StarJAM: An Interstellar Musical Conversation

This spring, a nine-year-old dream came true: to direct a live collaboration with an orbiting astronaut on the International Space Station. Co-Sponsored by BELLA GAIA, this ‘StarJAM’ was an improvised musical performance between BELLA GAIA Director Kenji Williams and International Space Station Commander Koichi Wakata.

The idea was born in conjunction with the inception of BELLA GAIA (Beautiful Earth), now a world-renowned earth-from-space multimedia immersive theatrical experience that simulates space flight, with live music and dance, and stunning earth data imagery from NASA. BELLA GAIA was conceived in response to a conversation I had with NASA astronaut Mike Finke – who spoke to me of the life changing experience he had the first time he saw the earth from the Space Station. Many astronauts refer to this transformation as the “Overview Effect.”


Since then, many astronauts have seen BELLA GAIA and said it is an accurate simulation of space flight, and successfully replicates BELLA GAIA this transformative effect.

In the process, many astronauts have contributed their poetic words and feelings of being in space, to be included in BELLA GAIA as voice samples guiding along the experience.

One of these astronauts who contributed to BELLA GAIA was Koichi Wakata – who at the time I met him, was about to launch into space as Japan’s first Commander of the Space Station. It was a natural fit to do a live musical collaboration, between earth and space.

Because Koichi was not a musician, I began designing/conceptualizing the project with the selection of an instrument that is uniquely Japanese, that does not require a lifetime of practice, and that could be transported in the small confines of a rocket module, and that would also not prove too problematic with the two to three second transmission delay to earth, for thepurpose of ‘jamming’ with me live.

I selected the Sho – a two-thousand-year-old Japanese wind instrument, normally played with a Gagaku orchestra, an ancient Imperial orchestra that many musicologists consider the oldest type oforchestra in the world. Tenri University in Japan was kind enough to donate the actual Sho instrument for Koichi to play.

Although we briefly trained Koichi Wakata on the Sho, he actually didn’t have a chance to practice it until he reached the space station. The Sho was transported separately to the Space Station by a SpaceX Dragon rocket. This is the first time in history for such an instrument to travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, and because of the tight schedule, Koichi only had a couple days to practice in space.

In the Japanese Shinto tradition, the Sho is an instrument performed for the purpose of tuning the cosmos. The fact that Koichi was playing this instrument, literally in space, was a profound act – and in my conversation live during the NASA TV broadcast with Koichi during the StarJAM, I dedicated this live collaboration for the healing of all beings, healing of the Earth, healing of our friends and families.

During the live StarJAM, Tenri University in Japan organized a live synchronous concert by a real Gagaku orchestra to play along with Koichi and me, as we were projected on ascreen in their concert hall.

When Koichi started playing the Sho live from space, as I stood at NASA JSC’s studio with my violin, I actually got chills. I was deeply moved as I improvised and played along with this beautiful sound transmitted from two hundred miles above.

I am so thankful to the entire NASA team, Jami Lupold, and Koichi Wakata, for making this amazing collaboration happen.

Future performance dates and album release dates for BELLA GAIA:

October 11 – San Francisco, CA

Marin Civic Center Theater

(Full Ensemble & CD release, west coast)


November 28 – Bethesda, MD

Strathmore Theatre

(Full Ensemble & CD release, east coast)

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