The Planets – an HD Odyssey: where music meets space missions

10.18.10
The Planets-An HD Odyssey
The Independent

By Holly Williams

Ah, the wonders of the universe. The beauty of the night sky. The familiarity and yet mystery of the planets which make up our very own solar system. We all have some sense or understanding of them – Jupiter’s red spot and Saturn’s rings and moons are common knowledge; the mythological or gendered associations of Mars and Venus are part of common parlance. In the vastness of the universe, these are ours, our neighbours, and yet they’re also still mysterious, awe-inspiring and, for the most part, unknown.

The Barbican kicked off their autumn classical music season with an event that showed how our solar system can inspire, in both artistic vision and scientific endeavour. The Houston Symphony played The Planets – and Gustav Holst’s popular work was accompanied by high definition footage of the planets themselves, taken from recent NASA space missions.

Getting to view these incredible images on the big screen is a treat. From the craters of Mercury to almost trippy heat imaging of Venus to up-close rover footage of rocks on the surface of Mars, this took me far beyond vaguely recollected structure of the solar system science lessons. As scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who spoke in a brief filmic introduction made clear, these missions to capture images of the planets really are at the forefront of the discovery and exploration of our universe. It’s heady stuff.

But it’s also beautiful. Pairing images of planets intended to advance scientific knowledge with music written as an artistic response is a neat idea. And whether it’s the almost painterly swirls on the surface of Jupiter or the stately progression through the rings of Saturn, the footage has been carefully selected to harmonise with the music – an educational documentary this ain’t. Although, what with Holst somewhat pre-dating HD, his music corresponds more to the mythical associations of the planets than the physical realities of giant balls of ice or fire. As the film’s director Duncan Copp points out, “Venus is actually a hellish place”, with fiercely high temperatures and a choking atmosphere – not exactly the soothing ‘Bringer of Peace’ of Holst’s work.

The multimedia format also seems like a winner, drawing in people who rarely attend classical concerts (ahem) as well as keeping the attention of even very young children at a family-friendly matinee performance. It’s like a grown up Fantasia, with extra scientific accuracy thrown in. And why not? Even as space exploration discovers more and more about our solar system, and even as we delight in seeing further and clearer than ever before, the planets are still quite big enough for music and mythology and mystery too.