Space jams

Reimag­in­ing Holst’s Plan­ets in the mod­ern age

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Tim Jonze

Com­posers have long been known to travel far and wide for in­spi­ra­tion. Men­delssohn headed to the re­mote Scot­tish isle of Staffa to write his He­brides over­ture, while Mes­si­aen found mu­sic in the moun­tains of Utah. Deb­o­rah Pritchard de­cided to take a trip to Mars.

“It was ma­jes­tic, with all these red hills and val­leys that are very sim­i­lar to the ones on Earth,” says the award-win­ning com­poser. “To be able to see the land­scape was ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

Pritchard’s jour­ney to Mars was ac­tu­ally a trip to the Data Ob­ser­va­tory at Im­pe­rial Col­lege in Lon­don. It’s here that im­ages from the Cu­rios­ity rover – a car-sized ve­hi­cle that roams the planet’s Gale Crater armed with a cam­era, drill and even a kind of selfie stick – are beamed on to the sur­round­ing walls, giv­ing vis­i­tors an im­mer­sive vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing on the planet. For Pritchard, it was all in the name of in­spi­ra­tion. Her mis­sion, along with that of seven other mu­si­cians, was to up­date Holst’s The Plan­ets for the 21st cen­tury us­ing the lat­est sci­en­tific knowl­edge.

Holst’s mas­ter­piece may be set in stone as a mod­ern clas­sic, but there is good rea­son to re­visit it to­day. Not least be­cause, when Holst be­gan the writ­ing process in 1914, our un­der­stand­ing of the so­lar sys­tem left a bit to be de­sired. “Mar­tians build two im­mense canals in two years!” claimed a New York Times story from the time, cit­ing the ob­ser­va­tions of the re­spected as­tronomer Per­ci­val Low­ell.

Whether Holst be­lieved in a Mar­tian su­per­race isn’t re­ally rel­e­vant as his Plan­ets suite wasn’t based on science, but on as­trol­ogy. Mars was thus the bringer of war, Venus rep­re­sented peace, Uranus the ma­gi­cian, and so on. It made for bold mu­sic – but did these plan­e­tary per­son­al­i­ties have any ba­sis in re­al­ity?

“Not re­ally,” says Dr Philippa Ma­son, a field ge­ol­o­gist at Im­pe­rial and one of the six sci­en­tists en­listed to men­tor the com­posers. “For in­stance, Mars is re­ally a cool, calm, be­nign place whereas Venus is a hell­hole – vol­canic, dense and hot enough to melt lead.” Holst, it seems, got those two Earth neigh­bours the wrong way around.

The idea to reimag­ine The Plan­ets us­ing mod­ern science came from the young Bri­tish com­poser Samuel Bor­doli who, along with pro­duc­ers Sound UK, paired up each mu­si­cian with a planet and a men­tor and asked them to write a fiveminute piece for string quar­tet each. Ti­tled The Plan­ets 2018, the re­sults are be­ing per­formed by the Ligeti Quar­tet in plan­e­tar­i­ums across the UK.

The tim­ing is neat. Not only did the first con­cert, on 29 Septem­ber at Green­wich’s Royal Ob­ser­va­tory, mark 100 years to the day that Holst de­buted his Plan­ets suite, but Green­wich is where as­tronomers con­clu­sively dis­proved Low­ell’s claim of a Mar­tian army build­ing wa­ter­ways.

Bor­doli chose the gas gi­ant Uranus for his com­po­si­tion and em­barked on an email ex­change with David Roth­ery, pro­fes­sor of plan­e­tary geo­sciences at the Open Univer­sity. It took lots of “naive ques­tions” be­fore he found a mu­si­cal way in: Roth­ery ex­plained how a sun­set would look from the planet and some­thing clicked.“It was just so dif­fer­ent to any­thing we could ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Bor­doli. “You’d see the sun as a sin­gle point that would grad­u­ally start to spi­ral over 42 years un­til it dis­ap­peared un­der the hori­zon. And then, of course, you’d have 42 years of dark­ness.” His fin­ished piece hopes to rep­re­sent this long jour­ney from light to dark.

Bor­doli never got to “visit” his planet as Pritchard did. She made sev­eral trips to the 3D Mars room to marvel at the land­scapes, take pic­tures and fire ques­tions at her men­tor,

In re­al­ity, science re­quires a lot of cre­ativ­ity. Just like with mu­sic

San­jeev Gupta, pro­fes­sor of earth science at Im­pe­rial. Gupta taught Pritchard about Mars’s early his­tory: “How it had wa­ter and an at­mos­phere and was prob­a­bly a lovely en­vi­ron­ment to have a pic­nic in, un­til around 3.5bn years ago, when that wa­ter and at­mos­phere were lost.”

If we know too much about the Earth, then Shiva Fe­shareki had the op­po­site prob­lem. The Bri­tish-Ira­nian com­poser and turntab­list chose Venus for her planet, but soon found out there was a dearth of in­for­ma­tion when it came to our clos­est plan­e­tary neigh­bour.

“It has an at­mos­phere so dense that vis­i­ble light can’t pen­e­trate it,” says Ma­son, who men­tored Fe­shareki. Be­cause of this, much of what we know about Venus is based on other data read­ings – we can then use what we know about Earth to ex­trap­o­late in­for­ma­tion from them. This sci­en­tific process got Fe­shareki think­ing about tak­ing a new ap­proach to com­po­si­tion it­self.

Fe­shareki’s fin­ished piece con­sists of just five notes, but within those notes is a “sonic sculp­ture” that grad­u­ally forms as the quar­tet ex­plore their sound world. It’s a com­po­si­tion as am­bi­tious as the project it­self.

“The quar­tet were sur­prised by the amount of de­bate that goes on when it comes to the plan­ets,” says Gupta. “There’s this view of science that it’s data, in­ter­pre­ta­tion and then it’s solved. Whereas in re­al­ity we have ideas and hy­pothe­ses and it re­quires a lot of cre­ativ­ity, just like with mu­sic. In ge­ol­ogy there’s a big gulf be­tween what you see in the rocks and what they can tell you ... a lot of our job is about how you in­ter­pret it, and what sto­ries we can tell. It’s not just hard science.”

Gi­ant sound Samuel Bor­doli’s com­po­si­tion cov­ers the 42-year sun­set on Uranus

Venus in thirds Shiva Fe­shareki’s Venus con­tains a ‘sonic scu­pl­ture’ of just five notes BEN EALOVEGA

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