Need a gift for a gifted musician?
by T De Bauw (Blues for spacegirl)
A musical representation of the eight planets of our solar system: that's an ambitious and daunting project. It isn't pulled off frequently, but when it happens, there's two classic archetypes to measure them against.
There's Gustav Holst, who painted the planets from his imagination and their role in folklore and tradition. Then, there's the NASA Voyager Recordings, a scientific but not less poetic picture of the spheres.
Sferi's Sound of the Spheres, released in three parts, is an amalgam of both, sometimes drawing inspiration from the space radiation itself, sometimes from the more traditional, anthropomorphic representation of the spheres. And plenty of times it's a carefully crafted bit of both.
Merkur is such a mixture. It starts off with a phaser effect that resembles its fast (fast!) revolution. When the electronics kick in, there's strange transmissions bouncing off its iron core. The fast tempo and a disorienting soundscape are very musical impressions, but they sound very much based on Mercury's natural occurrence.
Venera. Earth's evil twin is a gem in the sky, and for ages it shone in tales of beauty and love. Only recently have those stories been overcast by knowledge of the planet's "tragic" faith. The string sound and glockenspiel theme capture that melancholy of Venus' beauty gone warped. One of the highlights of the series.
Zemja, or Earth starts with synths much like Venera, but has a darker timbre and a melody of your typical funeral doom metal drone. Not a planet I want to wake up on. This is a painting of Earth billions of years ago, snowball earth, or the one with thick carbon clouds and stromatolites blobbing around.
Mars is as figurative as Holst's most famous piece, but for different reasons. This is no Bringer of War. Here is a planet painted as a mad circus. These days, Mars' crazy geography does indeed seem a more apt epithet than its 'war-like' red color. This composition is brilliant, but perhaps drags on a bit.
Planet Jupiter, when recorded by both Voyagers, sounds somewhat like a possessed singing bowl. So does this track, only do the noise toppings sound a little more structured than the real thing.
Saturn is guitar strumming topped with noise. Liner notes say the sphere has problems focusing, and at first the jam does feel like it's going nowhere, only to shift into a Sonic Youth's J'accuse Ted Hughes-kind of drone halfway.
Uran bears the most resemblance to the Voyager Recordings, but not quite. Holst's Uranus was a sorcerer, and the finale of this piece, with it's sharp notes, evokes the same danger of forbidden magic, before settling down into a mix of shortwave signals again.
Neptun, the last great gas giant, is not so different. Again, the synth sounds flow slowly like the singing bowls of NASA, but do so in an organized manner throughout the track. A bell sound determines the rhythm along which eery synths are modulated. Image the odd hexagon shape discovered on the planets south pole, and you're in for a scary ride.
Not kidding, but planets are really far away. Like, man. Even with probes and data sheets and telescopes as big as your average Trans-Neptunian Object, they're only faint dots and digitally colored bitmaps. It's only our imagination that brings them closer to home. Have a listen to Sferi's Sounds of the Spheres, and maybe its imagery will make you peek at the still-mysterious grainy deep space. Or Google's hi-res version of it.