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The symphony of solar science

Composer Nolan Gasser is taking on the universe with a piece of music that will depict the cosmos. His earlier science composition? A brass quintet fit for a NASA takeoff.

If outer space had sound, what would it be?

If you're composer Nolan Gasser, it would be a mixture of high-pitched violins, crashing cymbals, and low-pitched trombones. To him, outer space is a symphony of melody and solar science intertwined. In his new composition, "Cosmic Reflections," Gasser plans to prove it.

"I can hear parts of it in my mind," he said. "One of the things I know I want to do is...write a theme that will permeate throughout the entire work that will somehow be a 'universal theme.' How I'm going to depict that musically? I'm not sure yet."

For Gasser, this is not the first time he has had to combine space and music. His previous project, the "GLAST Prelude" (listen to the piece here), introduced him to cosmology. He composed a 10-minute musical piece for NASA's GLAST observatory, which launched into orbit on June 11. The first images from GLAST will be released at a press teleconference Tuesday, and the observatory will be given a new name.

However, the idea for the music came from Stanford physicist Peter Michelson. As one of the principal investigators in the GLAST project, Michelson wanted to launch the new spacecraft with a musical performance. Through a friend, he found Gasser, who also serves as the chief musical architect of the Music Genome Project, the musical technology behind Pandora's Internet radio service.

Composer Nolan Gasser
Composer Nolan Gasser is taking on the history of the universe with "Cosmic Reflections."

"When we started the GLAST project, we wanted to find ways to communicate not only the science results to a broad audience, but also tell the story of how the observatory was built by an extraordinary international team of scientists and engineers," Michelson said. "The Prelude effectively communicates the excitement of building and launching the observatory and provides a glimpse of what GLAST may see in the high-energy universe."

GLAST (Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope) is currently orbiting 350 miles above the Earth, where for at least five years it will search for answers behind gamma ray bursts, dark matter, and the acceleration of material in black holes. According to NASA, GLAST is the first imaging gamma-ray observatory that will survey the entire sky every day. The ship contains two instruments: the Large Area Telescope (LAT) and the GLAST Burst Monitor (GBM).

Gasser's "GLAST Prelude" was a culmination of the history behind the telescope, an homage to astronomers of the past, and a musical depiction of the electromagnetic spectrum and gamma rays.

The piece made its debut in a musical recording by the American Brass Quintet that was played at GLAST's June 11 launch party. Paired with visuals provided by the Goddard Space Flight Center, the "GLAST Prelude" turned into a science music video that has made its way onto several educational Web sites, according to Gasser.

"The idea is to get people excited about science at a time when there are lots and lots of budget cuts for science and research at a lot of institutions, including Stanford," he said. "The more the public is interested in science, the better it is going to be. So much of what we can be grateful for comes out of cutting-edge science research."

For Gasser to be able to compose music about science, he had to dive headfirst into a subject he hasn't studied since high school.

"I found myself really falling in love with science and with the science behind terms of particle physics, cosmology, and astronomy," Gasser said. "So it's been an eye-opener for me as well--that these two paradigms are so compatible."

One way he made art and science compatible was to illustrate wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum with the instruments in the quintet. The trombones would slide in opposite directions like waves as the music got faster and faster to demonstrate the frequencies from microwaves to gamma rays. The prelude also had snippets of national anthems of the six countries involved in the project. Most importantly, the GLAST theme, which Gasser said was the most melodic and thematic part of the piece, depicted the observatory in space.

"The beauty of this satellite in orbit...I really wanted to capture that," he said.

Delta II rocket with GLAST telescope
The GLAST observatory before launch aboard the Delta II rocket in Florida. Carleton Bailie/United Launch Alliance

After the success of the "GLAST Prelude," Gasser decided to take on "Cosmic Reflections" to incorporate all orchestra instruments in a story about the universe. The symphony, which has yet to be composed, will start with the Big Bang and cosmic microwaves, follow the formation of structures and our solar system, and end with a piece about the evolution of intelligent life on Earth. The 30-minute piece will be performed by the Boston University Symphony at the GLAST Observatory Symposium, slated to be performed at the Kennedy Center of the Arts in the fall of 2009.

"The idea is that it will be a little bit of Peter and the Wolf meets Gustav Holst's The Planets. Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is a story, with the depiction of the story in music with the orchestra. There's a section of text, which is read, and music follows that and sonically depicts what is spoken. Occasionally, there is text under the music."

Along with images and video from Goddard, the piece will feature a libretto by Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and author of The Physics of Star Trek, and Pierre Schwob, CEO of the Classical Archives, where Gasser is also the artistic director.

It's not the first time classical music has combined with outer space; it begs remembrance of the dramatic opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the two seemingly polar opposites rarely come together to create art.

"They certainly don't seem to have a lot in common," Gasser said. "One would say they might be different sides of the brain. My process of working through this makes me feel there is a lot in common."