Track by Track : 03 Star-cluster
from ‘Wonders of The Cosmos’
Recorded at Abbey Road and on location at Ely Cathedral
Featuring Edmund Aldhouse (Organ) & Grace Davidson (Soprano)
Published by Audio Network
DISTANCE FROM HOME: 15800 Light Years
A City of Stars. Teeming with the light of a million suns, each one a unique landmark amidst a terrain of dust and gas. Some of these stellar beacons are newborns, in the first yellow and white flush of youth, with millions of years of healthy hydrogen fusion ahead of them. Others have all but spent their vital energy reserves and are in the swollen, first glow of old age as red dwarfs, or the final burnt out dim blue throws of life as white dwarfs. This picture, another treasure from the Hubble telescope collection, could almost be a neo-impressionist work of art, and it takes us deep into the heart of the Omega Centauri star cluster. We are lost in a city of stars for this, the third cosmic landmark of this album, on our journey from the early Universe back to planet earth.
Apartments in the sky
The Omega Centauri star cluster is a famous ‘globular’ cluster (meaning its stars are bound by gravity with a black hole likely to exist at its centre) in the constellation of Centaurus. Although recent research has suggested Omega Centauri might even be the torn apart remains of a galaxy that came too close to our own Milky Way galaxy many millions of years ago (see recent research by Rodrigo Ibata at the University of Strasbourg, France).
I once heard it explained that if galaxies are like enormous cosmic cities, home to billions of stars (people) and millions of solar systems (families), then star clusters are like blocks of flats or apartments, inhabited by lots of individual people (stars) and families (solar systems). They may not be as awe inspiring, or have the same 'sci-fi’ cred as galaxies, but star clusters are still hugely impressive and astrologically important structures. There are over 150 star clusters known in our own Milky Way galaxy (think of apartments in a city). The masses of these clusters add up to a whopping one million suns, and they span up to several hundred light years. When you consider that our own solar system encompasses the region of just one sun, that’s a whole load of space and time.
Still but always moving
Clearly, you can hear a lot of ‘twinkling’ in this piece. I spent a while recording a collection of mini bells and cymbals, some of them in unusual ways, half submersed in water or moving through air, anything I could think of to infuse them with movement. Very little in our Universe is completely static. For a start, light is always on the move. As I sit writing this, though I might feel stationary, I’m moving through spacetime, along my own unique timeline, located on this chair, upon the Earth, which is rotating around the Sun at a speed of 67,000 mph, which is rotating with the rest of the solar system around the black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy at a speed of about 514,000 mph, which is moving ever outwards from the centre of the Universe and increasing in speed as space itself expands. Although the stars in the night sky seem static, nothing could be further from the truth.
Take a short but fast ride on this NASA movie, starting from an Earth bound view of Omega Centauri, zooming into a deep field Hubble telescope view of this famous star cluster. Taken between 2002-2006 the positions and predicted paths of these stars as they move about. The City is alive with the hustle and bustle of stellar life.
Pointilist art meets music
Musically I wanted to create a sonic landscape awash with light, but light suffused with movement, and a texture that mimics the pointillist image above. My choice of key was influenced by these thoughts too. I’ve composed this piece in Gb (flat) Major. The idea that different key signatures evoke different moods is one long discussed and debated by musicians and music lovers. For me, Gb major has a softness and richness that lends itself perfectly to this picture, and creates a lush, luminous tonal backdrop for our star city. The soprano part, sung with quartz-like precision and crystal clarity by Grace Davidson, drops single staccato notes delicately on top of a texture of shimmering, muted strings. In the string writing, for the first section of the piece, I’ve used a combination of tremolo bowing, arco bowing, and sul tasto bow positions (this is when strings are bowed higher up the instrument’s fretboard, resulting in less upper partials and a softer tone), imbuing the sound with a magical quality, alive with movement and intensity, whilst at the same time remaining relatively motionless.
Like in the very first track of the album, Cosmic Background, I saw this piece as an opportunity to explore other organ sounds, and to underline the fact that these magnificent instruments aren’t just big and loud, they are in fact wonderfully symphonic in their range of colours and textures.
Dancing in 12/8 time - I’ve mentioned before that the idea of dance is an important unifying concept of this album, reflecting the cosmic dance that is going on all around us - the upper organ notes can be heard sparkling above the strings, an effect achieved by using a mixture of pipes playing different harmonics, or upper partials. They sparkle and yet remain suspended in space, just like the Omega Centauri stars as they oscillate about fixed points.
As the piece develops, the musical texture becomes increasingly sustained and rhapsodic. Grace’s staccato dots of light evolve into long legato lines that climb high above this star city’s walls. The string writing too becomes richer and more expansive, sharing in Grace’s melodic lines and gently propelling us forward with its own dance like motion.
Bathed in the light of 100 million stars
As all these elements evolve, our musical perspective shifts. We started in an intimate space, closely nestled amongst families and apartments, their light sources discernible as they sparkle in the night sky, and then we moved ever outwards taking in more and more neighbourhoods and districts, until the sheer symphonic mass of organ, strings and voice, bathes us in the light of 100 million stars.
Thanks for reading - be sure to check back soon for the next instalment on this journey through the Cosmos, when we shall be ‘Consumed By Starlight’…