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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. . .

365 days of astronomy show banner

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.


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?





Jupiter Posts

Week 7 Reflection: Jupiter

Holst’s movement Jupiter might be the most famous of the suite’s pieces next to Mars. While not used as frequently in science-fiction films, it is the movement most often played by itself on the radio or in a performance. And it is no wonder – the piece is memorable, with a strong, repeated melody and variations on it supported, rather than contested, by the accompanying instruments. In this way, the structure of the song is more like a pop or vocal song, with a main voice performing the melody and the rest of the instrumentation providing the background.

However, Holst does something in this movement different from the majority of music with a strong melodic line: he gives the melody to the bass instruments. The theme is first introduced by the brass, namely the tubas, trombones, and euphoniums, echoed briefly by the bright trumpets before bouncing back to the lower brass. Again and again, any new section of the melody or variation on it is first played by the low instruments, and only echoed by the higher instruments – the clarinets, flutes, trumpets, oboes, etc… – which the rest of the time are relegated to providing a scintillating background. This conveys the effect of the mass, weight, and sheer gargantuan proportions of the largest planet in the system.

The melody itself is audacious and jovial… except for the middle section. Here the melody shift to the mid-tone instruments – french horns, lower strings, and the lower registers of the clarinets – and takes on a slower, steadier, reflective tone, like someone thinking of happy, by-gone days. In fact, the conductor in the video has to make an exaggerated face to remind the players this section is supposed to be happy too as the emotion of the section almost slips into a melancholic nostalgia. Besides simply providing contrast, it’s difficult to imagine what the purpose of the middle section is suppose to be. Wistfulness doesn’t quite seem to fit the personality of the god of joy.

The sheer size of sound in the piece is absolutely evocative of the size of Jupiter – it is 11 times the diameter of Earth and almost 318 times its mass. There the similarities end, however. Jupiter is an inhospitable planet. The composition is mostly hydrogen and helium, similar to the sun, mostly in liquid form because of the intense atmospheric pressure. This liquid hydrogen forms the largest ocean in the solar system. The atmosphere itself, though, is incredibly only 1% of the planet’s radius. The entire “surface” of the planet that can be seen through a telescope is actually clouds, rotating around the planet in belts of high, bright gasses and lower clouds which reflect back less light, therefore appearing darker. While we can’t get an instrument down far enough to tell what the temperature is deeper than 130km, the core itself is estimated to be five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Jupiter also has 63 confirmed moons by the latest count! Its sheer mass is able to hold these numerous satellites in orbit. There is a possibility that on some of the moons, such as Europa, which have evidence of significant amounts of water, there might be life. Eight of these moons are large enough that if they orbited the sun instead, they would be considered dwarf planets. Jupiter is almost a solar system within a solar system. Given today’s knowledge, if The Planets were rewritten, it might be more suitable to evoke Jupiter the King and Jupiter the Father, rather than Jupiter the Jovial.


CHID 496

14 February 2011


I find Jupiter to be the most interesting planet we have studied so far.  The planet is different from any of the terrestrial worlds in almost every respect.  Possessing a mass and size difficult to conceptualize, Jupiter is the center of its own miniature solar system.  The planet is extremely colorful, unlike the monotone visages of Mars, Venus, and Mercury.  The planet has no identifiable surface.  All of the gas giants are of a similar type, but looking first at Jupiter, the grandest gas giant, creates a large contrast between the gas planets and the rocky worlds.

Listening to Holst’s music, the brass section sounds something like a fanfare until 1:03 where the actual melody begins.  Jupiter, the king of the gods is the namesake of the king of the planets, so this amount of introduction makes a great deal of sense.

Holst characterizes Jupiter as the bringer of jollity.  Thus I would expect the piece to be full of exuberant energy and an almost drunken happiness.  But it nowhere attains this reveling attitude.  Instead, much of the piece maintains a measure of dignity as the melody marches on.  The movement in the melody suggests purpose and direction; the music is inspiring.  I find all this to be an appropriate characterization of creator king of gods.  I am not sure what Holst means by jollity.  The music is too serious in parts, such as 3:40, to be considered happy.  Perhaps Holst refers to the feelings brought on by hope and self-confidence.

Either way, I am glad that the music’s emotional content is multi-dimensional.  Mars was almost entirely a nerve-wracking war march, and Venus never once left its peaceful demeanor.  But Jupiter is not always blasting majestic tones.  Consider the quietness of 2:50 and the use of a tambourine at 6:30.  These sections seem slightly outside of the unassailable dignity of royalty which seems to pervade other sections of the peace.  This fits the god Jupiter, who was anything but constant.  There are times when Jupiter is the role-model and mediator, but also Jupiter is a womanizer.  Sometimes too, Jupiter is wrathful.

With Venus and Mercury, I have remarked upon the disparity between the music and the physical counterparts.  However, with Jupiter, I think Holst is right on point.  If anything, Jupiter is awe-inspiring, and the music captures that.  I think of Jupiter with an amount of reverence and wonder.  I think it will be a long time before humans are so familiar with the planet and its workings that Holst’s grand rendition seems out of place.


