Black Holes Emit B Flats as Emmylou Stirs the Universe

Do you know about this: the whole black-hole/B-flat revelation? It’s pretty amazing, and it’s been out there for a while (it’s, you know, out there on another level, of course) and yet I don’t think it’s gotten the attention it deserves. Even some hard-core black-hole aficionados haven’t heard about it.

As a matter of fact, a couple of days after I heard about it, I was having dinner with my friend Errol Morris, who made the absorbing film about Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, in which black holes were the metaphorical stars, so to speak. The last time Errol and I dined, we were discussing Mr. Hawking’s remarkable retraction of his insistence that black holes don’t emit information of any kind. (It’s kind of amazing to me that more people don’t know that recent observations have suggested the inaccuracy—as Mr. Hawking himself admits—of his original “don’t ask, don’t tell” view of black holes and information. It’s like Einstein saying, “Oops, E doesn’t equal MC squared, it equals MC cubed! My bad.”)

And yet, neither Errol nor I had been aware of this whole B-flat/black-hole music development.

The great thing was the person who told me about it: Emmylou Harris, goddess of cosmic country music, physicist of the black holes in the heart that lost love leaves.

Emmylou was in town from Nashville for a concert with Elvis Costello at SummerStage and an appearance on Letterman. In addition to that, she’s got a remarkable career-retrospective CD just out—The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches & Highways—that brings together the most exquisite and scarring of her black-hole ballads.

If you can get past the first killer song on that album—a duet with her legendary soulmate Gram Parsons on “Love Hurts”—then you have to face the all-time lethal lost-love song, the one she co-wrote about Gram Parsons’ death, “Boulder to Birmingham.” Then you’ve got to deal with the insidiously plaintive “Making Believe” and Townes Van Zandt’s mysterioso melancholy classic “Pancho and Lefty,” about the treachery that destroys friendship.

That’s just the first four songs—and if you get through them without being a total emotional wreck, I envy you. I congratulate you on your cold-bloodedness. You are immune to emotion. Welcome to the Sociopaths’ Hall of Fame.

Having been tipped off to the Emmylou appearance by Observer intern Max Abelson, I thought: What’s the point of being a writer if I can’t meet someone whose songs have both ruined my life and consoled me for the losses?

After all, in my last column I got to celebrate a Venus of the stage, Claire Bloom, who played the goddess of love in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis recently (The Observer, July 18, 2005). It was Shakespeare’s Venus who put an eternal curse on all love and lovers (“Sorrow on Love hereafter shall attend … Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end.”) Emmylou Harris is our contemporary Venus, who, like Claire Bloom, raises these sorrows to a cosmic pitch.

I’m not alone in thinking this way about Emmylou. And she’s not alone in my pantheon of sad-song goddesses: I’ve written about my devotion to Rosanne Cash, and Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies. (O.K., I’ve proposed marriage to both of them in print. Not at the same time.) And Rickie Lee Jones … don’t get me started.

But I have to say, my extreme obsession with Xtreme Sad Songs began with Emmylou’s “Boulder to Birmingham.” Listen to it once and you know she has an instinct for the black hole in the soul.

So I’m sitting at a table in a hotel lounge with Emmylou Harris. She’s looking radiant in a glowing marigold-colored shirt whose cornflower blue blossoms and green tendrils of vines are punctuated by a tasteful number of rhinestones. Nature and artifice; Nature and “country.” And she’s talking about synesthesia and black holes.

I’d asked her something that I’d once asked Bob Dylan, about whether she thought certain keys or chords corresponded to certain emotions. Dylan had told me he thought D minor was “the chord of regret” (and yes, Dylan’s reply to me was the one mocked in Spinal Tap, and though I’m deeply proud it found a place in that great work, even in mockery—despite that, I think it’s still a legitimate question). And so I asked Emmylou if she had any similar intuitions about the correspondence of chords and emotions.

She didn’t personally, she said, but she told me the story of a guy in one of her bands, Roy Huskey Jr., a bass player who told her that he had synesthesia: He saw musical notes as colors. And she remembered that he’d always say that, alone of all the notes, B flat was “very, very, very black,” really, really dark.

