Classic Connections: Stargazing – Pattaya Mail

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Constellation of Orion.

Last night the sky was particularly clear and sitting outside with my late-night brandy, I suddenly noticed the constellation of Orion to the southwest. It brought back evocative memories. When I was a little boy, my father took me some evenings to lie on the grass in the garden to gaze at the night sky. He used to point out interesting constellations and tell me their names. We lived in a small town by the sea and on those clear, cold nights the Milky Way was almost always visible and the constellations stood out dramatically. Orion was the first constellation I learned to recognize. Many years later, chance would have it that my London apartment faced south-east, so that Orion was often in the night sky. The sight of Orion, with its three stars forming the “belt”, was always oddly comforting.

When I finally bought a house in Thailand and discovered that it also faced southeast, you can understand my joy at finding Orion was visible. The first time I noticed it, suspended majestically in the night sky above the palm trees, it was like meeting an old friend.

Several composers have drawn inspiration from the night sky. Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola recently wrote a piece about the distant Oort Cloud which he named with breathtaking originality The Oort cloud. Another Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho, wrote a piece about an asteroid, an unsightly piece of rock known as 4179. It’s also classified as a “potentially dangerous object”, so maybe one day we’ll get to know it more intimately.


Frank Ticheli (born in 1958): Shooting Stars. Sewanee Symphony dir. Larry Livingston (Duration: 05:49; Video: 1080p HD)

Frank Ticheli is currently professor of composition at the University of Southern California and has a large number of compositions to his credit. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his music and numerous commissions for new works. “But what do they look like? I hear you ask. His music has been featured in The Los Angeles Times as “optimistic and reflective” and in The New York Times like “lean and muscular” whatever that means. The composer wrote about his work Shooting Stars, “I imagined quick flashes of color… clusters of notes strewn all over, like streaks of bright light. Fleeting events of all kinds are cut and pasted at unexpected times. The move burns through quickly and ends explosively, leaving barely a trace.

So there you have it from the horse’s mouth. Shooting Stars is in fact the first movement of Ticheli’s Second Symphony and the following movements continue the theme of space with Dreams under a New Moon and unleashed apollo. The piece is incredibly complex and technically challenging. That’s exciting.

Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006): Atmospheres. Frankfurt Radio Symphony Concert Christoph Eschenbach (Duration: 08:27; Video: 1080p HD)

Ligeti’s biographer, Robert Cummings, wrote that the composer was “one of the most important avant-garde composers of the second half of the twentieth century and one of the most innovative and influential among the progressive figures of his time. You may not know his name but if you have seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ve heard this work before. During the film, it is played in its entirety. One of Ligeti’s musical hallmarks was something he described as “micro polyphony”, meaning groups of sounds, created by many different notes sounding simultaneously. The huge printed score is incredibly complex with only one part for each instrument in the orchestra.

Atmospheres was commissioned in 1961 by German Southwest Radio and had its first performance the same year. This put Ligeti’s music on the map and earned him international recognition. Ligeti described his musical style as follows: “Music as frozen time, as an object in an imaginary space. To retain time, to suspend its disappearance, to confine it to the present moment, such is my primary goal in composition. And indeed, from the beginning of the piece we hear its effect of micro-polyphony with more than fifty different notes played simultaneously on the strings and the winds.

So don’t listen to the catchy melodies and catchy beats, because Ligeti has moved away from those mundane things. Even if the music does not speak of space, nor even of whatever moreover, it seems to evoke a sort of spatial timelessness. Sometimes, through the cloudy texture of the sound clusters, bright peaks of harmony shine like bursts of light. Other times, it’s almost silent. The music somehow feels organic and it always reminds me of those vast murals by Mark Rothko; these vast canvases with vague shapes and muted colors. I suppose, like paintings, some people might consider this music “difficult”, but it’s only difficult for people who can’t listen with “open ears”, putting aside their personal expectations of the way the music should sound like, and allowing Ligeti to have the musical language speak to them in its own way.


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