The (Exo)Planets – 2015

We live in a very exciting time in terms of the exploration of space. Over the course of the last two decades, the number of planets outside of our solar system that have been discovered has sky rocketed. In 2014 alone, as a result of the Kepler orbiting telescope missions, the discovery of over 700 new planets has been confirmed.    The (Exo)Planets is intended as a celebration of this fact, and as a companion piece to The Planets by Gustav Holst from a century ago.

As a means of celebrating these discoveries, and in a format similar to Holst’s, I have chosen several of the most exciting, strange, or bizarre recently discovered planets and created a collection of character pieces that relate to and express the nature of each one.

The work begins with another recent monumental event in space exploration: The Voyager I probe entering interstellar space. As the probe left the solar system, it encountered several waves of plasma particles. Since these plasma particles occur at audio rate (between 20 and 20,000 particles per second), scientists study these waves by converting the data from their detection into audio and analyzing the audio. Snippets of these audio files, which are available from the NASA Soundcloud page, were orchestrated to form the textural basis of both the prelude and the postlude of The (Exo)Planets.

The first movement is based on the planet 55 Cancri e, a super-earth planet which scientists believe to be made up almost entirely of crystalized carbon (diamond is a very closely related material to this). This movement is made up of altered whole-tone scales with sparkly, crystalline orchestration. The formal structure of this movement also mimics the structure of crystalized carbon in that it consists of three sections which are presented and then mirrored exactly through strict retrograde.

The second movement is based on the planet GJ1214B which scientists believe to be composed entirely of water. Other composers have dealt with oceans before, and the most famous example of this is Debussy’s La Mer. As such, the second movement of The (Exo)Planets consists of an extended quotation from La Mer, however, to capture the fact that the ocean in question happens on a massive scale, a tiny snippet (about 30 seconds) from Debussy’s work was selected and stretched out to be about 6 times its original length and then orchestrated. For a sense of perspective, if the entirety of Debussy’s work were stretched by the same proportion, it would last over two and a half hours.

The third movement characterizes the planet CoRot 7b. This planet is a super-earth planet which has the closest (and fastest) observed orbit of any planet discovered thus far. It is tidally locked with its parent star, meaning a single side of the planet is always facing its sun. Because of this, and because of its proximity to its star, it is likely that one side of the planet is entirely made up of molten rock. However, the other side is considerably cooler. The music in this movement consists of two contrasting sections, both harsh and atonal. The first section consists of fast, loud, descending clusters which move from high to low as the trumpets and roto toms play brash, soloistic figures. The second section is no less harsh, but is somewhat more subdued, made up of measured glissandi in the strings and timpani.

The fourth, and final planetary movement is based on Tres 2b, a hot Jupiter about 750 light years away. Because of the composition of its atmosphere, this planet is the darkest object we have observed in the universe. It reflects less than 1% of the light it encounters. The music of this movement is centered on an octatonic scale based on F and is formally structured in a manner similar to Mars, from The Planets. It begins quietly and gradually crescendos to a rhythmically strong culmination before a final denouement closes the work before the postlude.