Of the Stars

Recorded by members of Earplay
May 19, 2022

Of the Stars

The majority of material in Of the Stars comes from a star chart over which I laid pieces of staff lines at indeterminate points and angles.  Some of the material, particularly in the fifth vignette, is derivative of just one of the many small motives, but is not directly taken from the chart.

John Cage used star charts as source material for no fewer than three works (Etudes Australes, Atlas Eclipticalis, and his 1970 Song Books at a minimum), so by no stretch of the imagination is this a new take on attaining source material.  My approach is not only more selective than Cage's when overlaying staff lines (taking away a great deal of the chance element), but incorporates a different aspect of the stars, which takes into consideration the contour of the constellations as it applies to melodic material.

"Scorpius," for example, has no staves over it.  Instead, I used the shape of the constellation and the proximity of the stars to create a melodic motive that mimicked the outline of the constellation.  Since the tip of its tail is a double star, I turned the first pitch into a minor second; since Antares, enemy of Mars (and star charts, historically speaking) is so prominently featured, the chord on which "Scorpius" ends carries through into the next movement to highlight his significance.  

Of the Star Chart

I selected this star chart for two primary reasons:

1. I know it better than the other skies, and 

2. This is a map of the first evening my now-partner and I spent stargazing.

Bear in mind that this is, in truth, the sky I know the best just by sight and by memory, and I'm a decent eye for which planets are out.  So here I am, regaling the man who was not my partner at the time with what little space trivia I have, on a mild summer night after a lovely evening out.  He turns to me, hand on his chin, and says: "Tell me more about the stars." 

At which point two things happened instantaneously:

1. My heart absolutely melted, because how could it not?!

2. The ice-cold, sinking sensation of "oh, no" traveled right into the pit of my stomach.

Because, you see, I was out. I couldn't tell him more about the stars, as  I had depleted what little knowledge I had right before his (oh-so charming) request.  But what could I do?  Say "oh sorry, I can't"?  Absolutely not, thank you very much, so I did what little I could as convincingly as I could: brought up the astronomer's pet peeve of 'Scorpio' vs. 'Scorpius,' prattled off some moon knowledge about Jupiter and Saturn, the likes. 

But I couldn't tell him any more about the stars.  The following evening, I studied for the next time we stargazed; but that wouldn't be until two years later, in August of 2020 after a months-long separation that COVID so kindly provided us.  And when we gazed into the stars on that night, there were so many stars in the sky that I could hardly locate the constellations that I knew.  We could see the ribbon of the Milky Way, and caught no fewer than seven shooting stars.  

When the constraints of our first light-polluted stargaze were lifted, we were changed by the sky that we had never seen before but been under the entire time.  And this time, we didn't talk about the stars; we didn't speak hardly at all.  We each sat in our own deck chairs, reclined so far that not even the tops of the coastal trees made it into our viewpoint.  The sky was so endless that I had to secure my grip on the chair to assure my body there was no way I could fall up into it, and so dark I could hardly see my partner, who was only a foot or so away.   When we eventually found ourselves acclimated to this vastness, there was great comfort. 

So this piece is to both of our stargazing ventures; to the stars we know well, and to all the rest we yearn to see again, on mild summer evenings by the beach, hours away from our homes. 

I. Lyra

"Lyra"'s four-note motive should, in all honesty, have been five notes.  There are only five stars in the petit constellation, whose lore is so painstakingly musical I fear I've done it a disservice.  (In the mythos, Lyra is Orpheus' lyre placed in the sky by the muses after his death.) 

But the open-endedness of this theme felt too rich to sacrifice, and I suspect that when I revisit this piece, the fifth note (which would represent Vega) will transform into a new movement dedicated to the Summer Triangle.

The "Lyra" theme slips into other movements, even if they're not related in their placement in the sky.   This theme is central to this piece's genesis, and it follows that it should have a place in more than its singluarly dedicated movement.

The "Lyra" theme.

II. Ursa Major

"Ursa Major" takes a bit of time easing into the instability that comes from deriving musical material from an unmusical source, and saves its most honest representation for its final restatement of the initial motive.  Unlike "Lyra," the constellation is indeed presented in whole, but tucked in between fragmentations of itself and the reintroduction of "Lyra."

The initial fragment of "Ursa Major."

III. Scorpius

This piece honors the contour of the constellation, not the stars as musical material on superimposed staves.  While it might not look like a scorpion visually, the manner in which this theme (and the subsequent chapters) coil around the piano and themselves fit the design of the adversarial figure.

The "Scorpius" theme.

IV. The Unseen

Fun bit of trivia: the original title of this piece was actually "Asterism," but I didn't care for the "-ism" connotation of this word.  But an asterism is effectivley a non-canonized constellation; a group of stars you can make at-will.  Generally, this would be done in real stargazing, not looking at maps as I've done; however, I would have never been able to put this group together, simply because nowhere in which I observe stars is capable of showing me this teeny-tiny group I stumbled upon in my star-chart. When I overlaid the staff line, I was given an angular and entirely unrelated set of notes, which in this piece, are given to the flute and clarinet.  The rippling piano texture beneath "The Unseen" derive from the final augmented triad established in "Scorpius." 

A glimpse into "The Unseen."

V. Wandering

Perhaps the least devoted to the star-chart of all the movements, but the most involved in setting the feeling of letting your gaze stretch over as many stars as you can see without turning your head; remembering just how far away each and every one of them is, and that they all have their own unique sizes, planets, habits, and trajectories; the fact that everything we look at in our night sky is as unfathomable as it is remote, even if they're 'only' neighboring planets; and the fact that, in respect to our lifetimes, they have always been there, and will always be there.

And so we wander.

A moment of "Wandering."