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Music of the Spheres

by admin on December 1, 2016

The year is 1918. Between two movements, the concert hall sinks into silence. There is a shuffle as musicians turn pages. The conductor lifts his hands. The orchestra readies its instruments. Then, suddenly, the hall explodes with music. The violins’ rapid notes underlay the grandiose brass section. This melody, played marcato (heavily accented), opens what will become the most popular movement of the suite being premiered.

The year is 1979. Over 500 million kilometers away from where the orchestra once performed, NASA’s Voyager spacecraft continues its lonesome journey through an endless void. Then, seeming to grow against the stars, a magnificent giant is revealed. This is Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. Its surface is composed of turbulent layers of gas sweeping around its center at speeds reaching 100 meters per second. Its distinctive stripes come from ammonia clouds stretched across the planet as it rotates about its axis. As Voyager enters the giant’s magnetic field, the spacecraft begins to pick up signals. In the silence of space, the planet sings.

Humanity has long turned its eyes to the stars; early civilizations concocted elaborate tales to explain the phenomena they experienced, and many of these stories were recorded as constellations. From this mythology came an ancient field of pseudoscience known as astrology. Although astrology is no longer widely accepted as truth, its fascinating stories continue to influence art, literature, and music. As time went by, curiosity drove societies to discover truth, debunk myth, and explore the endless scape beyond Earth’s feeble atmosphere. Slowly, astrology became displaced. The result was astronomy, a field of science based on observation and data. Two similar words with vastly different meanings, astrology and astronomy are major influences on Western culture.

Half a millennium after Galileo named Jupiter’s moons, NASA spacecraft made famous flybys of the heavenly spheres. Many of these spacecraft took detailed records of electromagnetic radiation, which is a term used for visible and invisible light. This radiation is recorded and sent back to Earth, where physicists are able to translate the data into sound. This process, called data sonification, gives voice to phenomena that cannot usually be heard. Three examples came from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. The recordings are of Jupiter’s bow shock (a phenomenon similar to a sonic boom), magnetosphere (solar wind reacting with the magnetic field), and lightning.1 The Voyager spacecraft took similar recordings of electromagnetic radiation as they traveled through space. These recordings were then used to construct a set of CDs titled Symphonies of the Planets. The results are as gentle as they are haunting. Editors looped various tones from Voyager’s recordings, and these overlap to weave a complex pattern, with no two parts sounding the same. The music is ambient and easily slides into the background of any activity, which echoes the silent, omnipresent universe that blankets Earth’s night sky. Although the Symphonies of the Planets are heavily edited and composed, the underplaying parts of the piece were taken directly from Voyager’s data. In this way, Symphonies of the Planets is a duet between the universe and human intention. The results are breathtakingly beautiful, if a little bit jarring.

More than half a century earlier, composer Gustav Holst sat at a private concert premiering what would become his most well-known piece: The Planets Op. 32. As Holst listened to his creation for the first time, he likely remembered the variety of sources from which he drew inspiration. Musical influences came from composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Debussy. The idea for the piece itself originated from astrology. This dramatic narrative portrays the gods and goddess that ancient Romans associated with the planets. Holst was inspired to revisit a childhood interest in theology during a trip to Spain, when he grew close with an astrologer named Clifford Bax. One of Holst’s books, The Art of Synthesis by Alan Leo, foreshadowed the layout of his next piece.2 The fourth movement of his seven-part suite is titled Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity. Rather than basing the grandiose sound of the piece off of the planet itself, he instead was inspired by the image of the Roman god. In mythology, Jupiter rules the sky. He creates storms and is the king of the gods. Rather than portraying the ferocity of this deity, Host’s movement takes on the astrological image of a benevolent, flirtatious, and playful immortal. About three minutes into the movement, the energetic tone shifts into a slow, beautiful melody that captured the hearts of its listeners. It was so loved that one of Brittan’s most famous patriotic poems was set to the music.3 Today, Holst’s suite continues to be a widely popular piece of classical music.

