This guest post comes to us from YNYC member Jaime Leifer, Soprano.
In June 2008, YNYC performed Meredith Monk’s “Astronaut Anthem” in a program entitled “Monks and Mystics.” Far from reverential or conservative, the program featured experimental works such as Sarah Hopkins’ “Past Life Melodies” and the winners of our annual Competition for Young Composers, whose pieces – original works which are premiered by YNYC— usually tend to push the envelope. The clear standout, though, was Meredith Monk’s piece. Written in 1983, “Astronaut Anthem” presents the audience with a bit of a musical surprise—it begins with gorgeously stark sustained notes, and builds, developing a choral section founded on a simple, repeated melody. Once the choral section has built to its climax, the sopranos jump in with intermittent ascending “whoop” noises, much like an imitation of a slide whistle. Contrasted with the haunting held notes and undulating melody of the choral section, the effect is quite jarring. Even after rehearsing the piece for months, many YNYCers had to wonder why Ms. Monk chose to interrupt her lush soundscape with something that seemed so out of place.
It wasn’t until this year—and a new mission in space exploration—that Monk’s inspiration for ending “Astronaut Anthem” this way became apparent. A September 2012 segment on NPR’s Morning Edition showcased mysterious sounds from space captured by two spacecraft known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes that are currently orbiting the earth. Known by scientists as “the chorus,” these are eerie, unexplained whooping sounds produced in the magnetosphere, a section of space in which charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field. Scientists have known about “the chorus” for decades, but this most recent mission, launched by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, allowed them to capture this incredible audio recording of the sounds. They hope that the probes can finally determine how the sounds are generated.
The resemblance between the whooping effect in Monk’s “Astronaut Anthem” and this cosmic phenomenon is unmistakable. In a concert setting pairing Monk’s piece with real audio footage of these sounds from space would be an innovative and unique way to demonstrate the genius of the piece’s inspiration. Now that has potential to be a concert experience truly out of this world!