Finding musical inspiration in scientific ideas

Jonathan DoveFri 5th October 2018

Jonathan Dove explains how he came to write his latest work for children’s choir – A Brief History of Creation

Recently, I’ve found myself wondering 'What would that sound like?' when considering certain scientific ideas, and of course the only way to find out is to write a piece of music.

I had read some of James Lovelock‘s books 10 years ago, after a trip to the Arctic got me wondering if there might be a way I could write music about global warming. I read The Revenge of Gaia (2006) first, then went back to Gaia (1979) which introduces his theory that our planet behaves as a self-regulating organism which tends to maintain surface conditions on the planet that are favourable to life. In an interview, Lovelock said, 'Life clearly does more than adapt to the Earth. It changes the Earth to its own purposes. Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia.' What might that dance sound like?

A 2014 Prom commission gave me the chance to find out. Obviously I couldn’t attempt to convey the Earth’s activity over several billion years in real time, so I tried to catch glimpses of something: a joyful harmony of so many entities all moving in balance with each other – the balance threatened by the sun’s heat – everything adapting, adjusting, collaborating to restore the balance. The symphony orchestra offers so many layers of sound, from tiny particles to vast masses, and in Gaia Theory these often coalesce into dance.

The following year, I was sitting in a James Turrell installation in Bremen’s Kunsthalle. The installation is spread over several floors: sitting in a little gallery upstairs, you look down through great rings of light to what appears to be an infinite array of stars. Somehow, I felt that I was looking back in time to the origins of the universe, and wondering, 'What would that sound like?' There would be a Big Bang, of course, but then what? 

Surprisingly, I imagined children’s voices accompanied by glittering percussion. Then it occurred to me: this might be the piece the Hallé wanted for their magnificent children’s choir. And I thought it might be fun for children to sing the story of creation, not from Haydn’s biblical point of view, but from a modern scientific one. 

I had no idea how much reading this would involve! At the Catholic grammar school I attended in the 1970s, the Big Bang was never mentioned, and nor was evolution. I wanted to understand these things from a child’s point of view, as children would be singing this story. There was a wonderful moment reading Adam Rutherford’s The Origin of Life when I had the glorious feeling I understood everything – but that quickly evaporated as soon as I put the book down.

Telling the whole story isn’t really possible – not least because scientific ideas seem to date so quickly – so I just settled on some bits I thought it would be fun to sing about: stars, magma, the first time a cell split somewhere in the ocean (what did that sound like?), sharks, dinosaurs, elephants and monkeys. Eventually, somewhere in Africa, humans beginning their long walk out into the world. As the title says, it is A Brief History of Creation.  

So wondering leads to making, and 'What would that sound like?' is often the beginning of an adventure.

A Brief History of Creation, Gaia Theory is now out on NMC. For more information, please visit: nmcrec.co.uk

Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove’s music has filled opera houses with delighted audiences of all ages on five continents. Few, if any, contemporary composers have so successfully or consistently explored the potential of opera to communicate, to create wonder and to enrich people’s lives.

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