Weekly Response #4




I like the idea that Jupiter could have been a second sun to our solar system had things turned out a little differently. It is fascinating to me that with all of its moons, Jupiter is almost like a mini-solar system within our own solar system. The sheer size of Jupiter is pretty amazing, especially when the book shows the size of Earth right next to Jupiter. I, like I think a lot of people, am especially interested in Jupiter’s moons. I think it was the movie GATTACA which first interested me most in Jupiter’s moons—in the movie, the main character is set to go to Europa, if I’m not mistaken.

That this large Jovian planet is named after the Roman King of the Gods is appropriate given its sheer size and the dramatic effects it has on the rest of the solar system. That it affects meteors and asteroids and actually helps protect some of the inner planets from these stray bodies is rather like something you’d expect from the King of the Gods. Without Jupiter, Earth would not be what it is today.

The planet itself from where we can view it looks beautiful with the swirling gasses and the Great Red Spot. This is appropriate for the music of Holst’s. The music is both beautiful and wondrous. There is a feeling of definite joviality in this piece, which seems to reflect a regal ruler of the Gods. The usage of brass instruments in several portions of the piece also add to the idea of royalty being reflected in the music. I really enjoyed this composition. It is indeed very majestic and awe inspiring, just as it should be. I felt the movement of this piece and felt that it had purpose and direction. This is my favorite piece so far. The amount of variability in the music is great. It doesn’t get boring. Everything keeps moving and is optimistic and bright sounding.


Jupiter: Bringer of Jolly


It makes perfect sense that Jupiter was the king of the Roman Gods, given its massive size, strong magnetic field, and intimidating Great Red Spot.  Jupiter’s size is simply impossible for me to imagine, given that it is overwhelming to think about how big the Earth is (relative to me), and that the Great Red Spot alone is twice the diameter of Earth.  Given its daunting nature, it is difficult to connect Jupiter the feeling of being jolly.  Jupiter orbits rapidly, has an extremely hot core temperature, has more moons than any other planet, and even has a ring made up of microscopic particles, easily making it the ruler of the solar system, but not so easily invoking a sense jolliness.

Of all of the unique aspects of Jupiter, perhaps the most interesting are its four Galilean moons: Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io.   Each moon has its own story and distinctive characteristics.  Callisto is a mixture of both ice and rock and while it has only a weak magnetic field of its own, it does interact with Jupiter’s magnetic field, suggesting that this moon actually has a layer of liquid water.  Ganymede is also a mixture of ice and rock, but it is mostly rock.  It has a mysterious magnetic field and relies on tidal heating for its heat source.  Europa is a mixture of rock and metal, with an icy surface that is almost completely free of craters, despite being closer to Jupiter than Ganymede.  It does not have a magnetic field, but the interaction from the magnetic field of Jupiter indicates that Europa has a liquid-water ocean that could contain twice as much water as all of the oceans on the Earth!  Io is the innermost moon, and yet does not have any impact craters on its surface due to its 150 plus active volcanoes.  There is no water on Io; instead it is mostly rock and sulfur.

While Jupiter itself does not seem very jolly, Gustav Holst’s movement for Jupiter certainly does.  It is upbeat and inviting, and even reminded me a bit of Christmas.  It is by far my favorite of all of the Planet songs so far.  The beginning and the end of the song reminded me of another song I had heard, but I could not quite figure out where I had heard it.  After listening to Holst’s music for about 30 minutes, it finally donned on me that I heard similar music in the chorus of a song from the first Shrek movie.  After another 30 minutes, I found this song on YouTube-it’s called It Is You (I Have Loved) by Dana Glover.  I then listened to this song for awhile before going back to Holst, and they indeed sounded very similar to me.  The piece by Holst is very symmetric, with the beginning and the end sounding almost identical, and the middle being a lot softer.





Venus  4 min video

Mars Rover

































Week 2 Lecture Holst


CHID 496

The Planets: A look at the Solar System through Gustav Holst’s Music and Modern Astronomical Data

Winter 2010

Sav 155

M 2:30pm-4:30pm

University of Washington

Instructor: Ryan Evans                                            Phone: 425-445-6101

Office: CHID Lounge/ by Appointment                 Email:

Office Hours: M 4:40pm-5:40pm

And by Appointment


Course Description:

This Focus group will explore the planets of our solar system through the lens of British composer Gustav Holst’s seven movement orchestral suite, The Planets Op.32. We will explore early astronomers and models of thinking about the planets as well as comparing them to current astronomy and the data collected from modern space probes and explorer robots. It will be done through a truly CHID method of combing disciplines including history of science, astronomy, music, and philosophy.


Course Reading Materials:

All the reading material for the course is obtained through the RAM copy center on the Ave in the course pack. Each student is expected to read the weekly reading assignment and come to class prepared with the course pack.



