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 about her voyage. “To be able to see the landscape was extraordinary.”
A little context: 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 little 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 or not Holst believed in a Martian super-race (as much of the public apparently did) isn’t relevant as his Planets suite wasn’t based on science, but rather on each planet’s astrological characteristics. Mars was thus the bringer of war, Venus represented peace, Uranus the magician, and so on. It made for bold, characterful 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 through the process. “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 completely 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 each to write a five-minute piece for string quartet. Titled The Planets 2018, the results are to be performed by the Ligeti Quartet in planetariums across the country from Saturday.
The timing is neat. Not only does the first concert mark 100 years to the day that Holst first debuted his Planets suite, but Greenwich – where the planetarium tour begins – is the location where astronomers conclusively disproved Lowell’s claim of a Martian army building waterways 33.5 million miles away.
Bordoli chose the gas giant Uranus for his composition and embarked on an intense 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, Sanjeev Gupta, professor of earth science at Imperial. When I visit, I can see why she wanted to keep coming back. Seeing the planet’s barren but beautiful landscape in such a vast and crystal-clear way takes the breath away. And Gupta is an infectious teacher with a store of engrossing trivia. He explains how Curiosity has been on Mars for six years now, studying minerals and atmosphere. 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.”
Unlike Holst’s original, Pritchard says she aimed for a sense of stillness and peace in her composition. Discovering Mars was a very cold planet despite its desert-like appearance led her to cool down her chords, by using fourths. But most important to the music, she says, was her emotional response: learning how Mars may have once been able to harbour life gave her a newfound love for what we have on Earth. “It could so easily have gone the other way,” she says, “so the music reflects that, the realisation that mother Earth needs to be protected.”
A short walk away from the Mars room, in some tucked-away part of the School of Mines, is a cramped room stuffed full of Earth rocks, ranging from ancient fossils to crystals. Gupta leads me there with Ayanna Witter-Johnson, a singer and cellist whose work bridges the divide between classical and alternative R&B. She decided to take on Earth for the project, a planet Holst didn’t include. Gupta thinks she had the hardest task: “Because we all know Earth so well.”
As Witter-Johnson’s mentor, Gupta decided to concentrate on Earth’s origin story: how it may have been destroyed 4.6bn years ago by a collision with the Mars-sized planet Theia, and how the resulting dust and debris could have reformed to create not only the Earth but also the moon. It was a story Witter-Johnson had never heard before, and it inspired her. “It’s nice to have a mythological story, whether it’s true or not,” she says. “I realised that I didn’t want to give a definitive answer as to what Earth is … so my piece became more an invitation to the audience to contemplate what they thought Earth was.”
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 completely new approach to composition itself.
“I started to think about things like pitch, rhythm and notation and how those concepts are just a conditioning we have as musicians,” she says. “So instead I wanted the quartet to listen deeply, to think about the movement of their bodies and their bows and to really focus on the physicality of the sound, and think about how sound is actually physics and maths.”
Her 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 as ambitious and inventive as the project itself. Mason sounds pleasantly perplexed by what she’s seen of Feshareki’s instructions for the musicians. “She sent me the diagram,” she says. “It’s a series of circles that represent octaves, almost like orbits. Then she’s picked these notes and plotted them, and what’s popped out is a sort of star shape structure that represents the final destination.”
Quite what the Ligeti Quartet made of it is anyone’s guess: “It would be interesting to know!” laughs Mason. But in truth, it’s been an eye-opening experience for everyone involved, whether scientist or musician.
“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.”
“I realised that both scientists and composers are explorers,” adds Witter-Johnson. “We’re asking questions, trying to find solutions and discovering new things. That’s what this project is all about.”