Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Cosmic fugues: the myriad connections between music and astronomy

Although there has been a surfeit of the damp dishrag that typifies British weather hanging over our night time skies recently, there have also been a few clear, crisp evenings allowing some fine views of Jupiter, even from my light-polluted suburban London garden. Having recently upgraded my stargazing equipment from a pair of ancient yet serviceable binoculars to a modest reflecting telescope (courtesy of an unexpected tax rebate), I thought this might be a good opportunity to sketch a few observations (pun intended) regarding the connections between astronomy and music. I was partly inspired by the BBC's Stargazing Live programmes earlier this month, whose co-host was the increasingly ubiquitous physicist and ex-keyboard player Brian Cox. Admittedly, Professor Cox is more space-orientated in his broadcasting than his professional work, but it does seem to be the case that astronomers have provided plenty of musically-attuned scientists, with the opposite direction also supplying musicians with astronomical interests.

Much has been written about the semi-mystical search to understand cosmic harmonies that motivated the research of both Kepler and Newton, so the phenomenon, if I can call it that, is hardly new. It has been a while since connections were formally recognised between music and mathematics, from harmonic progression to the idea that both subjects rely on similar cognitive processes. And of course, many aspects of astronomy rely to a large extent on mathematical underpinnings.

The correlation is not a recent one: in the Eighteenth Century composer William Herschel was inspired to switch to a career in astronomy after developing an interest in the mathematic aspects of musical composition. Today his symphonies are largely forgotten in favour of his key role in astronomy, including his discovery, with his sister Caroline, of the planet Uranus. There is at least anecdotal evidence, such as that provided by the musical Bachs and mathematical Bernoullis, for some degree of direct genetic inheritability in both disciplines. So perhaps utilisation of the same area of the brain may play a key role in the association between the two seemingly disparate fields. I feel much more research could be undertaken in this area.

Although increasing urbanisation (and therefore light pollution) may lead most people to consider stargazing as about as dynamic and interesting as fly fishing, the wonder of the night sky can offer a poetic experience free to all. This suggests an obvious aesthetic motivation or sensibility that links the discipline directly to music. But if this seems pretty facile, at a slighter more involved level I would like to consider the geometry, timing and mathematical relationships that are found in astronomy and which have their own aesthetic charm. There are projects currently in progress that cover many aspects of this, working from both sides. On the music-led approach, music professors at Yale, Princeton and Florida State University are attempting to reduce musical structure to geometries that seemingly echo the Pythagorean tradition. From the astronomy angle, Stargazing Live featured a scientist converting astrophysical phenomena into audible signals, even though the results couldn’t be classed as music in any traditional aesthetic sense.

It has to be said that there are little in the way of prominent musical works that utilise astronomical methodology or facts in the way that Diane Ackerman's wonderful volume of poetry The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral succeeds. Contemporary astronomy-inclined musicians including Queen guitarist Brian May, who admittedly originally trained as an astronomer and finally completed his PhD on the Zodiacal Light in 2008, and sometime Blur bassist Alex James, he of Beagle 2 call sign fame. Yet neither has produced an astronomical-based piece that can complete with that most obvious example of space-related music, Holst's The Planets, which was inspired by purely astrological rather than astronomical themes. My own favourite of the genre is Vangelis' 1976 album Albedo 0.39, which culminates in the title track detailing a geophysical description of Earth. Whether the Open University astronomy degree taken by Myleene Klass will inspire her to an astronomy-orientated meisterwork is...err...possibly somewhat doubtful...