Posts Tagged 'Music'

The planets and “The Planets”

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

The beginning of 2010 offers anyone interested in astronomy the opportunity to view several members of our Solar System. At those times when, thanks to snow clouds, the night sky can’t be seen, why not experience the Solar System through the most famous musical depiction of the planets: The Planets, by the English composer with the decidedly non-English name of Gustav Holst.

Your first experience with this music will almost certainly be a memorable one (I’ll never forget the first time I heard it) and, of all of Holst’s works, this is the easiest to find. If your local library has anything by Holst in their “classical” CDs section, they’ll have this.  Also, there are many extracts or full-movement performances available on the internet.

The first-time listener to The Planets will find that much of the music, particularly the first and last movements, sound strangely familiar.  There’s a good reason for this. Many contemporary composers, particularly those who compose music for movies, have borrowed freely and lavishly from The Planets!

The movements as presented in the The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, are “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” “Mercury, the Messenger,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (or Mirth, as it’s sometimes given), “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” “Uranus, the Magician,” and “Neptune, the Mystic.” The planet (or non-planet) Pluto hadn’t yet been discovered in 1914, when Holst began writing the piece. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Holst chose not to write an eighth movement for The Planets.

The planets we can see this month won’t follow Holst’s performance order. We’ll start with what can be seen just at or after sunset, since things seen then are the earliest to set and vanish, and then work our way eastward, or to the left.

JUPITER is visible this month, and will be for part of February as well. To see Jupiter, first determine where to see the sunset from your location. Go outside maybe half an hour after the sun’s gone down, and face where the sunset was. If you look halfway up the sky and just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y to the left, you’ll see what looks like a bright, solitary “star.” That “star” is the planet Jupiter, the largest of the planets in our Solar System and the quickest to disappear into the little bit of light still present from the set sun. If you observe Jupiter through a small telescope or binoculars held steadily (using a tripod, or resting your arms on a car roof helps), you might see several tiny star-like points of light lined up on either side of the planet, and if you look again in two or three nights, you’ll see that these lights will have shifted position. The lights are actually several of Jupiter’s moons, named the “Galilean” moons, since the astronomer Galileo was the first to see them and determine what they were.

Holst was inspired by the astrological traditions associated with the various planets as he composed the movements of The Planets. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” brims with good feeling and merriment, an appropriate portrayal of Jupiter, who was depicted astrologically as rousing and roistering. The contrasting slow section in the middle of the movement has a hymn-like quality to it, and indeed later was used as a hymn in England (rather to Holst’s disapproval), with the words “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

NEPTUNE is, sadly, never visible to the naked eye and you’ll need a fairly large telescope to see it, but it’s just 2 degrees to the lower right of Jupiter, shifting to the lower left as the month progresses. Even through very powerful telescopes Neptune can be hard to spot, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t see it. Instead, I’ll dare any first-time listener of The Planets to listen to “Neptune, the Mystic,” the movement written about the most mysterious and distant planet known in Holst’s time, in a darkened room. That’s all I’ll say about it, except to invite you to let me know, via the comments section of this post, what you thought if you’re brave enough to try!

URANUS, the farthest planet that can be seen without a telescope, can be found just one constellation to the east (or the left) of Jupiter. It’ll be passing in front of the constellation Pisces, the Fishes, by mid-January. You’ll need a star chart (available at the Museum’s front desk, or check online) to find the “Circlet” portion of faint Pisces, but Uranus will be just below that particular group of stars. If you’ve got 7X50 binoculars, you might be able to see the planet look like a blue-green disc, with the color coming from clouds filled with tiny methane crystals.

“Uranus, the Magician” is one of the funnier moments of The Planets, as the magician of Holst’s imagination is rather something of a bumbler. After a bombastic introduction, the music starts off in a galumphing way. The piece sounds similar to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, the music Disney used for Mickey Mouse and the magic brooms in the film Fantasia. Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogene stated that, to her knowledge, her father never had heard the Dukas work at the time he wrote The Planets, and that might indeed be true, but I’d wager that one piece might well remind you of the other.

MARS is easily seen low in the east after sunset. Distinctly reddish-orange, Mars will be passing in front of the constellation Cancer, the Crab, and will be closest to Earth in its orbit (and therefore, its brightest) on January 29th, the same night that a full moon will appear to be passing the planet. By midnight, Mars will be high in the southern sky, and will have dropped to the westward in the hours before sunrise.

The movement “Mars” opens The Planets, and is remarkable in how brutally repetitive and mechanical-sounding the rhythm that underlies the music is. Holst composed “Mars” just months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the act that led to World War I – what the British called “The Great War.” The mechanical nature of the piece seems to anticipate the mechanized warfare that would soon begin. This is powerful, frightening music.

We’ll look at Venus, Saturn and Mercury in the next posting. In the meantime, I hope that, along with getting outside and seeing the planets of January for yourselves, you’ll have the opportunity to hear the music Gustav Holst is most remembered for, even though paradoxically, he didn’t at all consider it his best work.

As always, Good seeing (and good listening)!

