You might say that an organ (the musical instrument) and space (the final frontier) are an odd couple.
But Bob McDonald doesn’t think so. And he’s bringing the latter half of the pair to Parksville.
The science journalist and host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks radio show will be discussing the science and beauty of the cosmos in a talk set to visuals and backed by organ music performed by Knox United Church’s Jenny Vincent.
The performance, the first in a three-performance series by Vincent called OrganWorx, takes place Sunday, Sept. 24 at Knox. McDonald seeks to expand people’s minds in terms of their perception of the universe, as well as what organ music is.
“I’ve always been a big believer that whenever art and science come together, it’s a beautiful thing,” said McDonald in an interview with The NEWS.
Asked about the irony of expressing the science of space (where there is no sound) with music, McDonald said there are plenty of noisy places out beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
“Jupiter is a pretty noisy place,” he said. “It’s nothing but storms. It has storms that are larger than our planet. It has lightning bolts the size of Asia. It has aurora at both of its poles. So it’s pretty noisy there.
“Saturn and Neptune have the highest winds in the solar system that are traveling at more than a thousand kilometres an hour. So there are noisy places.”
And even in the emptiness of space itself, and beyond our own solar system, human music has travelled, and could remain for millions of years, McDonald said.
“This week is the 40th anniversary of the launch of a spacecraft called Voyager that was sent to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune,” he explained. The Voyager mission included two spacecraft, each of which carried a gold-plated copper disc — a record with a selection of music on it.
“It goes through ancient Indonesian gong music to Chinese music to Beethoven’s 5th… and up to Chuck Berry. Because he introduced Rock and Roll,” said McDonald.
“So he does Johnny B. Goode on it.”
In the case of Voyager I, the music and the spacecraft could be around for millions of years, since it has left the influence of the sun and now travels in interstellar space.
“The famous astronomer Carl Sagan had an idea that if these objects were going to be wandering among the stars, where there’s no salt on the highways to degrade them, they could last a billion years,” said McDonald. This gives aliens a long time to encounter Voyager, and have a listen.
“The essence of that was, if aliens find it, even if they just scratch the thing, they are going to hear music if they have ears. But hopefully they will get a sense of the human spirit,” said McDonald. “The spacecraft itself will give them an idea about our technology, but the music will give them a little bit of the human spirit, even if they don’t understand it.”
Kicking off the OrganWorx performance will be a piece from a famous sci-fi film which also kicked off the use of classical music on the silver screen.
Also Sprach Zarathustra, the Richard Strauss piece famously used to open the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the piece that best describes space for McDonald, he said.
“It just brings you out there. Yeah, it’s big! Bom, bom, bom! This is big stuff,” he said of the piece.
Vincent, who admits to not being a space or science nerd, said the various pieces she’ll be playing describe space in different ways.
“You think of Mars (by Gustav Holst). That one’s a really cool piece, the thunder and the war and all that, but compared to … Mad Rush (by Philip Glass), that’s a beautiful piece. You can just imagine you’re in the pace, floating. It’s the total opposite.”
During these and other pieces, McDonald will be discussing topics like space travel, the expanding universe, water in space, Mars, and nebulae, which he calls the flowers of the universe.
With inspiration like the wonders of space, it’s no wonder art echoes it, said McDonald.
“It’s absolutely beautiful and stunning, and amazing that we know about it,” he said.
“Carl Sagan… he wasn’t the only one to say this, but he said that the fact that we have learned about the universe… that we live on a moving planet in a solar system in a galaxy as part of an expanding universe — the fact that we know that means we are the universe’s way of knowing about itself.
“Without a consciousness to appreciate it, it’s just a bunch of chemical reactions going on, stars being born, dying, doing their thing. But we’re a consciousness that goes, ‘Wow, it’s beautiful. I get it,’ … and seize the poetry and the beauty of it, not just the mechanics.”
Tickets for this performance and the OrganWorx season can be purchased at Knox United Church, or from the Parksville or Qualicum Beach Mulberry Bush bookstores.