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Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

The scope of The Galileo Project grows as Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra tours the world

The scope of The Galileo Project grows as Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra tours the world

Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is thrilled to be returning to Penn State with The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, a concert with narration, set design, and projected images that was originally created in 2009 at the invitation of the Canadian astronomical community to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the astronomical telescope.

The first performances presented music from the worlds of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European astronomers and celebrated the achievements of Galileo, Newton, and Edmond Halley. Since 2009, however, the orchestra has been invited to tour with the project in Mexico, China, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. It seemed fitting to adapt the program to include explorations of the much more ancient achievements of Asian and Aboriginal astronomers.

Astronomy and astronomical observatories were important parts of official life in China centuries earlier than in Europe.

The 2,000-year-old text of the “Zhouli” tells us about the duties of the imperial astronomer: “Watching at night from the observatory tower, the official astronomer must concern himself with the twelve-year cycle of Jupiter’s revolution, the cycles of the months, the days and the hours, and with the positions of the stars. He must distinguish the stars so that he can make a general plan of the heavens. He must take observations of the sun at the winter and summer solstices, and of the moon at the spring and autumn equinoxes, in order to determine the succession of the four seasons. He must use his knowledge of the positions of the sun, moon, and stars in order to produce the official calendar of the empire.”

Twenty centuries before Galileo’s first use of the telescope, the imperial astronomer Gan De studied the motions of the planets and is reported to have observed one of the moons of Jupiter with the naked eye by obscuring the image of the bright planet.

From an early date, Chinese scientists created astronomical instruments to help them measure and record the positions of celestial bodies. The most ancient instrument was the gnomon, a rod used to measure the length of the sun’s shadow by day and the position of the changing stars by night in order to determine the length of the year, the time of the solstices, and the rhythms of the seasons.

Alison MacKay plays the cello on a dark stage with a photo of a nebula projected behind her.

As the centuries went on, the gnomon became more and more sophisticated. In about 1276, the great Yuan Dynasty astronomer and engineer Guo Shoujing constructed an observatory near Dengfeng, which incorporated a 40-foot horizontal gnomon and a 120-foot measuring scale on the ground below. He added a “shadow definer,” made from a small piece of copper with a pinhole, to focus a sharp image of the rod onto the measuring scale. He supervised the construction of twenty-six other observatories across China equipped with a variety of astronomical instruments. The precision of the collected data allowed him to create one of the most accurate calendars made before modern times.

We are grateful to Professor Anjing Qu, dean of the Department of Mathematics at Northwest University, and to the virtuosic pipa player Wen Zhao, who enriched our program with music from the time of the ancient astronomers of China.

On our trip to Australia in 2012, we gained advice from Professor Ray Norris of the Australia National Telescope Facility. He’s an expert on the Aboriginal astronomers of Australia. He supplied the following material from Emu Dreaming, a book co-written with Cilla Norris:

In north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Yolngu people of Elcho Island call the planet Venus, “Banumbirr.” They tell how she came across the sea from the east in The Dreaming, naming and creating animals and lands as she crossed the shoreline, leaving one of the “Songlines” as her legacy. In a beautiful “Morning Star Ceremony,” earthly Yolngu people communicate with their ancestors living on the island of the dead with the help of Banumbirr together with a “Morning Star Pole.” The ceremony starts at dusk and continues through the night, reaching a climax when Banumbirr rises a few hours before dawn. The ceremony must be planned well in advance since Venus rises a few hours before dawn only at certain times, which vary from year to year. The Yolngu people track the complex motion of Venus to predict when to hold the Morning Star Ceremony. They have observed that Venus never strays far from the Sun—they explain this in terms of a rope binding the two bodies together—that bond which Isaac Newton called “gravity.”

Canadian astrophotographer Alan Dyer provided a number of wonderful images of the night sky, as seen in the Southern Hemisphere, and we had the privilege, along with the audience, of viewing some of the same scenes after our performance in Adelaide through telescopes specially set up for the occasion near the concert hall.

Leading up to our visit to Penn State, we have been planning special activities with the wonderful Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics there. We are tremendously grateful for their help as we look forward to having our horizons broadened in this precious opportunity for dialogue with the scientific community.

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