Solar System Symphony Melds Music with Astronomy

"Saturn" is the fifth movement of Gustav Holst's "The Planets." (NASA)

A Northwestern University graduate student is combining his love of music and astronomy to stage a solar system-inspired concert.

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On Tuesday, Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music Brass Ensemble will perform Gustav Holst’s seven-part orchestral suite "The Planets" while visualizations of the planets are projected onto a 20-foot screen. 

The project is the brainchild of graduate student Kyle Kremer and sponsored by the university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

“The goal is to combine music with science, visualizations and education,” Kremer said. “I want to provide a way for music-minded people to get exposed to science and then go the other way too, to get people who are interested in science to understand the value of the arts.”

Northwestern graduate student Kyle Kremer compiled the show's visualizations by using images and video taken by NASA and the WorldWide Telescope, which Kremer described as "Google Earth for space." (Kyle Kremer)

Kremer returned to Northwestern for his doctorate in physics and astronomy after graduating from the school in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics and trumpet performance. In between the music’s seven movements, which correspond to each planet, Kremer will discuss the planets and engage the audience.

“So, I’ll talk a little bit about Mars,” Kremer said. “Some of its interesting features, the potential for life on Mars, if we can send humans to Mars – that sort of thing. Then we’ll play the Mars movement from ‘The Planets’ and show the visualizations. We’ll do the same thing for every planet.”

When English composer Holst wrote "The Planets" between 1914 and 1916, he approached the solar system from an astrological, not astronomical, standpoint. This is why Earth is not included as a movement.

“The piece is more about mythology and the role of where the planets got their names from, the Greek and Roman gods,” Kremer said. “So it’s interesting because some movements work very well from a scientific point of view and some don’t match up so well. I’ll be talking to the audience about whether the music aligns well with the science. It’s an interesting exercise in itself, I think.”

After the show, with weather permitting, Kremer and Northwestern astronomers will take the audience outside to the Arts Green South to view Jupiter and the night sky through a telescope.

"Evening of Brass: Solar System Symphony" takes place from 7:30-9 p.m. Tuesday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Northwestern's Evanston campus. Admission is $6; $4 for students.

Watch Northwestern University's promotional video for the event:

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