My inner (and outer) geek could not be more excited about the fact that our upcoming concert Starry Night on Feb 7th, is all about exploring the cosmos!
In my typical over-zealousness, I chose to write a piece about the life cycle of a star. Specifically, a neutron star. More specifically a pulsar. Are you geeking out with me yet? Hang on, it gets more intense.
The stages of a star’s life actually have a nice narrative arc to them, so that part was easy. Well…easy if you’re comfortable compressing a 7 billion year story into 7 minutes of music. But why not right?
Stars are born as elements and cosmic dust in nebulae begin to coalesce, due to gravity. Even tiny, tiny bits have gravitational attraction. In the opening of the piece, we hear the trombones making air sounds to represent the nebula cloud.
The very first sparks of a star’s birth happen when hydrogen atoms get dense enough together to fuse into helium. So, the piece begins with two tiny themes that represent Hydrogen, and Helium. NOW we’re really geeking out right? One hydrogen atom and another fall hopelessly for each other, and voila, helium, along with a whole lot of heat thanks to E=mc2!
The first section of the piece, Coalescence is all about the slow beginnings of this nuclear fusion reaction, the heart of the star. Known as a Protostar. A simple two-note theme represents hydrogen (1 electron/1 proton), and a four-note theme helium (2 electrons, 2 protons). The two themes interact in a way which should suggest fusion, and an increase of heat and density.
Once enough matter has clumped together (under immense gravitational pressure), the star is born! Tenuous gravitational forces are in balance, the nuclear oven at the core is humming away happily, and the star has entered what I thought was the most grand era of it’s life! In my case the type of star is aptly called a Supergiant.
In the section titled, Fusion I try to take the listener on an impossible journey into the heart of the star. I made use of raw brassy sounds to invoke a sense of power and turmoil at the surface and in the core of a sun. Solar flares flash about in the trumpets, and the trombones lay an edgy foundation representing the everlasting nuclear inferno of the core.
Even stars, some of the most powerful entities in the universe have to grapple with a finite life. After a star’s nuclear fuel begins to run out (it’s eaten up all of that tasty hydrogen and made helium), it progresses towards it’s inevitable downfall. When stars die, they truly do not go gently into that good night…
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas
At a critical moment, the star hasn’t enough fuel to push back the relentless forces of gravity, and it gives in. The result: one of the most catastrophic and beautiful phenomenon in the cosmos, the Supernova. Billions of years of life, ends in 100 seconds of explosion. A violent and effective correction to the imbalance of forces.
Stars do different things at this point. Average-sized stars become cute little dwarf stars, ever cooling like campfire embers. Their larger buddies however, have more spectacular afterlives, becoming either black holes or neutron stars. Neutron stars are impossibly tightly-packed bundles of neutrons. As in, not regular atoms anymore. It’s super weird, check it out.
The most odd of these ghostly stellar lingerers become Pulsars, which have the peculiar quality of rotating, sending out a pulsing rays of radiation. In the closing section of the piece Pulsar, you hear the violin sweeping back and forth across open strings to evoke a sense of oscillation. I intended to impart a sense of loneliness as the star dances spectacularly in it’s last throes of life in a cloud of its own debris, no longer supporting a planetary family.
There you have it: an unabashedly personified recount of a star’s life. At Spectrum, we truly believe that music is an essential lens through which we can examine all aspects of our existence. No idea is too big or small. We’ve done Grumpy Cat before, this time it’s perhaps more lofty, but certainly no less fun!
I had a great time writing this piece; I hope that you’ll join us for the only chance to hear it on Feb 7, at Starry Night!
You can get early-bird priced tickets for the next little while starting at $10.
Here’s a great video about the life of a star for those of you that want to go deeper: