IN: Reviews

Waves to Waves


From the time of Pythagoras and the ethereal music of the spheres to Gustav Holst’s widely popular symphonic depictions, The Planets, later boosted by John Williams’s soundtracks for the Star Wars series, ears have been attuned to the heavenly bodies. Include, among others, the acoustic astronomy of astrophysicist Fiorella Terenzi who found music in radio waves from outer galaxies. Now meet the Black Hole Symphony and its composer David Ibbett appearing in the Multiverse Concert Series at the Boston Museum of Science’s Charles Hayden Planetarium.

With music composed for a live chamber ensemble and electronics by Ibbett to visuals created by the animators of the planetarium, “Audiences embark on a symphonic journey through spacetime…” So, are we observers on sure footing, or are we to be left out somewhere between cosmos and earth?

Seated comfortably, bodies angled toward the Planetarium’s surround space overhead, a sold-out audience engaged first in a “travelogue.” Displays of the universe illustrated a narrated lesson on the unfolding science of black holes. Along the way, Ibbett interjected thoughts on his composing music for this project that began some three years ago. With relevant data provided by astronomers employing the latest technology, Ibbett set out to “translate” to the ear what the eye could—and could not—see, our range of hearing audio frequencies extending well beyond eye’s capability of perceiving the visual range of frequencies.

Some also might recall John Cage’s Etudes Australes from the 1970s where he converted star charts into sheet music. Delving further, the young Ibbett accomplishes his translation by adapting one set of waves to another, astronomy’s recent graphics of gravitational wave forms essentially to a musical notation developed some 1,000 years earlier.

Looking to an animated sky, a kind of translation in and of itself, was one thing; listening to Ibbett’s Black Hole Symphony was quite another. The 40-minute composition affixed a terrestrial grounding to the celestial images, circadian rhythms and pulsars merging in the mind’s ear. Explaining the process of such a task as the one undertaken here, Ibbett points to a more complex approach, one both objective and subjective. He mixes electronic with acoustic sound production, the former capable of going well beyond the limited tones of the violin, cello, flute, and guitar that make up his instrumental ensemble. He creates themes, or melodies, to render instrumentally black hole phenomena. The discrete capabilities of the synthesizer, though, capture more naturally, more accurately, more realistically the abstracted wave forms cited by the astronomers.

Often, one-half of the Planetarium’s sphere fills with outer space and the other with the god-like silhouette of Ibbett leading the live musicians. To concert-goers, his conducting patterns inform of music measured much like Mozart and maybe Stravinsky. A soprano brings further drama toward the end of the multi-media production. Her pure, high-toned, far-reaching singing for a good stretch of time felt a little like being transported via rocketship up into space. Throughout, skied colors, dust, gases, atmospheres, jetting objects, and black holes took on lives of their own. Still, the music, while being incidental, could be understood in its own right. There were moments of liftoff. Yet, a heaviness in texture and amplitude prevailed.

Blackhole Symphony at the  Charles Hayden Planetarium really is a show more akin to what we would likely encounter on today’s public television, the difference being the bigger “screen” and on-scene music-making by local musicians. Taking on the behemoth challenge of creating music to elucidate the science, if not to express the magic and mysteriousness of black holes, is certainly recognized by the ongoing sold-out performances—some, star-gazers from out of state.

The Multiverse Concert Series event continues Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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