Move over, Gustav Holst: the solar system gets a whole new groove

February 1st, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Today the International Year of Astronomy’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast show is featuring a program I recorded about an album, Planets, by the New York City band One Ring Zero. I did it on my own time, as a labor of love for IYA’s excellent and important effort to promote understanding of science, astronomy, and the night sky. But ORZ’s music turns out to have deep connections to NASA and its mission to understand and appreciate the universe. So here is the podcast on 365 Days of Astronomy about Planets, One Ring Zero’s thoughtful and fresh take on the “music of the spheres.” What’s it got to do with NASA? Read on. . .

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It’s a perfect time to give the solar system a new groove. NASA has decreed 2011 the “year of the solar system.” Stardust NExT encounters Comet Tempel 1 on February 14. MESSENGER enters orbit around Mercury on March 18. Dawn begins its approach to asteroid Vesta in May. Next comes the launch of the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter in August, the launch of GRAIL to map the gravitational field of the Moon in September, and the launch of a roving science lab named “Curiosity” to Mars in November.

Science and astronomy, the NASA missions to the inner and outer planets, and the art and culture associated with astronomy and the night sky all fueled One Ring Zero’s inspiration for the album. The band’s leaders, Joshua Camp and Michael Hearst, explained it better than I could in an interview last year with SEED Magazine:

Seed Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for this album?

Joshua Camp: It started when the International Astronomical Union decided to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet.  At the time, we had just finished our album Wake Them Up, and hadn’t begun any other projects.  The news of Pluto’s demotion was shocking, inspiring, and funny, which led to us write and record a song about it.

Michael Hearst: Yes, at that point, it dawned on us that maybe we should write songs for all of the planets. After all, it had been just about 100 years since Gustav Holst had composed his song cycle. Our knowledge of the solar system has changed since then, with many new discoveries. Of course, music has also changed since then.  At the same time, Holst’s The Planets was a big inspiration for us. It’s such an epic and entertaining piece—it seemed almost daunting to try and do what he had already done so well.  And yet, the challenge was what really sparked our interest.



Actually, Holst’s The Planets is the reason I ended up doing this podcast. I discovered Holst in the 1980s, when I was a college intern in the Link Planetarium in Binghamton, New York. At one point, we were developing a new show titled “Mission to Mars,” and my boss Jay Sarton mentioned the Holst composition Mars, Bringer of War. We used it for the scene in the show where humans blast off into space to explore Mars. I’ve been a big fan of The Planets ever since.

Holst composed this music almost a century ago, during the dark days of world war one. Each of its seven parts are named for one of seven planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Holst was an amateur astrologer, and he intended his orchestral suite to convey the astrological influence of the planets. The piece was first performed with a full orchestra in 1919.

Now fast-forward a century to Brooklyn, home base of One Ring Zero. Gustav Holst died in 1934, but if he were alive today, he might find the band’s version of the solar system bewildering. It’s an eclectic and quirky journey from Mercury to Pluto, with influences as diverse as gypsy violin, Pink Floyd and David Bowie, Electric Light Orchestra, and even klezmer.

I decided to kick off the interview by having a little fun with Hearst, demanding that he explain where he got the nerve to take on Holst’s masterwork.

GOGBLOG: Let’s see…Holst’s The Planets, enduringly popular, they say; influential; widely performed  and the subject of numerous recordings. Much beloved by astronomy and space fans the world over. And you, Mr Popular Music Guy, think you have what it takes to meet Gustav Holst. To you I say, sir, how dare you! How do you comment?

HEARST: Well, you’re welcome to say that. In many ways it’s sort of an homage to Holst; it was inspired by him. We’re certainly not trying to compete against what he created, which was fantastic and very much the inspiration for our work. However, with all due respect, it has been just about a hundred years.

GOGBLOG: He started writing it, composing it, in the middle of world war one!

HEARST: Yeah, exactly. The other big difference is his is based on astrology, where ours is much more based on astronomy.

GOGBLOG: Right, he was trying to capture the astrological influence…

HEARST: Yeah, apparently he used to even read his friends’ horoscopes for fun.

GOGBLOG: Right…

HEARST: Nothing wrong with that, but that was his kind of angle.

GOGBLOG: An astrological hobbyist.

HEARST: Whereas Joshua and I are much more geeks, and inspired by all things science.  [A] slightly different angle.


In fact, Hearst says that as a result of this project, he became a bit junkie for NASA TV from the space station and for the stunning imagery of the Cassini mission to Saturn.

One Ring Zero’s video (below) for the song Venus should give you a pretty good idea of what the album is about.

Yes, that is gypsy violin and an accordion you hear in the song. But is the other sound the sound of Holst spinning in his grave?http://www.oneringzero.com/planets/

http://www.oneringzero.com/planets/

 

 

 

 

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