NASA’s Symphonies of the Planets and Holst’s The Planets echo the similarities and differences of astronomy and astrology. As with astronomy and astrology, these two musical pieces have similar and confusable titles, but they are vastly different and nearly incomparable. Similar to astrology, The Planets is a human creation and has a colorful dynamic appealing to people’s creative minds. It is dramatic, imaginative, and emotional. Similar to astronomy, Symphonies of the Planets is the result of limited human interpretation of natural phenomena. Its ambience is similar to science in that it becomes the backdrop to all things. It is jarring and sometimes unpleasant, as science can often be, but it is unbelievably beautiful when the listener knows what he or she is listening to. Both pieces are stunning and important, as are the fields from which they came, even if the two have very different places is the world.

The year is 2016. In concerts around the world, The Planets suite attracts audiences that fill the seats. Eighteen billion kilometers away, Voyager 1 continues its silent journey into deep space. From the myths behind constellations to the lives of dying stars, the celestial sphere is a keeper of history. While ancient civilizations concocted elaborate tales in the sky, modern space agencies are tasked with discovering truth beyond what the eye can discern. From the imaginary world of Holst’s suite to the haunting ambiance of Symphonies of the Planets, the music of the spheres holds an important influence in our society, and it will do so for years to come.

By Samantha Creech

Sources:

  1. O’Connor, B. Dunford, https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/sounds.cfm
  2. Taylor, http://www.gustavholst.info/compositions/listing.php?work=1
  3. Trussler, http://www.aquarianage.org/lore/holst.html

 Picture Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Anna Lee Skinner December 6, 2016 at 6:24 pm

Your GIF is pretty cool, man. The rest of your article is well phrased and intriguing. MY favorite part about this class has been being forced to think about things I would have never come to on my own and your topic fits into that category for me. You incorporated the science and information in a way that made them interesting and easy to understand.

Christian T Smith December 6, 2016 at 4:33 pm

I think that this article was super informative. I really wasn’t left with any questions, since you managed to touch on what seems like everything (as well as explain it all very well). I really enjoyed the contrast you proposed between the very literal music of the spheres and that of The Planets. I think the creativity used when presenting this article allowed it to connect much better in context of history and show a good progression of how we’ve viewed the spheres over time.

Kailey Hackett December 6, 2016 at 11:16 am

This article was extremely well written and intriguing. I enjoyed every minute of reading and learned so much about music and astronomy as well. I was fascinated to learn that music can help us understand things about the solar system and other outer space mysteries. I had no clue that people were even looking into this and I thought it was awesome that people are trying to take “extraterrestrial” sounds and put them into music for us to listen to. After reading this, I want to listen to The Planets suite and other music regarding to this awesome discovery. Overall, I really enjoyed this article and I learned a ton from a few paragraphs.

Lea Gilbert December 5, 2016 at 9:51 pm

This article was beautifully written and deeply engaging. I loved the first two paragraphs that set the stage for the rest of the article. Your words create a melody of their own. I would be very interested to hear “Symphony of the Planets” as the raw material from it is data straight from the voyager. It would be really amazing to hear what the “universe and humans” composed together.

Emma Berg December 4, 2016 at 2:18 pm

This was so well written and interesting to read. I loved the way you put the music in context and your voice in this article is amazing. I like how you compare the use of space in music to astronomy and astrology. It is interesting to look at music as another way to understand space and natural phenomena.
“In the silence of space, the planet sings” is such a great line and highlights one of the many great points your article provides.

Sarah Chao December 4, 2016 at 12:16 am

Fascinating to read, never a dull moment. Amazing idea to begin with a narrative-like introduction. The juxtaposition between the two time periods in the first two paragraphs are very strong (the contrast of concert hall versus space). Love the background history you included, I definitely want to read up more about it. Your analysis of NASA and Holst’s compositions if very informative and you write with such an enthusiastic voice, that makes me excited as I read. The concluding paragraph brings it full circle to present time. I listened to the symphony of the planets and it made me feel very small with the eerie and mysterious sounds.

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