I relish the musical challenges served up for me by BBC1’s The One Show. Whether it’s performing Satie on wine glasses, writing a “Symphony of Beeps”, or rearranging the One Show theme in a Broadway-musical style for the John Wilson Orchestra, it’s always such a creative pleasure.
But now and again, some projects deserve just that little bit of extra attention. And my recent journey into Space was just one of those.
The film explored the history of “The Music of the Spheres”, from Pythagoras, through Johannes Kepler, to the International Space Station. The apogee of this four-minute short was to be a performance of my new Kepler-inspired composition. The premiere was to take place aboard the Earth-orbiting ISS, for the single audience member, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.
The building blocks of my composition had to come from German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s 17th Century musings on the relationship between the Planets’ orbital speeds and the ratios created by musical intervals. Indeed, Kepler had gone as far as defining very precise intervals for each of the then-known planets: Mercury (a Major 10th starting on Middle C), Mars, (a Perfect 5th, starting on the F below Middle C), etc.
Some composers would say that such prescriptive parameters tie their hands. I’m very much of the opinion that rules give you freedom. For me, creativity comes from being boxed-in, from having constraints. The blank piece of paper just ain’t my style. It’s a tip I always give to my composing students – paint yourself in a corner, give yourself some rules. For example, why not choose a number which is all-powerful – let it define the amount of instruments one chooses, one’s time signature, one’s phrase lengths, the amount of times one can repeat something, how many sharps or flats one can use, etc. From such an idea might come nothing, but at least you’ve made a start, created something, even if it goes straight in the bin! However, there might just be one tiny little germ of an idea, a motif, or a rhythm that might just catch your attention.
I placed all of Kepler’s planetary intervals on synths, layered them on top of each other, and listened to the result. Awful – a complete mess! It then took a couple of weeks before I realized that I wasn’t taking my own advice – “rules give you freedom”. Using the planets’ relative distances from each other, I imagined a spacecraft travelling at a constant speed outward from the Sun. This gave me the entry points for each of the Planets (and also made me realise what a HUGE distance there is between Mars and Jupiter!). Also utilising the idea of “spin”, I then set about using each planet’s length of day and orbital speed to define parameters such as length of loop, pan speed, volume etc. Around this point though, I broke away from my rules and gave myself some creative freedom. With the addition of a voice from singer Taylor Ehrlich, pulsar recordings from Prof Tim O’Brien at Jodrell Bank, and the inimitable sound of Humankind’s first sphere Sputnik, I had all the necessary ingredients for the work.
And in a sense, I feel I’ve helped to close a circle. Kepler could only have dreamt that one day, humans might witness the Planets resonating to his musical notes. Although he’s been proved wrong, Kepler’s sounds have now been heard in Space. It’s an amazing privilege to have realised a piece of music whose sounds were first imagined back in the 17th Century, and, all these years later, to have placed it within its proper context.
And the opinion of the stellar listener? “A perfect soundtrack” says Samantha Cristoforetti in the film. Have a listen to the piece with headphones on, and imagine yourself looking out of the 7 windows of the Cupola, 250 miles up, floating serenely over the jewel that is Earth, at a cool 17,000mph.
Click on the links below to listen
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