Reimagining Holst’s The Planets

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Gustav Holst’s The Planets premiered 100 years ago. The orchestral suite has become a modern classic, with John Williams reputedly being influenced by it when composing the Star Wars soundtrack (see here for a fantastic mashup). The Planets’ ongoing popularity has ensured that Holst remains a well-known figure in the pantheon of 20th century composers. Written between 1914 and 1916, his suite contains seven pieces; Holst excluded Earth and Pluto, the latter of which had not yet been discovered (or dismissed as a planet).

A snapshot from Samuel Bordoli’s the Planets 2018. Credit: Sound UK

But what if The Planets were written now? Filling Space spoke with composer Samuel Bordoli, who explored this very question. He recounts to us his experience creating The Planets 2018, a Live Music Sculpture event produced by Sound UK and funded by Arts Council England National Lottery and RVW Trust.

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What inspired you to pay homage to Gustav Holst’s The Planets with your recent project, The Planets 2018?

I have always been interested in space, both cosmological and architectural, and the relationship it has with music. Many composers have been inspired by cosmic space over the years, but the one piece that stands out is, of course, Holst’s The Planets. I think it is this music that has given space and space exploration its “sound” – certainly in the popular imagination anyway. As well as Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (famously used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Holst’s Planets music has crept into so many contemporary depictions of space, both literally and surreptitiously.

The centenary of The Planets premiere this year provided a great opportunity for Live Music Sculpture to reimagine the work in collaboration with music producers Sound UK. We have learned so much about the solar system since 1918, I thought it would be interesting to explore these developments with a group of composers. As well as 100 years of scientific change since the premiere, there have also been 100 years of musical change. It was important for me that we should reflect this variety by commissioning a group of leading composers with unique voices in different musical genres. The composers were Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Deborah Pritchard, Laurence Crane, Mira Calix, Richard Bullen, Shiva Feshareki, Yazz Ahmed, and me.

Ironically, Holst’s composition was never really about astronomy at all, but actually inspired by the astrological characteristics of each planet. This was one area in which I wanted The Planets 2018 to differ: As well as teaming up each composer with a planetary scientist who would inspire them with the latest research and images, the new works would be performed inside a planetarium accompanied by live visuals. The scientists involved in the project were Professor Sanjeev Gupta, Professor David Rothery, Doctor Phillipa Mason, Doctor Leigh Fletcher, Professor Carl Murray, and Doctor Sheila Kanani.

Much of the music we associate with space, including Holst’s, could be described as “epic” in terms of both its feel and the size of its orchestration. I wanted to try something more intimate and surround the audience inside the planetarium with just four musicians in a string quartet format. This live, quadraphonic sound was created by the Ligeti Quartet, who performed with the most wonderful detail and conviction. This placement of the musicians and spatialization of the sound meant we were not only exploring cosmological space, but also the physical space in which the sound occurred.

What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of carrying out the project?

The biggest challenge for all the composers was how to translate the science into sound. What we know about these mysterious and distant worlds is so overwhelming, in the end, we all found that the facts can only be comprehended with a very personal, human response. Interestingly, our scientist collaborators had the same approach to their research. For them, imagination often came first, before the facts, which drew a surprising parallel with the creative arts.

Deborah Pritchard was the only composer to be able to visit her planet, because she was working with the thrilling pictures taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover, set up on a 360-degree screen at Imperial College London. Ayanna Witter-Johnson happened to live on her planet, because it was Earth. The rest of us had to use our imaginations by taking inspiration from one or two fly-by images, vivid descriptions of planetary terrain by the scientists, or tables of data. Some of the composers were inspired by all of this in the same way they would be inspired by other terrestrial things, like paintings, walks, or sunsets, while others built the hard data directly into the duration and pitches of notes.

The Ligeti Quartet had a real challenge because being spread out inside a dark planetarium is not easy, let alone when you can’t easily see your colleagues for the kind of visual interaction you might be used to on a concert platform. Thanks to great care taken in rehearsal and their brilliant musicianship, the array of sounds leaping and spinning around the dome worked wonderfully.

It was so rewarding to experience all the elements coming together at each of the four different planetarium venues. The composers had all responded with evocative pieces and the live visuals spun us around the solar system with the same energy that the music swirled around the dome in a truly immersive evening. The audience feedback was great and it was fun to hear the impressionist Jon Culshaw invoking Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, and Patrick Moore in his informative introductions to each piece.

What role do you see your music playing in society?

I hope that my music moves, challenges, and stimulates people on an emotional and intellectual level. I also hope that it helps people to make connections between aspects of life that they might not normally make. I think music’s role is to ask questions and not necessarily provide answers. The act of creation is an act of questioning, or an act of discovering. I often feel my work is only one version of many potential alternatives that were both tried and rejected or simply paths that were never taken. In every phrase, I can hear many alternative journeys. Yet, at the same time, the finished work ended up being just one of these. In this sense, music simultaneously provides both question and answer. It is a living document.

As a composer, I can only hope that there are others out there who hear music in the same way that I do because I can only write music to sound the way I hear it. It would be impossible and overwhelming to anticipate how an entire society would respond.

I prefer my music to have an aesthetic, rather than a functional role within society. Music is how we explore the heart and mind through the ear without words. It is up to every listener to decide what role it has in their own lives – it can never provide the same experience for everyone. When it is combined with another field, like science, music illuminates the connections between all human ventures. And since music needs to be performed to live and breathe it will always have the power to bring people together.

An ensemble of musicians will gather to make sounds that form a coherent whole made up of different constituent parts. If anything, this is the best demonstration to a society that working towards a common endeavor does not mean everyone must do and think the same thing, but instead that it is the combination of individual acts and varied thoughts that defines the entire picture.