Untuning the Sky excerpt

for soprano, trumpet & harmonium

[15 mins]

Written with financial support from the Nederlands Fonds voor Podiumkunsten+

for Marco Blaauw, Anja Kwakkestein & Dirk Luijmes

as part of the Stars Project, to be performed outside, at night, under the stars


‘Untuning the sky’ isn’t really possible. Indeed, the theory of the ‘harmony of the spheres’ suggests that there’s a single harmonious perfection, naturally present in the sky and mirrored in our musical systems.

Since Plato, a long line of philosophers, mathematicians, scientists and musicians have posited theories around this universal rule, one that shapes the micro and the macro: from Azbel’s calculations that the planets in our solar system are distanced from the Sun in the same proportion as the harmonic series, to Kepler’s measurements of the proportions between the speeds of the movement of each of the planets being equivalent to the proportions between the notes of our major scale (when the planets are at their fastest points of orbit) and minor scale (at their slowest points). These readings of Kepler are the basis for the two small movements, a prelude and postlude, that bookend the work’s much larger central section – they represent a contrast in approach to the ‘harmony of the spheres’ than that of the main movement.

If modern rationalism can’t actually untune the sky, an emphasis on mathematical and scientific readings (Kepler’s too) can at least blur the original poetic beauty of the concept of a harmoniously resonating universe. As such, the more symbolic approach is embraced in the central movement, which imagines each successively distant planetary body as the next note in a scale. The scale and theory is taken from the writings of Pliny the Elder. Earth is placed as the lowest note, the starting point, and then using Pythagoras’ calculations of the distances between planetary bodies (the Earth to the Moon creates the mould, with the distance taken to be a whole-tone) each successively distant planetary body is either measured out as a whole-tone or semi-tone – with the Sun (the note A) being equidistant from the Earth and the outer stars, a perfect fifth from both. The scale ascends away from earth to the most distant stars in the sky – it creates a ladder to the heavens.

Section III adjusts the scale in the voice and trumpet to what Theodore Reinach suggests may in fact have been the original Greek form (an inability to notate quarter-tones meant that it was originally documented as chromatic).

The text through sections III and IV is simply Pliny the Elder’s explanation of the Pythagorean theory behind this scale, which tone is assigned to which planetary body.

Each of the individual sections, the three movements and the piece as a whole spin around on themselves, rotating in perpetual orbit. The main movement unflinchingly repeats, unchanged and existing outside of time.


Most of the information, not only the title, of this work was gleaned from Joscelyn Godwin’s ‘Harmonies of Heaven and Earth’, with the text taken from his sourcebook ‘The Harmony of the Spheres’, two equally invaluable sources on the subject.

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