Evans, Ryan. The Planets: A look at the Solar System through Gustav Holst’s Music and Modern Astronomical Data. Seattle: Independent Unpublished, University of Washington, 2010.

Holst, Imogen. The Music of Gustav Holst Third and Revised Edition and Holst’s Music Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

(Holst 32-41)

Seeds, Michael A. The Solar System Fourth Edition. Belmont, California: Thomas Learning Brooks/Cole, 2005.

(Seeds Astronomers 52-73/Mars 484-499 Venus 472-483 Mercury 462-468/ Jupiter 503-521 / Saturn 522-532 / Uranus 536-548/ Neptune 549-553/)

Thurston, Hugh. Early Astronomy. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994.

20-24/zoidiac 66-71/79-81/110-118/Ptolemy 138-140/155-177

Short, Michael. Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

(Short 1-19/ Short 1-19, 113-134)


Week Topic Reading Assignment Due

1 Introduction to Holst and early Astronomers Syllabus
2 Historical Astronomy: The Astrological Lens Short 1-19, 113-134

Seeds 52-73

Thurston 20-24/66-71/79-81/138 140

3 Mars: Bringer of War Seeds Mars 484-499
4 Venus: Bringer of Peace Seeds Venus 472-483
5 Mercury: The Winged Messenger Seeds Mercury 462-468

Thurston 155-177

6 Jupiter: Bringer of Jolly Seeds Jupiter 503-521
7 Saturn: Bringer of Old Age Seeds Saturn 522-532
8 Uranus: The Magician Seeds Uranus 536-548
9 Neptune: The Mystic Seeds Neptune 549-553
10 The Big Picture Holst 32-41

Evans (all)

Reading Assignment:

All reading is to be completed before the assigned week discussed for example the reading on Mercury is to be read and completed before the week assigned for Mercury.

Response Papers:

Each student is required to write 7 one page response papers for weeks 3-9. Each paper is to be double spaced and cover reflections and response to the readings on that week’s planet. The Papers’ focus can range from a blend of concentration on music, history, astronomy, or science. The purpose of the short papers is to provide a gauge in student reaction to the material and also to ensure attendance and participation. Each paper is worth 10% of the grade and all together they are worth 70% of the grade.

Important Notes:

1) CHID classes are known to be an open area of flow and discussion with a wide range of interpretation, opinions and beliefs. It is important that all students’ ideas and comments are to be treated with respect and that the focus group remains an open environment for people to share their own diverse thoughts and opinions.

2) The work you submit to the instructor must be your own original work. Copying will not be tolerated, nor will plagiarism. The instructor will maintain respectful and professional relations with you based on the implicit understanding that you will conduct yourself in a truthful, professional, and mature fashion. Anything less simply will be intolerable and result in disciplinary action. Any, who engage in academic dishonesty will receive an “F” for the assignment and face further disciplinary action consistent with the CHID department polices.

3) Since the primary assessment of a CHID focus group is through attendance and active class participation, it is crucial to attend class. You must be prepared to   contribute to discussion, as well as turn in on time each of the seven \response paper associated with that week.

Attendance = 20%

Participation= 10%

Response Papers (7) = 70%


90%-100% = A

80% – 89% = B

70% – 79% = C

60%-69% = D

59% and lower = F



Beebe, Reta. Jupiter the Giant Planet. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.


Daily, Robert. Mercury. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.


Drake, Stillman. Galileo: Pioneer Scientist. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1990.


Elkins-Tanton, Linda T. The Solar System Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and the Outer Solar System. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.


Elkins-Tanton, Linda T. The Solar System Jupiter and Saturn. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.


Elkins-Tanton, Linda T. The Solar System Mars. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.


Holst, Gustav. The Planets Suite for Large Orchestra Op. 32.  3rd Ed. edited by Imogen


Holst and Colin Matthews. London: Curwen Edition, Curwen & Sons, 1979. (Originally published Goodwin & Tabb, 1921.)


Holst, Imogen. The Music of Gustav Holst Third and Revised Edition and Holst’s Music Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Landau, Elaine. Saturn. New York: Franklin Watts, 1999.


Miller, Ron. Uranus and Neptune Worlds Beyond. Brookfield, Connecticut: Twenty-First Century Books, 2003.


Reston, James JR. Galileo a Life. Washington D.C.: Beard Books, 1994.


Seeds, Michael A. The Solar System Fourth Edition. Belmont, California: Thomas Learning Brooks/Cole, 2005.


Short, Michael. Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.


Squyers, Steve. Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet. New York: Hyperion, 2005.


Standage, Tom. The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting. New York: Walker, 2000.


Sobel, Dava. The Planets. New York: Viking, 2005.


Thurston, Hugh. Early Astronomy. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994.


Taub, Liba Chaia. Ptolmy’s Universe: The natural Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Ptolemy’s Astronomy. Chicago, Illinois: Open Court, 1993.


Voelkel. James R. Johannes Kepler and the New Astronomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


Vogt, Gregory L. Landscapes of Mars: A Visual Tour. Springer