – many of them built at UNC Asheville – that generate gamma rays, gravitational waves, and vibrations across the physical spectrum, Jonathon Keats will present original compositions and altered classics in a free concert at 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 19 in Lipinsky Auditorium on campus.

The late start time will be the least unusual aspect of this event, in which Keats will unveil what he calls “an intergalactic anthem advancing tolerance on earth and beyond.” Keats, UNC Asheville’s Black Mountain College (BMC) Legacy Fellow for the spring 2018 semester, seeks to build upon BMC’s experimentation with sound and music, exemplified by John Cage and his use of silence and random elements.

Keats’ “universal orchestra,” which will debut on April 19, goes far beyond the sonic alterations of Cage’s prepared piano music. “At the core of the universal orchestra, are instruments that don’t privilege ordinary human hearing,” says Keats. “The whole spectrum is supported – from infra- to ultrasound – as are other modes of musical expression that may be accessible to beings that haven’t evolved ears. Stimuli include light waves and gamma rays from the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as exotic gravitational waves like those emitted by black holes.

“These instruments can actuate any phenomenon having frequency and amplitude – meaning every phenomenon capable of carrying a tune,” explains Keats. “This orchestra isn’t anthropocentric or even geocentric. It’s wholly Copernican. We’re creating the first universal orchestra – our repertory is accessible to all, regardless of culture or biology.”

An experimental philosopher and conceptual artist, Keats seeks to create works that “overcome human cultural, behavioral and cognitive biases. Primarily composed and performed by UNC Asheville faculty and students – who have also constructed many of the instruments at the university’s STEAM Studio – these musical works express meaning through cosmic constants such as universal laws of nature,” he says.

Bill Bares, associate professor of music at UNC Asheville and one of the faculty performing, sees Keats’ approach as part of a continuum of experimental music. “In 1979, the Sicilian composer Salvatore Sciarrino advanced a manifesto that future developments of modern music should investigate ‘the boundaries of auditory perception.’ It’s taken almost four decades, but that’s now happening here at UNC Asheville,” says Bares.

In addition to presenting original compositions based on physics and cosmology, Keats will direct the orchestra in “rectified Copernican versions” of classics by composers ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to Anton Webern. According to Keats, these canonical human compositions will be made accessible to all sentient life for the first time.

Select instruments and compositions will be on view at UNC Asheville’s Ramsey Library from April 20 to April 27.

In a companion event, Keats will be joined by Bares and Wayne Kirby, UNC Asheville’s Paddison Distinguished Professor, in a discussion at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 20, at the BMC Museum + Arts Center, 56 Broadway, Asheville, with $5 admission; free for students.

For more information, email UNC Asheville’s Department of Music at

More About Jonathon Keats

In 2007, Keats created a mobile ring tone version of John Cage’s famous work, 4’33”, digitally generating absolute silence for cellphone. Last year, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Technology Lab, he developed a concept car that alters the music in the car based on speed, turning and braking to “modulate the psychological state of the driver.” His Roadable Synapse was prototyped by Hyundai.

Keats’ first musical composition, 1001 Concertos for Tuning Forks and Audience, premiered in 2002 at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. Keats has been represented by Modernism ever since, and will open a Copernican music shop at the gallery in July.

Thermodynamics has long been an interest for Keats, who says his “universal anthem” is based on the phenomenon of entropy. “The universe is gradually becoming less orderly, much as clothes become dirty and houses become messy,” he says. “Life is an exception to this rule, at least temporarily: For as long as an organism lives, it draws energy from its environment, internally counteracting entropy by making its environment more entropic. Then it dies, and becomes part of the environment on which other life is nourished.

“Digestion and disintegration, that’s what all life has in common,” asserts Keats. “By conveying those entropic processes through cycles of musical order and disorderliness, the universal anthem expresses what we all share, regardless of our nationality or planet. And by performing the anthem on many wavelengths – enlisting the sound and light and gravitational waves of the Copernican orchestra – we include every imaginable being in a universal effort to end xenophobia.”

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