In collaboration with AMMODO, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ regularly presents brand new compositions intended to reach a general audience. In the afternoon, a piece is worked on extensively in a public rehearsal; in the evening, the world premiere is performed.
On both occasions I ask the composer beforehand about the how and why of their composition. On Thursday 19 May we will zoom in on MARS I by the Irish Jennifer Walshe. She composed this multimedia work for Klangforum Wien and the singers Juliet Fraser* and Elaine Mitchener.
The performance is directed by Delyana Lazarova. From 11:30 a.m. to noon, I will discuss MARS I with Walshe on Foyerdeck I, after which the ensemble devotes the entire afternoon to its rehearsal. Prior to the world premiere that evening, I will interview Walshe once again.** She already answered some basic questions.
From 11:30 a.m. to noon, I will discuss MARS I with Walshe on Foyerdeck I, after which the ensemble devotes the entire afternoon to its rehearsal. Prior to the world premiere that evening, I will interview Walshe again, and she already answered some basic questions.
What characterizes you as a composer?
‘I am a composer who works not only with sound, but also with film, text and movement.’
What is the first thing you do when you get a commission?
‘The beginning of a commission is incredibly exciting, because you find yourself in the “latent space” of what the project could become – anything seems possible. I have folders full of sounds and notebooks of ideas, with in the back of my mind as many as a hundred different versions of how the piece might turn out.’
‘As I work on it, the piece gradually starts to emerge, and my job is to interfere with the process as little as possible, so that it can develop freely.’
What is MARS I about and how did you approach your composition?
‘MARS I is the first in a series of planned pieces about the planet Mars. Thinking through Mars seems to me to be one of the best ways to reflect on the current era. Why do we want to travel to Mars? Why do some people think colonizing another planet is a good idea?’
‘Is there life there? Should we not be using the available resources to deal with climate change instead?Why are the richest men on Earth starting space travel companies? What role will Artificial Intelligence and robotics play in our lives in the future?’
‘Prior to a new composition, I always do in-depth research. I visit museums, watch films, read books and talk to experts. In this case, I also studied famous photographs of Mars. Two of them are recreated and projected during the performance. Also, three robots on stage follow the trajectories that the Perseverance Rover takes on Mars every day.’
Which pictures are involved and how are they reconstructed?
‘One of the percussionists makes two sketches with watercolours and salt, replicating two famous photographs of Mars. Starting with the first picture ever taken of the red planet. That was a black-and-white photograph made in 1907 by Earl Carl Slipher from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.’
‘The second sketch is based on the last photograph of Mars still taken from Earth. It was shot by Ben Leighton in 1956 from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. So both images were created before any spacecraft flew to the planet to shoot high-resolution images on the spot.’
‘The images mark the beginning and end of the era when mankind observed the planet from afar, when we still thought it was “alive.” In 1965, the Mariner 4 sent back the first pictures taken in close proximity to the planet. Leighton himself decoded them, discovering that the red planet was a barren wasteland.’
‘The sketches of those two iconic photographs will be made under a microscope and are projected on-stage during the performance.’
Jennifer Walshe composes Mars I for Klangforum Wien: ‘Why do we want to travel to Mars? Why do some people think colonizing another planet is a good idea?’Tweet
What are we to make of those robots?
‘There are three small robots in the piece. They follow – to scale – the trajectories that the Perseverance Rover undertakes on the map of Mars. This is updated daily, so that I can see, for example, that the rover has travelled 5.27 metres 4 sols ago. (A Martian day is a sol).’
‘The rovers look for signs of past life and collect samples of rock and regolith (chunks of weathered material and dust). This is how NASA hopes to determine the geology and climate of Mars. During the performance, my three robots will follow selected trajectories that the Perserverance and other rovers have taken on Mars.’
In 2020 Kaija Saariaho based Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) on the red planet. Was this perhaps an inspiration?’
‘I know of its existence, but it didn’t influence my own piece. I was inspired for MARS I by the writings of Mary Stewart Johnson, Mary Roach, Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson; life and work of astronauts like Ed White, and by all the scientists and astronomers I have spoken to.’
‘And, of course, by the intelligence, critical insight and wry humour of Mark O’Connell, who wrote the libretto.’
*Fraser fell ill with corona, and is replaced by Lore Lixenberg.
**Unfortunately I fell ill myself.