The Music of the Hubble Space Telescope

A work fuses the space telescope’s imagery to a tale of a young woman’s life.
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Above, there’s a shortened form from a new classical work, the improbably if appropriately named Hubble Cantata by Paola Prestini. The piece, which played on Saturday at the Brookyln Academy of Music’s celebration of "contemporary art song," celebrates the beauty of the space telescope’s imagery. It was created by four specialists: a composer, a librettist, a filmmaker, and an astrophysicist.

The astrophysicist is Mario Livio, a researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Livio also writes a popular blog on the intersections of art and science, A Curious Mind, and is the author of numerous science books. In February, he was approached by the composer, Prestini, and librettist, Royce Vavrek, about helping to create a work based on the satellite’s distant, interstellar imagery.

Both were already familiar with Livio’s writing. Talking to me last week, Prestini praised its lucidity.

“What I loved with it was that it was so deep, but also I could understand it,” she told me. 

Their first meeting was in February of this year, and the time they had to work on the composition was brief: They had a performance slated for July 25 at the Bay Chamber Concerts in Maine.

In that first meeting, the team—which included German film maker Carmen Kordas—located themes that became the unifying ideas of the piece. With Livio’s expertise, Prestini and Vavrek connected the life and death of a star to the circle of loss and mercy in a young woman’s life. They pondered how the ribbons left by people in the legendary Japanese forest of Aokigahara, famous for its preponderance of suicides, connected to Peru’s famous Nacza lines, massive mounds of earth visible from the sky built by the Nazca people in the 6th to 9th centuries.

“The points where the lines meet the horizon are marked points of the rise or set of known celestial objects,” explained Livio to me—which allowed the two places to connect to the Hubble imagery.

The piece premiered at the festival in Maine this July. It was performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, ICE, a well-known new classical music ensemble. The performance featured visuals from the Hubble, pieced together by Livio and Kordas, which were projected on a translucent scrim in front of the choir.

The work was performed again late at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—with a new edition of the choir. Livio and Prestini hope to further expand the piece in time for the space telescope’s 25th anniversary in 2015.

This weekend's performance also featured new works by the composers Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, and Eric Whitacre.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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