Institute of Astronomy

First Contact

13th February 2019

‘First Contact’


Having spent a lot of time with the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler over the last few years, today brings me to Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy to meet his twenty-first-century ‘descendants’. I’m here at the invitation of the Institute’s Outreach Assistant, Matt Bothwell, to talk about my opera based on the witchcraft trial of Kepler’s mother, Katharina, and to explore Kepler’s ideas on the musical organisation of the cosmos. At the start of my time as artist-in-residence, during which I’ll be working with Matt on a piece about the origins of the universe, I’m keen to find out first-hand what scope there might be for contemporary music and astronomy to influence each other in the way they did in Kepler’s day.

There’s been a huge proliferation of astronomy-inspired music in the last one hundred years or so. Recently, many of these have been based on ideas of data sonification – the translation of star charts, orbital frequencies etc. into musical proportions, pitches or rhythmic structures. The American astronomer Andrew Fraknoi has compiled an extensive survey and published a useful investigation of interdisciplinary approaches to music and astronomy. Clearly, there’s a desire amongst composers to reach to the skies and beyond for their musical rationale (or ‘irrationale’, as the case may be…). For me the results are most compelling when the spiritual impact of an encounter with the cosmos resonates in the musical response, as in Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles…, or Éclairs sur l-au-delà: the ellipsis in those titles already hints at a gaze directed out towards the infinite…

Over coffee in the foyer I am introduced to astronomers Carolin Crawford and Robin Catchpole, who welcome me warmly into a conversation peppered with occasional references to such exotic-sounding things as ‘moon-filters’ and ‘chromatic aberrations.’ (The latter, at least, sounds familiar to a composer.) Carolin tells me that her career as a pubic astronomer began with ‘singing black holes’ – or at least that’s how the press formulated it. She’s aware of the fine line between communicating science in ways that capture the imagination and distorting it in the process.

Coffeetime dissipates and, just as Matt signals that my tour of the telescopes is set to begin, Robin spots that the pale sunlight filtering through the February grey might permit a trip to the heliostat. This will take ten minutes for him to set up so, not knowing quite what’s in store, I follow Matt to the Northumberland telescope. The intimate but reverberant circular interior suggests a chapel: home to nearly two centuries of night-time vigils. The telescope veers off eccentrically towards the ceiling at the angle of the earth’s rotational axis, while, beside it, the vacant astronomer’s chair evokes a curious mixture of Santa’s sleigh and torture chamber. On the way out, Matt confides that this handsome telescope, once the biggest in the world, has the dubious distinction of never having discovered anything of any significance…yet. Its best shot came with Neptune in 1846 when a Berlin team pipped it to the post with the aid of more up-to-date maps.

By now the heliostat (whatever it turns out to be) has been prepared and I am ushered into another circular room where the lights are dimmed, ready for the ‘show’ to begin. Robin appears from behind an array of mirrors and lenses and he gestures towards a screen where faint projected clouds swirl past the pale circle of the sun. Robin confesses that he could happily spend hours watching this alone. Then, like a priest of Apollo, he summons up a vivid strip of coloured light, ‘a message from the universe’, which he virtuosically proceeds to focus and decode. Gradually, the bands of shadow that identify the sun’s chemical composition emerge like black notes on a piano keyboard against the rainbow spectrum. And I emerge, exhilarated by my glimpse of a mystery and a sense of having begun to learn its language.

Page last updated: 21 May 2019 at 13:48