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Music of the Universe

New York
Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History
11/28/2017 -  
Gerald Cohen: Voyager for Clarinet and String Quartet (World Premiere)
Vasko Dukovski (Clarinet), Cassatt String Quartet: Muneko Otani, Jennifer Leshnower (Violins), Ah Ling Neu (Viola), Elizabeth Anderson (Cello)
Carter Emmart (Director of Astrovisualization, American Museum of Natural History), Timothy Ferris (Introduction to “Voyager” and the Golden Record), Ricardo Romaneiro (Audio Engineer), Suzanne Morris (Production), The Staff of Hayden Planetarium

Voyager Spacecraft (© Wikipedia.en)

“Look how the floor of heaven/Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:/There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st/But in his motion like an angel sings.”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

In the beginning (or 40 years ago), the spaceship “Voyager” spaces had been designed and set off for an infinite journey of time and space. And yes, it may still be flying further outside our cosmos perhaps opening that curtain which lies at the edge of our universe.

Before takeoff, though, Carl Sagan and friends decided to add art to science. A Golden Record which–should Alien Beings from the next-door universe use the pictured instructions, make a stylus and turn it around–will bring them the language and thoughts and above all, the music which we Earthlings have created to make our life bearable.

And what music Sagan and Company made here! Of course Beethoven (the Cavatina of his last quartet, music which already pierces the cosmos), some Mozart, far too much Bach, a single Stravinsky, a measly single Louis Armstrong. Yet Sagan was anything but a West Coast elitist, and the Golden Record which was built to last for eons and eons, had the music of Indonesia and Africa and Japan and Blind Willy Johnson and Chuck Berry...

(One wonders whether it’s possible to electronically erase the opening “greetings” from UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, but the succeding songs of whales might erase the memory of that vile person.)

So now, exactly four decades later, to celebrate the beginning of an infinite trip, composer Gerald Cohen, Director of Astrovisualization, American Museum of Natural History Carter Emmart and the apparatus of the whole Hayden Planitarium, a place where I dreamed of far away planets when a child, put together a kind of cosmic shindig.

Except that celebrating Voyager is anything but easy. Oh, Mr. Emmart and his geniuses of the Planetarium turned that magical ceiling into a 30-minute time-trip which whisked the Voyager away from Earth to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, bringing the spaceship plunging scary closeups above our heads, plunging through the Milky Way, whizzing through Shakespeare’s “Floor of heaven”, at times a dot in the infinite darkness, at times, easing in between Jupiter’s rings, never ever ceasing to fascinate an audience which kept its head turning to the heavens.

Prior to that, Mr. Emmart spoke about the history of Voyager, its future, and its meaning to science. This was followed by the eminent science writer Timothy Ferris speaking about the Golden Record. He may have hinted that–amongst the billions of galaxies far far from our own–chances are small that some alien civilization will have stylus and turntable to play the almost-infinitely-long-lasting Golden Record. But even that infinitesimal chance was worth the effort.

G. Cohen/C. Emmart (© Courtesy of Mr. Cohen & Mr. Emmart)

But ConcertoNet is supposed to talk about music. And saying that the spectacle above us was a Pythagorean “Music of the Spheres” simply isn’t good enough.

Gerald Cohen is an accomplished composer, so his music did anything but divert from the show above our heads. Yet, the half-hour piece had hurdles to overcome, and his expertise could never quite make this more than “music accompaniment” to the visual miracles above us.

What other choices could the Planetarium have had ? The ideal would be to take Alexander Scriabin’s Mysterium, modestly consisting of trombones in the Himalayas, choruses, dancers and orchestras from India to the Antarctic , and thousands of trumpeters blazoning their music from the clouds.

More practically, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question with its ghostly trumpet. And any number of excerpts from Mahler or the B Minor Mass.

Or do what Stanley Kubrick did (and it’s impossible to dodge the thoughts of 2001). Richard Strauss for Promethean humanity, György Ligeti for quasars and quarks and wave/particles, and Johann Strauss for the solace of soaring through space.

Cassatt String Quartet (© Courtesy of the Artists)

Gerald Cohen wisely chose to write a more cautious work, composing Voyager prior to seeing a scintilla of the Planetarium effects, composing it for his beloved Cassatt Quartet (not a single electronic instrument). And augment that with the splendid tones of clarinetist Vasko Dukovski.

Wisely, this was never program music. How could he compete with the celestial bodies circling above our heads. Mr. Cohen did mention in his introduction that the clarinet could possibly represent the beeps which “talked” to earth from the Voyager. But he never tried to Mickey Mouse his musical way around the planets.

In fact, the only relationship to the film was taking three excerpts from the Golden Record and trying to weave them through the quartet itself. The Beethoven Cavatina, an Indian raga and a Renaissance galliard by Anthony Holborne, played by David Munrow’s early music ensemble. The choices seemed to be arbitrary at best. Or perhaps I was so overwhelmed by Mr. Emmart’s extravaganza that I couldn’t concentrate on his music.

I tried to listen, for the Cassatt String Quartet is certainly one of the great ensembles of our age. But either those three choices were disguised beyond recognition in the darkness or I was far too overwhelmed by the overhead show.

At times (maybe in those billion-plus light years between Jupiter and Saturn), my ears were firmly on quartet and clarinet, wondering if I would enjoy the music without the lights. But nothing came to mind. Nothing stunning enough for my ears to make up for what made my eyes pop open. The music seemed to have an all too earthy, even updated Brahmsian aura.

Mr. Cohen obviously tried to write a work that would decorate (if hardly complement) the visual display, and he might well have succeeded. Yet the mesmeric effect of the Planetarium roof eschewed any real musical effect.

Not that these heavenly glories knocked out poetry itself. Toward the end of the show, eyes affixed to the “sky”, my mind went back to those Wallace Stevens lines from The Pleasures of Merely Circulating.

“The clouds flew round with the angel,/The angel flew round with the clouds,/And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round, and the clouds flew round with the clouds.”

Harry Rolnick



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