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What might Pluto sound like? Our musical love affair with the cosmos

Liam Viney, The University of Queensland

Fans of astronomy who also have a musical bent may have experienced a “what if” moment this week. With NASA’s New Horizons currently thrilling the world with the best ever images of the dwarf planet, it would have been the perfect time to bust out a recording of Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite, The Planets, and propose a toast to Pluto.

Unfortunately, Holst didn’t write a movement for Pluto. Exactly one hundred years ago, Holst was half way through composing what would become his most famous work, but Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930, four years before the composer’s death.


Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets (1914-16).

Holst was apparently disinterested in updating his planetary audio tour, slightly resenting the work’s popularity and the corresponding attention deficit afforded his other compositions.

Resentment may have given way to pride had he known just how influential and ubiquitous The Planets would become, especially in cinema.

The Imperial March from Star Wars, for example, was clearly based on Mars, The Bringer of War, the first movement in the video of The Planets above. Not so much as stealing, John Williams was probably honouring George Lucas’s request to recreate the spirit of Holst – an acknowledgement of the grip Holst’s music has on the public’s imagining of outer space.


John Williams – Star Wars’ The Imperial March (1980).

The fact that Holst was actually composing music based on astrologically inspired themes rather than astronomical (hence no “Earth” movement) is curiously beside the point now – we are so used to hearing this music appropriated for the purpose of making imagined outer space audible.

Humans have always turned to music to help deal with the profoundly confronting enormity of the cosmos.

From humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to a child at bedtime while peering through the window at the night sky, to Stanley Kubrick exploiting the raw power of Strauss and the luminous intricacy of Ligeti in 2001: A Space Odyssey, somehow music and the cosmos go together.


Opening sequence for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

One of the most emotionally-resonant items aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, on its interstellar journey, is of course the Golden Record, with its extensive and diverse musical selection.

The 90-minute sampling of music from around the globe is hardly tokenistic, and it implies that humanity regards music as a very good foot to put forward when sending messages to alien civilisations.

The Music of the Spheres

This is all nothing new – music and astronomy have been intimately linked since antiquity.

An inaudible expression of mathematics via harmony, the Music of the Spheres was thought to determine the celestial dance moves of the planets and moons.

It all stemmed from Greek mathematician Pythagoras’ discovery that pitch is proportionally related to the length of the sounding body such as a string or air column, and that what humans perceive as “harmonious” sounding intervals (two pitches sounding at the same time) corresponded with simple mathematical ratios.

Pythagoras’ 2,600-year-old suggestion that planetary bodies emit a kind of orbital hum may have been off the mark in terms of function (believing the inaudible vibrations affected everyday life on Earth) but not in substance.

Translations of radio and electromagnetic waves from space into audible sound make for eerie listening.

The pioneering American composer Terry Riley wrote an evening-length composition based on sounds collected from across the solar system in collaboration with a scientist and the Kronos string quartet:


Kronos Quartet: Sun Rings (2002).

You can even listen to a live performance by space 24 hours a day, seven days a week if you so desire, or a playback of all radio waves that have travelled away from Earth since we began transmitting radio.

Despite this history of recruiting our aural imagination to help get our minds around space, I do wonder what kind of humanly-constructed sound could actually do Pluto justice.

Rejected for a time by size-ist scientists, invited back on new terms, and for many ever-associated with a cute dog cartoon by Disney, the sheer mysteriousness of Pluto is somewhat obscured by the jokes.

So many educational posters line the planets up like snooker balls, for eminently practical reasons, that our sense of Pluto’s vast distance from us is rarely accurate.

A recent video on Vox explains that if Earth were the size of a basketball, then Pluto would be a golf ball. Maintaining that scale, the two objects would have to be more than 80 kilometres apart to accurately reflect how far away Pluto is.

Words like “cold” and “lonely” don’t seem to capture the devastating isolation Pluto endures, a vantage point from which the sun appears as a not much more than a bright star.

The visionary German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen wasn’t afraid to venture past Pluto, into deep musical space, and his mid-1970s musical drama Sirius brings us some fantastically original and imaginative sounds courtesy of four emissaries from a planet orbiting Sirius. The extensive use of electronically generated sounds in addition to the live performers gives this music its unearthly quality.


Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sirius, Part 1 of 2 (1975-77).

A lonely planet

At least one composer has taken up the challenge to complete Holst’s Planets, but his version of Pluto was designed to work well in a complete performance of the original suite, more or less connected to the planets-as-astrology approach of Holst.

Are there undreamt-of sounds lurking in humanity’s various musical languages that could truly evoke Pluto-ness in all its mind-bending solitude? Will even deeper relationships between sound and space be discovered by scientists?

I suspect the answers will be yes, and I can’t wait to hear what the music will be like.

The Conversation

Liam Viney is Piano Performance Fellow at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Bowie and gender transgression – what a drag

Lisa Perrott, University of Waikato

Same old thing
In brand new drag
Comes sweeping into view

– David Bowie, Teenage Wildlife (1980)

Time and again, David Bowie has confounded us with enigmatic acts of gender transgression.

Those acts have been fuelled by a restless drive for recreation, often in the form of ambiguously-gendered personas, such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke.

