By Shirley Apthorp
From Bloomberg.com - March 13
The idea enthralled Mark-Anthony Turnage, one of four composers commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra to write a new work for concerts in Berlin and Salzburg and a recording for EMI Group Plc's EMI Classics label. The premiere is on March 16.
``I grew up with a sense that everything could explode at any minute,'' says 45-year-old Turnage. ``I recently read in a book by Bill Bryson that 2,000 asteroids big enough to imperil civilized existence regularly cross our orbit. But even a small asteroid the size of a house could destroy a city.
``So my piece is about rocky objects orbiting in a loose formation. Blocks of musical material gradually mesh together, and then they explode.''
Shortly after his first concerts as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle initiated the commission of four ``asteroids,'' short pieces collectively titled ``Ad astra,'' to accompany a performance of Gustav Holst's orchestral suite ``The Planets.''
Turnage, of the U.K., selected Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered by astronomers, as his subject. ``I had a horrid fear that all four of us would pick the same asteroid,'' he says. ``But that didn't happen, in the end.''
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, 53, chose Toutatis, an elliptical asteroid with an immensely complex orbit that often closely approaches the earth.
``The asteroid has had so many collisions that its shape has changed so that it looks rather like a potato,'' Saariaho says. ``That means that one side moves much faster than the other. It has often been speculated that if an asteroid hits the earth, it might be Toutatis. So that makes it special.
``I have used the idea of rotations which coincide but have different lengths, so that although they repeat, they never meet,'' she says. ``It has a lot to do with rhythm.''
Matthias Pintscher, at 35 the most successful German composer of his generation, also explored the idea of destruction through the asteroid Osiris, though he was more inspired by the Egyptian myth of the god Osiris's destruction by his jealous brother Seth. The 14 parts of Osiris's body were collected by his wife Isis, who restored him to life as god of the underworld.
``I encountered a work by the artist Joseph Beuys, part of his ``Felt Suit,'' where he took the separate parts of a tailor's suit template, glued them onto a large canvas, and called it ``Osiris,'' Pintscher said.
``My music looks at the idea of something intact which is torn into pieces, takes these pieces and presents them individually, and then recombines them in a kind of metamorphosis,'' he said.
A more literal disintegration was suffered by Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first person to die on a space mission, when the Soyuz 1 crashed in 1967. An asteroid was named for him in 1971 and became the inspiration for 45-year-old Australian composer Brett Dean's new piece, ``Komarov's Fall.''
``I was listening to old recordings of telemetry signals, radio communication between people in space and ground control,'' Dean says. ``And I found a recording of one of the last communications from Komarov. There are jagged rhythms in my piece that are directly inspired by garbled, nervous speech of this message. You can't really hear the individual words, but there are rumors that his last words were condemning the whole Soviet system, and that he went down screaming.
``The piece starts off with a homage to telemetry -- simple signals that sound lonely and distant,'' he says. ``I didn't want it to be too programmatic, but there is certainly a moment where you hear things falling to pieces. There is a sense of catastrophe which is cut off quite quickly, leaving a more eerie sense of dispersal.''
The four new works, each approximately six minutes long, continue the extension of Holst's famous space music that began in 2000, when U.K. composer Colin Matthews wrote ``Pluto -- the Renewer'' to complete the set, which Holst had ended with Neptune. Rattle will conduct all six pieces together in three Berlin concerts this week and at the Salzburg Festival in August. EMI will release a recording of the concert in autumn.
In an age where many orchestral institutions respond to financial pressures with more conservative programming, Rattle's commitment to new music is seen by many as bold.
``It's probably the single greatest challenge facing orchestras today,'' says Dean. ``The endless marketing of popular classics makes it harder than ever to break through with new ideas. The Mozart year makes it even worse, with all due respect to Wolfgang Amadeus -- it's not his fault that he has been turned into a commercial franchise.''
Still, all four composers are busy and their music is popular. Saariaho's second opera, ``Adriana Mater,'' opens in Paris at the end of this month. Dean's ``Sparge la morte'' has just premiered at Carnegie Hall. Pintscher will be the Lucerne Festival's resident artist this summer and Turnage has just been named composer-in- residence by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
``I'm optimistic about the future,'' says Turnage. ``Unless an asteroid hits us. Can't do much about that, I guess.''
Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic playing ``Ad astra'' on March 16, 17 and 18.