400 Years of the Telescope

In 2008, I was writing music for a documentary about the History of the Telescope. Then an amazing thing happened, the London Symphony Orchestra showed up to play it.

Abbey Road Studio 1 / London Symphony Orchestra / Mark Slater

Back in 2008, Red Digital Cinema was still the newest buzz in the world of cinematography. Their early 4K digital camera and large format sensors were poised to change the world of film-making forever, offering unprecedented capture quality in a portable format, allowing film-makers to get out to places that would have been physically challenging for traditional film stock cameras, aside from the cost.

Coincidentally, 2008 was also the year an enthusiastic amateur astronomer and filmmaker, Kris Koenig, from Chico, California, was flying to remote and inhospitable locations around the world, capturing interviews and breathtaking images of another titan of human innovation, the telescope.

2009 was officially the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400 year anniversary when history records that the famous Italian scientist, Galileo, turned a spyglass towards the sky. The spyglass itself was a fairly new piece of technology that was appearing all across Europe at the time, and although primitive, allowed observations of the Moon and Saturn that would have huge implications for humanity’s understanding of its place in the cosmos.

Koenig had been awarded a handsome grant from the National Science Foundation to make this documentary for IYA 2009. It was my good fortune, still living in London, that I was discovered through my website at the time and asked if I would be interested in composing music for the film. My first taste of the film was a sequence about the Hubble Space Telescope and the initial problems it had, both in the delay of launch due to the Challenger space shuttle disaster and then the design error in the optical systems which has escaped notice during construction.

A few months later, the film still not completed or even locked, I was nevertheless committed to a day of recording at Abbey Road with the London Symphony Orchestra, with sessions for choir and other solo instrumentalists during the following week.

Putting together the music and particularly the printed scores for the musicians was a momentous task in itself. Without the help of friends, family and some assistance from several music students, I certainly could not have completed everything in time. A few months later, I was in Los Angeles, laying the soundtrack down with the finished film for delivery to PBS. I paid a visit to Mark Graham of JoAnn Kane Music Services to show him some of the scores I prepared. I learned that the costs involved for having music preparation done professionally, would have eaten half the music budget I had for the project. Instead, though, we got the sound of the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at one of the best studios in the world, with Andrew Dudman mixing the live session, and Gerry O’Riordan producing the final mix out of Kore Studios in Acton.

What more can I say? The music was a big hit with the musicians, the film producers and also the astronomical community, who loved the film and bought the soundtrack. My only regret was that the music cues were necessarily short to fit with the scenes in the film and making an album out of it wasn’t easy. I should create a suite from the music for concert performance. I’ll get around to it one day perhaps. I did find myself playing an arrangement for piano at the American Astronomical Society conference at Long Beach, California in January 2009.

Introduction and Main Title Music from 400 Years of the Telescope. Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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