The cover for David Bowie’s album, Changes One Bowie (1972), illustrates the androgynous Thin White Duke persona, in which Bowie drew on the gestural traits of Frank Sinatra.
RCA Records

Bowie’s mutating personas do not simply emerge from a constant need for transformation. They are created as part of a complex process of performativity, in which Bowie mimics and re-animates the gestural traits of performers such as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

In her book Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler described this aspect of gender play as “drag” – an ongoing process by which gender is performed, imitated and re-performed.

Bowie fell to earth and thrust himself into this cycle of mimicry at a prescient moment in the seismic landscape of gender politics. Never content to just mimic the costume and bodily gestures of other performers, Bowie has been a cultural alchemist, hybridising gestures with references from music, theatre, philosophy, literature, avant-garde art and cinema.


Image courtesy of ACMI

In the process, he has given new life to certain gestures, performing acts that transgress the boundaries of normalised gendered behaviour.

The cover for David Bowie’s album, The Man Who Sold The World (1970).
Mercury Records

This has been played out progressively over several of Bowie’s album covers. His elaborately feminine dress and reclining pose on the cover for The Man Who Sold the World (1970) provocatively invites us into his game of gender play.

Bowie’s pose and self-touching gestures on the cover of Hunky Dory (1971) are drawn from those of Garbo, Hepburn and Dietrich. For the Aladdin Sane (1973) album cover, Bowie mutates beyond gender. He is reborn as an exquisitely androgynous, carnal alien, who plays with the alienation of being “Other”.

The cover for David Bowie’s album, Hunky Dory (1971).
RCA Records

Alienation and gender fluidity also play out in Bowie’s music videos. A particularly enduring gestural act is performed in the music video for Boys Keep Swinging (1979), directed by David Mallet.

In the midst of his drag of Hollywood starlets, Bowie aggressively pulls his wig off and throws it off stage, then with the back of his hand, defiantly smears his lipstick across his face. Reappearing moments later as another drag persona, he repeats those gestures, as if to reinforce the gender subversion.

Being a master of drag, Bowie probably foresaw the cyclic reiteration of the back-handed lipstick smear. It resurfaces in the music video for China Girl (1983), when New Zealand model Geeling Ng smears her lipstick in a clear echo of the Boys Keep Swinging video – but this time as an act of defiance to the racial positioning of the “exotic Other”.


Boys Keep Swinging, David Bowie, 1979.

Some 31 years later, at the 2014 American Music Awards, New Zealand singer Lorde ended her song with the back-handed lipstick smear, which was regarded by media commentators as a “punk rock move and a protest against perfect beauty”.

The gesture of lipstick smearing has migrated across cultures and performance mediums, where it has been inflected with alternate meanings. It could be associated with mime and kabuki theatre – art forms that Bowie integrated into his performances and costume design.

Although the origin and meaning of the lipstick smear may be difficult to pinpoint, its enactment by Bowie has played a crucial role in characterising this gesture as transgressive, and giving it a mimetic life of its own.

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973.
Photograph by Brian Duffy. Image courtesy of ACMI.

And so the cycle of drag continues. Performers such as Tilda Swinton and Jessica Lange, and models such as Kate Moss and Iselin Steiro, have used costume, gesture and musical performance to drag Bowie. Bowie-drag proliferates stage performances, music video, fashion magazines and everyday life.

The fashion industry barometer has sensed a flame fuelling the zeitgeist of retro fashion and transgendered identity. Fashion designers, fans and identity-forming youth, have jumped aboard the drag-ship and participated in the cyclical re-enactment of gender transgression.

Just when many thought Bowie had outgrown gender play, at the age of 66 he confounded us with just how complex his gendered identity really is. In the music video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (2013), Bowie and director Floria Sigismondi collaborated in a vicarious meta-performance in which Bowie’s prior gender play is re-cast through four androgynous co-stars.


The Stars (Are Out Tonight), David Bowie, 2013.

While Bowie appears the least androgynous of these characters, Steiro’s drag of the younger Bowie is achieved by emulating the costume, posture and gestures of the Thin White Duke persona.

Steiro’s ever-gazing presence threatens to unsettle the serenity of Bowie’s “normal” life as an older man. He is also haunted by the sycophantic goading of a celebrity couple, played by Saskia de Brauw and Australian transgender model Andreja Pejic.

Swinton is shrewdly cast as Bowie’s wife, whose domestic bliss is disturbed by the threat of her husband’s past personas. Undergoing a psychic transition, Swinton transforms into a gesturing hysteric, as though channelling the estranged bodily movement of 1920s surrealist film.

Then, morphing into another ambiguously-gendered drag of a younger Bowie, she showers him with lipstick kisses. In Boys Keep Swinging, lipstick smearing was a defiant signifier of gender transgression. In The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Swinton’s lipstick kisses suggest the unification of femininity and masculinity within an individual.

With this ironic act of self-love, the ghosts of Bowie’s past personas reposition themselves, leaving him in peace. Re-asserting himself as the king of drag, Bowie has passed on the drag-torch to others.

Thanks to Bowie and his collaborators, the flame of gender transgression continues to burn brightly.

Lisa Perrott will present at the David Bowie symposium, The Stardom and Celebrity of David Bowie, as part of the David Bowie is exhibition at ACMI, on July 18. Details here.

David Bowie is will be exhibited at ACMI, Melbourne, from July 16 to November 1. Details here.

The Conversation

Lisa Perrott is Senior Lecturer of Screen and Media Studies at University of Waikato.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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