We spoke to the internationally-acclaimed conductor Marin Alsop and award-winning composer Amanda Lee Falkenberg about their world premiere recording of THE MOONS SYMPHONY, an epic choral symphony based on space exploration.
Amanda, where did the idea for the work come from and how did that grow into what it is now?
It’s a great question, because when you look back and see the work as it is right now, you would think that I had it all intellectually mapped out, with astronauts and scientists, but actually it didn’t start that way at all. It was so simple: I saw an article titled Ten of the weirdest moons of our solar system, and as I read it I got so excited by their characteristics and textures, and how it spoke to me on an aesthetic level. I had this lightbulb moment: ‘Oh my gosh, these moons need music! These moons need emotion.’ I was so excited to set about this project, I started doing a shortlist of the most compelling moons of the outer solar system. As I started researching, I very quickly realised that there was a huge amount of science that could be galvanised by these moons, but I also started finding inconsistencies in the science that I was coming across. In frustration, I wanted to find a specialist on the subject and I kept stumbling across Robert Pappalardo, a specialist on the moon Europa. As he worked at NASA, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to reach him or not, but I wrote to him about my ambition for the project – I hadn’t written any music at that point! – and asked if I could consult with him about the accuracy of the science. Seven days later he wrote back to me agreeing to chat and one thing led to another; he started introducing me to other scientists and things really snowballed from there. So it has definitely been a massive evolution and did not start out on this grandiose scale. I just went with it and let the symphony dictate every stage and chapter.
It’s a work of such magnitude and is so thematically expansive, it must be really difficult to just sum it up in a few sentences, but could you briefly run us through the synopsis?
The synopsis is very much just this: the first six movements draw upon the scientific data collected by space probes. The seventh movement is about the emotional data being brought back through the hearts of astronauts. We are seen standing on the surface of Earth’s Moon, just in time to experience Earthrise, which is a profound perspective shift that astronauts have when they see our planet in that vicinity. It is life-changing. That’s really what this whole symphony is about: bringing an Earthrise event to all of us Earthlings without having to leave Earth’s orbit.
You also wrote the beautiful poems which form the libretto, each inspired by one of the seven moons. Did you start out with the intention of writing a choral symphony?
After the initial lightbulb moment, my next thought was how it would be to bring in a choir to be able to sing this compelling science that I had literally stumbled across, to give it more outreach and to help communicate the words and the different worlds even more. It was a three-pronged process for me: there was an intense three or four months of absolute intense research, trying to metabolise all of the nitty-gritty science. I call it my incubation period. Once I felt I’d soaked up as much as I possibly could, I put the books to one side and moved into the studio. This was the second phase: to just sink into the role of music and try to convert that science into a musical canvas and create the melodies and themes. At that point I didn’t have the head space for the text. It was only after I had finished composing the music that I went back to the science books and started looking at the melodies and crafting the libretto based around the musical grammar that I had created; the themes and the melody. I absolutely loved that part of it—it was really fun trying to turn the science into a poetic form.
Marin, how has the experience been for you, merging music with science in this way and collaborating with leading scientists from around the world?
I’m really passionate about interdisciplinary projects, whether it’s mixed media or projects that draw on different aspects of society, so I was super interested in the intellectual component of this project. The way that Amanda envisioned marrying the science and the music was really intriguing to me. It was a very rewarding experience, both for me and for the LSO musicians. Having these incredibly accomplished and erudite scientists and astronauts in our midst was very inspiring because they were so engaged in the process that we were involved in, recording and bringing this music to life. The musicians loved having them there and there was great interaction. They were like a fan club! They are really wonderful people – absolutely brilliant to say the least – and also so down-to-earth, wouldn’t you say Amanda?
[Amanda]: Yes, and what always shone through was just how respectful they were. They were so mindful of the intelligence and the intellectual nature of all these incredible musicians, all piled into one room at the top of their game, and they have to be that way as scientists as well to get these missions up and off the ground. So, although science and music are seemingly opposite worlds, the feeling of excellence was at the forefront of all of our experiences, and just working as a team with that collaborative spirit. I think we can all resonate with that, in our musical and scientific entities.
Amanda, how did you eventually find your way to Marin?
Throughout the project there have been so many ‘moon miracles’, as I like to call them, and Marin was absolutely one of those. She was engaged with the project from the beginning, but trying to line up her diary with the LSO pre-COVID was looking near to impossible. At that point I had the Abbey Road Studios booked as well, but Marin was just so busy, it was looking like we couldn’t pull it off. And then all of a sudden COVID strikes! It’s funny because my husband, who is a conductor, was the backup plan if Marin couldn’t do it, so for many months we thought that he would be the one to do it, and then all of a sudden out of the blue in July 2020 an email pings through: ‘Hey Amanda, it’s Marin! About this Moons Symphony…I might be available!’
[Marin]: I really didn’t have the time in my schedule originally when she approached me. I was just back to back, chockablock, and then everything changed so dramatically with the pandemic, so I thought maybe we could do something. My Vienna orchestra was still recording and doing some projects – smaller and socially distanced – and we started talking about Amanda coming over to do a read-through with a smaller version of the orchestra. She came to Vienna and we became fast friends in about three minutes and that was it!
