The Cello Music of the Spheres (Kevin Berger)

NAUTILUS, October 8, 2015

Experience mathematical beauty and symmetry in a multimedia work.

If there really is a music of the spheres, the sound of a fundamental harmony in the universe, it has to be Just Ancient Loops, a 2012 work by composer Michael Harrison. Played on the cello, and complemented by a film created from archival clips and a recreation of Jupiter’s moons in orbit, Just Ancient Loops, glimpsed in the three samples below, propels viewers through time and space, landing them in the present, elated.

Although Just Ancient Loops projects an aura of metaphysics, it was guided by science. Harrison, whose work melds elements of early music, raga, and minimalism, based the score on the fact that musical harmony emerges from mathematical relationships between numbers, spelled out by ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Filmmaker Bill Morrison, whose work injects new life into old film clips, recently featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was inspired by a 21st-century investigation into an 18th-century astronomical theory. Bode’s law, named for a German astronomer, states planets and moons orbit their hosts at a mathematically predictable distance. (Although the theory has long been abandoned by astronomers—it doesn’t apply universally to orbiting bodies—it has been revived in a host of recent papers, which have shown some evidence for its calculations in exoplanet systems.) Harrison wrote Just Ancient Loops as a showcase for cellist Maya Beiser, a celebrated champion of contemporary music. She sees the work as an expression of scaling: The work evolves from a single musical pattern or loop into approximately 20 more, which, when performed live, with some of the loops having been prerecorded, blend and soar into something primal.

Those in New York City from October 14 to 17 can see Beiser perform Just Ancient Loops live, with the film, as the conclusion to her program, All Vows, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (You can watch one of her performances of the complete work here.) Recently the three artists told Nautilus about their individual goals for Just Ancient Loops and how the work became more than each of them had imagined… [+]