Reimagining Holst’s Planets in the modern age
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