[Amanda]: To be totally honest, I didn’t really notice the pandemic that much until I flew to Vienna to be with Marin, because I was in my cave (studio) every single day for about five or six months composing and finessing the score, trying to race the clock for this Abbey Roads Studio session I’d booked in 2020. To have Marin come back into the orbit then (excuse the pun!) was a miracle. It allowed me to go to Vienna, because at the time it seemed like hers was the only orchestra on the planet that was still operational. So COVID actually gifted us a lot of really fortuitous opportunities to really give this work the best chance ahead of its professional recording in London.
Because of the pandemic, the choir was recorded separately from the orchestra. Amanda, how did that work logistically?
I’d already been working with ‘my’ orchestra (electronically), but the choral element is something that can’t really be reproduced—the technology is not up to scratch to be able to emulate the rich chorus. As soon as the lockdown began in London, one of the first people I approached was Ben Parry, who had always earmarked his choir to sing in our choral symphony. I asked him if there was any way we could gather twelve voices from his team who might have studios, to sing separately the individual parts. Ben was so proactive and somehow made it work. I call them my ‘COVID choir’. In the recordings they were of course singing as soloists, so it didn’t have that rich ensemble, but it was all we could do at the time. It was just great to have another phase of the project that could progress during the pandemic. I then went to Marin to get the orchestra recorded, and then walking into Abbey Road Studios was the cherry on the cake in June this year. It was the one element I couldn’t be sure about, hearing the actual ensemble sound for the first time, but there at Studio 1 with sixty voices it was absolutely magical.
Marin, was it strange for you not having the choir there in front of you for the recording?
Well it enabled us to have a big choir and a big orchestra, which we weren’t going to be able to do in all the former iterations, and it’s also nice because this project is really about collaboration. It’s not just a project that ‘Marin conducted’; everybody participated in making the outcome as wonderful as it is, and I much prefer those kinds of collaborative working relationships. I feel that I made my contribution and they brought in their contributions, and together we have a much stronger end result. I also want to mention that the recording technology that we explored in some depth during the pandemic really came into play, and the way the recording was made was really a product of the pandemic. We also had a fantastic engineer and production team.
This album is the world premiere recording of the Symphony. How is it for you, Marin, to be able to bring a brand new work to life like this and to be able to work so collaboratively with the composer?
I love working with composers—the backbone of my career is probably the couple of hundred premieres I’ve done, working with living composers. It’s not only a privilege but I think it’s also necessary as a conductor because we’re not the creators, we’re the recreators, and it’s our responsibility to bring the composer’s message to life. When you have someone that can speak to you and really articulate well, as Amanda can, and someone who’s really delved into the music, it’s very rewarding. Some composers will finish a piece and they haven’t focused nearly as much attention on it. You say, ’Is that an F sharp?’ and they say, ‘Oh, well, I don’t know.’ But Amanda knows every inch of the map of the piece and her motivation for putting every note on the page, as well as the text.
Marin, you’re a strong advocate for educational outreach and are known for your innovative approach to programming and audience development. How does this work fit in with that philosophy?
It feels organic and natural to include this project as part of my portfolio. It’s exciting to see what happens next—what’s the next iteration? Of course live performance is the goal and I’m super keen on the educational outreach possibilities, especially with our world the way it is right now. We’re all experiencing this unbelievable tipping point for climate change, and I think it’s really important to put a focus back on, not just our planet, but the whole system and how we can participate in the health of our universe.
Amanda, the album concludes with Debussy’s Clair de lune followed by a reading of your poem, Reflections on Symphonic Space Flight, read by retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott. Why did you choose to end the album this way?
Clair de lune is so hugely popular and, coming from something brand new which ends with a pretty intense message, I wanted to really calm things down a bit and remind everyone that actually we are back on planet Earth. We all know and love this piece and actually, if we look up, we’re going to be looking at that moon that we’ve just stood on (in the music) and know that we really are back on planet earth. So it was really that grounding aspect that I wanted to go for when programming that particular piece. I also wanted Nicole to be present on the album because she’s been my partner throughout the project, in terms of getting the message to the masses. Using her aura of the astronaut combined with the powerful music, we were able to team up and really share this message to humanity. She was asking me what I wanted her to say and in the end I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to write you a poem that you can read and you’re going to bring everyone back to Earth with your beautiful resonant voice.’ It felt important to me to have the earthiness of someone reading a poem to really get our feet firmly established on the ground, and I really enjoyed writing that poem immensely because I felt it would just draw a big circle around everything.
I’d like to finish by putting the same question to both of you: what is the main experience you would hope for people to take away from listening to the album?
[Amanda]: To have the absolute daylights inspired out of them! That is my message: to raise the vibrancy frequency in their bodies, so that they can go out and feel like they can take on the world. Because that’s the power of music, and that’s how I felt creating this symphony. It was an experience of privilege, joy, fascination and curiosity the whole time, and I just wanted to see how much I could test the creative boundaries and bring these seemingly opposite worlds together. My intention was to build these emotions and experiences into sound waves so that people could get this tsunami effect of being bowled over by the power of music, to then go out and really do good on this planet. That’s really all that I want.
[Marin]: I hope that people are intrigued by learning more about the majesty of nature. That to me is really the takeaway. And maybe that’s why the project is so successful, because I think Amanda and I are both not in it for ourselves at all. It’s about the greater message and trying to get that across. Whatever you take away from it is valid—it can be small, it can be a big idea, it can be an awareness that you didn’t have. I just hope people will feel changed by the experience.
THE MOONS SYMPHONY is out on IDAGIO now.