Science at home: Noteworthy

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

If you’re like me, the one thing that’s always missing from presentations by some of the most renowned scientists is accompaniment by a kicky, electronica beat. You know, a rhythm that lets you bob your head while you fill it up with knowledge.

Well, look no further! John Boswell’s new project, Symphony of Science, is designed to “deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.” Carl Sagan and Bill Nye have never sounded so good.

Keeping the music alive, part II: March on!

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

I recently posted a blog, “Keeping the music alive, Fort Collins-style,” about the value of music as a cultural enrichment for our community. Lately, it seems that every time I’m in Old Town I can hear live music, from a band playing at the amphitheater to a kid strumming a guitar sitting on the bench outside Beau Jo’s Pizza. Last Friday night was no exception.

My family met me at the museum after work and we walked into Old Town for dinner at the La Creperie (yum). We had Walrus ice cream cones for dessert and as I wiped the dripping, melting chocolate off my 3 year-old daughter’s chin (and hands, and elbows, and knees…) the unmistakable sounds of drums filled the air. Not one drum, not even two, this was the sound of many drums.

We went to investigate and sure enough, as we rounded the corner onto College Avenue we found, lined up in front of the Stonehouse Grille, a sizable portion of Colorado State University’s marching band! The drum major conducted several rousing tunes including Trumpet Cheer and the CSU Fight Song. People walking along the street and those sitting a patio tables at restaurants and on the roof tops listened and clapped along, applauding and cheering at each new song.

What a great and pleasant surprise! The band was playing on Friday night to build momentum for the CSU football team’s home opener game (played Saturday against Weber State and in case you haven’t heard, the Rams won!), or perhaps the marching band played in celebration of CSU’s win over CU in the Rocky Mountain Showdown the previous weekend. No matter why they played, I’m just thrilled they did! It certainly enriched my family’s time in Old Town Friday night and I would just like to say thank you to those young musicians for doing so … Thank you!

(Editor’s note: Marching bands rock! Univ. of Missouri Class of ’82, Marching Mizzou trumpet section)

The Groovy Magic of Vinyl

by Amy Scott, Volunteer Coordinator and Museum Store Manager

Most of us remember times during childhood when the line between magic and science appeared blurry. For me, that happened when I discovered vinyl records. Those shiny, seemingly supernatural objects transported me to other worlds and held all the enchantment of unicorns and fairy dust. I remember the thrill of setting down the needle of my portable turntable and waiting for the opening strains of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I remember the heartbreak of scratching my beloved albums beyond repair. Most of all, I remember being mesmerized by the spiraling grooves on the glossy black discs, marveling that a needle passing over them could create music, and wondering how on earth such a thing could possibly work. It seemed like magic, but actually it was science (check out this article on eHow, “How Does a Record Player Work?“).

I recently purchased an Emerson Wondergram, a tiny portable turntable produced around 1960. It didn’t work when I bought it, but for the love of vintage audio electronics, I had to have it. It works like a charm now, thanks to my brother, who got the tone arm repaired for me as a birthday present.

Some people may wonder why anyone would want to listen to records at all, much less with such an obsolete ancestor of the Walkman. Records warp and collect dust. They crackle and produce interesting sound effects such as “hiss,” “pop,” and “tick.” You get strange pitch variations like “wow” and “flutter.” In light of all this, why would I want to invest time, money, and energy into resurrecting a dinosaur in the world of audio equipment?

Here’s why: my Wondergram is a thing of beauty. It is battery operated, and it fits easily inside a shoebox. When it’s standing on its three little legs, it resembles an Eames-era spaceship. A pair of wheels spins the record, and the speaker is on the underside. Its volume may be demure, and its sound quality may be poor by today’s standards, but what the Wondergram lacks in polish it more than makes up for in personality.

I can pack it up, along with some old Dean Martin records, in a giant picnic basket and take it into the mountains. What’s more, it is a wonderful time machine that carries me back to a place where perfection and purity in audio are not required. Nostalgia, not stress, overwhelms me when my record skips and chirps out the same bar of music over and over again. It takes me back to a time when I was young and Rock ‘N Soul Part 1 by Hall and Oates was new.

I’m amazed that I overlooked this charming footnote of music history. None of my friends and family members, many of them audiophiles, had ever encountered the Wondergram either. This old technology is brand new to me, and playing with it reminds me of the joy of playing with vinyl records for the first time. I am a kid again, in a bedroom plastered with unicorn posters, listening to a 45 of Sammy Davis, Jr. singing “The Candy Man.” It’s as though I am actually there. It’s almost like magic.

Listen to Amy’s Wondergram in action (excerpt from “Memories of Madrid” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, A&M Records)

The Edison Wondergram

The Emerson Wondergram

Close-up of Wondergram action

Close-up of Wondergram action

Totally simple!

Totally simple!

The Wondergram is smalled than a Kleenex box!

The Wondergram is smaller than a Kleenex box!

More music

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

More music for your Wednesday — Education Coordinator Toby Swaford tipped us off to this amazing example of collective art created on the web: a project called “In B Flat.” It just held me mesmerized for the last 20 minutes. I won’t say anything more — just check it out for yourself!

Bflat


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