UW News

October 19, 2015

In astronomy-themed concert, Benaroya Hall launches audience to the cosmos

UW News

Andromeda galaxy.

Andromeda galaxy.NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Nov. 7 concert in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall promises to offer the audience a decidedly stellar musical experience.

The event, “Origins: Life and the Universe,” will pair live performances of new compositions with video and slideshow scenes depicting cosmic events like the Big Bang, as well as scenes from distant worlds and Earth’s own life-filled history. The Northwest Sinfonia, under the direction of Grammy Award-winning conductor David Sabee, will perform the eight works by Pacific Northwest composers while the projected scenes unfold before the audience’s eyes.

The topics covered by the musical selections include a wide array of subjects in planetary sciences, cosmology, astrobiology and evolution.

“The audience will see major events in the universe’s history, set to music inspired by those events,” said University of Washington astronomy professor Woody Sullivan, who is coordinating the UW’s involvement in the concert. “These are major topics in astronomy and astrobiology, from the founding of the universe and the universe’s ultimate fate to things like the origin of life and the planets.”

The one-time event is presented by Burmer Music, the Composition Lab, the UW Department of Astronomy and interdisciplinary Astrobiology Program. Portions of the proceeds from ticket sales will benefit graduate students in both the Department of Astronomy and the Astrobiology Program.

The concert is the brainchild of local musician Glenna Burmer, who has also composed one of the eight pieces that the orchestra will perform. Burmer, a physician and biotech executive who earned her doctorate and M.D. at the UW, sees this event as a way to use art to connect the public to science.

“She has invented an amazingly creative approach to interest the public in science,” said Sullivan, who formerly led the astrobiology program, “at a time when science literacy is a serious issue in our country.”

Burmer selected seven other local composers, including a musical prodigy who is just 12 years old, to craft works for the concert around topics in astronomy or astrobiology. The composers chose their themes after meeting with UW scientists who pursue research in fields ranging from the Big Bang and star formation to how life evolved on Earth and whether it exists on other planets.

“They all had to find a muse to drive the composition,” said Burmer.  “Each composer has to feel emotionally attached to the subject and inspired by the subject.”

The scientific subjects became themes for each composition, which will be reflected in the visual elements projected on screen above the stage as the orchestra plays, said Burmer. These will be videos and slideshows created from open-source images, as well as simulations of astronomical phenomena or life on other worlds. They have made a 15-minute video of samples from the concert pieces paired with their visuals.

In some cases, the choice of complex subject matter inspired unusual creative touches. For part of Burmer’s piece depicting the Big Bang — the single cosmic event that created the universe over 13 billion years ago — a team of UW student percussionists will use the walls of Benaroya Hall’s main auditorium as an instrument, with permission from hall managers of course.

Burmer and Sullivan arranged for several free public events in which composers and UW scientists could discuss how the pieces integrate astronomy and astrobiology research.

On Oct. 1, UW astronomy professor Bruce Balick discussed the origins of nebulae and stars, which will be explored at the concert by Nan Avant’s composition “Bijoux.” Burmer discussed the visual and musical elements in her piece, “The Big Bang,” with UW astronomy professor Matt McQuinn on Oct. 17. On Oct. 20, the final public event will take place at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center IMAX theater.  UW oceanography professor John Delaney and composer Barry Dowsett, who wrote “The Evolution of Carbon and Stardust,” will discuss the role of oceans and volcanic activity in the origin of life on Earth.

Burmer hopes these public discussions will build public interest for the real event on Nov. 7.

“I want people to understand the beauty and the awe of science, and live music really draws you in,” said Burmer. “When people come in and see it, I want them to gasp and go, ‘Wow!'”

“Origins: Life and the Universe” will be held Saturday, Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. in the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Tickets are available for purchase online or by calling the Benaroya Hall Ticket Office at 206-215-4747.


For more information, contact Sullivan at 206-543-7773 or woody@astro.washington.edu or Burmer at 206-465-6841 or support@burmermusic.com.