“The funny thing is,” she then told me, “I was reading the paper a while ago, and I came upon a report that black holes are now reported to emit sounds. And that the sound emitted is … B flat!”

It sounded too good to be true, but when I returned home and Googled the matter, it seemed to be quite true.

Google “black hole” and “B flat” and you get 3,500 entries with evocative titles such as (and these are the top three on the Google stack):

“Black hole sings the deepest B-flat”—MSNBC

“Black Hole Strikes Deepest

Musical Note Ever Heard”— space.com

“Black hole hums B flat”—BBC News.

A couple of qualifications: It’s not clear that all black holes emit the B-flat sound. (And the B flat, by the way, is the B flat 57 octaves below middle C). But there’s this one ginormous black hole in the Perseus cluster of galaxies, 250 light-years from here, that seems to have been humming B flat for 2.5 billion years!

That’s one lonely, sad-sounding, one-note black hole.

It conjures up the ultimate vision of universal cosmic sadness: a universe of black holes humming sadly to each other from behind their event horizons. Sadness built into the very structure of the cosmos, sorrow woven into the fabric of space-time.

Are you curious about what it means for black holes to hum? I was.

You know the basics about black holes, right? The cosmic whirlpools whose massive gravitation in effect sucks in all matter that impinges on its field and reduces it all to a “singularity” of which nothing can be known because it has disappeared beyond the black hole’s event horizon. Event horizon: another of my fave physics-for-poets phrases. Sort of the “whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” rule in cosmological physics.

At least that’s what we used to think, because Stephen Hawking said it was so.

So here’s the deal on the “singing black holes,” as one of the Google hits explained it. Again, this seems like big news to me—really big news, news about the nature of the universe. Bigger even than the identity of Deep Throat, don’t you think? I mean, if you take the long view. If I were running a tabloid, I’d give it front-page “wood,” as they say, Post style:

BLACK HOLES SPEAK!

Mr. Hawking told us that no information could escape the event horizon, but now it turns out that information can escape from black holes. And, according to other studies, the “fringes” of a black hole experience “turbulence” that reflects the changing state of the black hole—reverberations from the matter disappearing into it, echoes from beyond the event horizon.

Isn’t that great: “Echoes from Beyond the Event Horizon.” There’s the country song I’ve always wanted to write.

Cosmologists say that this turbulence can be detected as “ripples” in space, and one cosmologist, Andrew Fabian, managed to produce a new genre—call it orgiastic cosmological porn—in describing it:

“The ripples were caused by the rhythmic squeezing and heating … by the intense gravitational pressure of the jumble of galaxies packed together in the cluster.

“As the black hole pulls material in … it also creates jets of material shooting out above and below it, and it is these powerful jets that create the pressure that creates the sound waves.”

“Sound waves,” it turns out, is a somewhat dicey term, since as we learned from the poster for Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

But the cosmologists have apparently decided to denote the ripples the way we denote sound waves. And they’ve concluded that this massive black hole in the Perseus cluster emits the “deepest note ever detected from an object in the universe.” A tone that it has held steadily for 2.5 billion years. A B flat 57 octaves below middle C.

That’s low, that B flat. That’s “to be or not to be” flat, you might say. It’s dark. This black-hole dude in Perseus has been carrying a slow-burning, low-murmuring, gravitation-swallowing, self-devouring torch for two and a half billion years. That’s devotion.

It puts a new spin on the poetic vision of the universe. Lucretius (in De Rerum Natura, circa 50 B.C.) envisioned all the separateness of the cosmos bound together by Love, whom he personified as Venus. Love was the universal gravitational field. Emmylou’s B-flat black-hole revelation—I’m not saying she discovered it, but it was a revelation to me when she told me—suggests metaphorically a different kind of universe. One that’s not bound by love, but by sorrow. With black holes “singing to each other like whales,” as Errol Morris put it when I told him about it.

Who can resist the image of the vast reaches of interstellar space filled with lonely, heartbroken black holes humming their mournful B flats to each other across the endless vistas of the cosmos?

