In celebration of Long Island Reads, PatchChords examines the music of outer space.
Outer space conjures up many images – danger, nothingness, a deadly vacuum, a new frontier to be explored, eerie mystery, the twinkle of the stars, infinity, and even a touch of romance. One finds it easy to imagine that our ancestors, thousands of years ago, improvised music as they stood under the night sky to celebrate and commemorate the breathtaking panorama of shimmering stars that greeted them after every sunset.
One of the earliest operas to feature the idea of space travel was Franz Joseph Haydn's opera buffa, Il Mondo della Luna, written in 1777, about a man who falsely believes that he has been transported to the Moon. Also, Haydn's choral and chamber orchestra piece, The Creation, was conceived after discussing music and astronomy with the astronomer (and, incidentally, oboist), William Herschel, and it could be argued that the vast, empty void of outer space can be heard in the piece, with its softly pulsating high violins and wind instruments above low cellos and basses, leaving an enormous, unoccupied void between them, in both the orchestral and the spatial senses.
And Gustav Holst's famous suite, The Planets, of course, immediately springs to mind. Written before the discovery of Pluto in 1930, it, as many have noticed, does not contain a movement for the dwarf planet, Pluto. Holst, in his lifetime, however, expressed little or no interest in writing one, but, eventually, a movement for Pluto was created by British composer, Colin Matthews in 2000. And then, there is the "Aquarium" movement from Camille Saint-Saëns' famous Carnival of the Animals, a piece seemingly often drafted into service to evoke outer space, with its descending "twinkling" piano figures, although, as the title indicates, it was originally intended to evoke something much more terrestrial and aquatic.
Sound, being nothing more than air vibrations, does not, by definition, actually travel in the airless vacuum of space, however objects in space (the Sun, planets, stars, quasars, pulsars, galaxies, etc.) produce signals that, if received through radio astronomy dishes and processed, can be perceived by the human ear as audible sound. Moving into the modern era, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Bedford, Henry Brant, Henryk Gorecki, Philip Glass, John Cage, Rued Langgaard, and George Crumb are just a few of the composers who have explored the potential of such sounds as the basis for their musical compositions. And space travel has even been used by rock musicians as a metaphor for loneliness, two of the most notable examples being Elton John's Rocket Man and David Bowie's Space Oddity.
The blackness and silence of the night sky, the glow and whisper of planets, the fire trails and crackling of comets, the darkness and roar of black holes, and the twinkling and ringing of stars – the great ethereal gulf of outer space conjures up many images…and musical sounds.