Is this getting a little cosmic? O.K., probably yes—but while we’re on the subject of “cosmic”: I came upon a resonant detail while leafing through the stack of Emmylou clippings that her manager, Emily Deaderick, provided me. It had to do with what Gram Parsons called the kind of music that he and Emmylou practically invented on his final album, Grievous Angel.

Some fusion of traditional country’s naked emotion with contemporary rock sensibility. Is it “country rock,” “alt-country” or that hideous new term, “Americana”? Country stars are forever getting talked into trying to make themselves “crossover artists” by ambitious agents who make them ashamed of being “country artists” and want them to be called something else.

I’ll never forget the morning after my deeply appreciative portrait of Rodney Crowell appeared in The Observer (“Beautiful Despair!”, March 7, 2005). I got an early-morning call from Rodney in Nashville. O.K., I admit it: I was half-expecting that he’d ask me to be his co-writer (I’d compared him to Graham Greene, for God’s sake!).

But nooooo …. He was angry! He told me that I’d “ruined” all the work he and his management had put in over the past three years, because I’d described him as a country-and-western singer-songwriter (which is how most of the people who love his work know him). Horrors!

It turns out that he wanted to escape the “country” label and become a “crossover artist”; he wanted to be known for his recent topical songs rather than for the kind of all-time killers like “’Til I Gain Control Again,” guaranteed to be immortal.

I told him that he ought to be proud to be part of the heritage of country music. But just the other day, I was listening to one of the country-music cable channels and heard one of Rodney’s songs classified as “Americana.” Poor Rodney: all that struggle to escape “country” for a label as vapid and marginal as “Americana”? Congratulations, dude.

“Americana”! It sounds less like music than some Antiques Roadshow category. It’s for country singers ashamed of being country, folkies ashamed of being folkies, bluegrass heads ashamed of sounding too “rural.” It should be called “Ashamed-icana.” Out with it! Let’s abolish “Americana” from the American musical vocabulary now!

Emmylou Harris has never had that problem. It’s like she has too much integrity to care what people call her music, even if she knows it can make a difference in radio and airplay. She just wants to sing it and shatter your heart.

But there is one term she does kind of like. It’s the one I found in the old clip, the one Gram Parsons coined: “Cosmic American music.” I like it, too! There’s always been something spiritual about it. All the more suggestive now that we know about the sorrowful songs of the black holes, that there’s something cosmic about sorrow, something built into the structure of creation.

I asked Emmylou about one of the most beautiful and simple songs she’s done, the duet she does with Willie Nelson on “Gulf Coast Highway,” a Nanci Griffith song. (It’s on Emmylou’s amazing Duets album.) Simple, but there’s something cosmic about its simplicity, the way Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are simple and cosmic at the same time.

I started to tell her: “I heard a story that you were driving along and this Nanci Griffith song [“Gulf Coast Highway”] came on the car radio and—”

“I almost had to pull off to the side of the road and started to cry. Yes!” she said.

Do you know “Gulf Coast Highway”? It all has to do with bluebonnets. They apparently grow on only one stretch of the Texas Gulf Coast Highway, and they only bloom briefly in the spring. It’s a song about a mother and father who worked all their lives in obscurity, but lived in “the only place on earth bluebonnets grow,” and about the way they loved their life and—memorably—about the way they described their death:

And when he dies, he says, he’ll catch some blackbird’s wing

And we will fly away to heaven come some sweet bluebonnet spring.

It’s hard to explain why this song gets to you, but Emmylou says it has something to do with courage. The courage of people who keep their love together till death do them part. The kind of enduring love some of our parents had, the kind that’s so rare now. Certainly rare in her songs, which are mostly about fire and ashes and loss.

I asked her, since I consider her a goddess of wisdom on the subject of love and love songs, whether we really love love, or do we love the despair that inevitably comes with its loss? Because we can have that “beautiful despair” (as Americana artist Rodney Crowell calls it) forever in luminous, sad love songs like hers that keep the beautiful lost love alive. It never leaves us like love does.

She said something wise about the pain in her songs: that “often people who are hurt say they can’t feel anything, and sometimes songs like these at least help them feel something, even if it’s painful.”

It’s true there are solace and consolation in them, but there are also dark echoes of that 2.5-billion-year-old B flat.