Science and Music Under the Stars Saturday in Marfa

30 May 2013

Event: McDonald Observatory astronomer Matthew Shetrone and Artistic Director Keith Knopp of Yellow Barn offer insight into the science and art behind popular and classical music in an afternoon presentation followed by a discussion. In the late evening, Yellow Barn percussionists perform Le Noir de l'Etoile, a work celebrating the discovery of pulsars.

When/Where: Saturday, June 1. Presentation and discussion will be at 2 p.m. in the Crowley Theater Annex in Marfa. The performance will be at 9:45 p.m. at Ranch 2810 (gates open at 9 p.m. and close at 9:30 p.m.).

Cost: Both events are free and reservations are not required.


In 1967, a young astronomer detected in the heavens a rapidly varying radio signal, in the form of periodic impulses 1.3 seconds apart. The discovery caused a sensation. The impulses were so regular that for a while they were taken to be signals coming from extraterrestrial civilizations. — Astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet

In May 2013 Music From Yellow Barn takes Gérard Grisey’s 1981 masterpiece based on the discovery and sounds of pulsars and staged for six percussionists surrounding an audience, to Dallas for sunset and midnight performances at the Nasher Sculpture Center, and then to a remote ranch in Marfa, Texas for its first performance out-of-doors.

On the occasion of an earlier performance of Grisey's Le Noir de l'Etoile at Yellow Barn in Putney, VT Jeremy Eichler wrote for The Boston Globe: "Is there music in the night sky? Of course thinkers from Pythagoras to Johannes Kepler have pondered 'the music of the spheres,' and composers from Gustav Holst to Mark-Anthony Turnage have on occasion waxed astronomical in their own works. But none have addressed the question quite as literally as the French spectralist Gérard Grisey, whose hourlong percussion work of 1989-90, Le Noir de l’Etoile, would seem to settle the matter once and for all. Conceived for six percussionists, tape, and live electronics, the piece takes as its inspiration and musical DNA the captured sounds of two actual pulsars, rhythmically beating from distant corners of the universe."

“There are a few pieces out there that go beyond drumming,” said Eduardo Leandro, a percussionist who has served on the Yellow Barn faculty and first proposed doing the Grisey outdoors. Leandro regards Le Noir de l’Etoile as a landmark 20th-century percussion score on par with iconic works by Varese, Xenakis, and Reich. “These pieces have an artistic and aesthetic core that remind you of the reason why percussion exists.” Each player in the Grisey performs on some 30 noisemaking instruments, from standard gongs to spring coils of the sort used in the shock absorbers of trucks.

In 1986, Grisey began to focus on unpredictability and volatility in music, and the organization of his works became less readily apparent, fractured as they were by abrupt changes and outbursts. In this work he turned to the nature of recently discovered entities in space, pulsars, which exist far outside our solar system, following processes alien to the regularity of the cycles we have come to depend on for life on our planet.

Grisey first heard the rhythmic beating of pulsars in California in 1985 and, in his words, “immediately wondered, like Picasso picking up an old bicycle saddle, what in the world could I do with this?” He chose to build a complex rhythmic world around them, erecting dense structures that set off two prerecorded interludes featuring the noise of the actual pulsars, as captured by radio telescopes. The Vela pulsar, the first of the two, makes a cameo appearance some 20 minutes into the piece.

The first outdoor performance of Le Noir de l'Etoile in Marfa would be a tremendously moving event. “If a performance is convincing, if it is striving for something, if that sense of exploration and that sense of wonder are present, I think an audience will be open to it,” said Seth Knopp, Yellow Barn's Artistic Director. “We don’t play this music out of duty, really, but out of a desire for everyone — the musicians, the audience — to have a full experience of what’s around us, and to try to understand where it came from.”

More information about Yellow Barn and Le Noir de l'Etoile, including images and audio clips, can be found on Yellow Barn's website.

Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music, encourages discovery in the studio, classroom, and concert hall; explores the craft of musical interpretation; and illuminates our world through the unique experience of music. Through its annual summer educational programs, and its ongoing series of Artist Residencies, outreach workshops and presentations, and collaborative performances, each year Yellow Barn welcomes over 100 musicians from all over the world to Vermont, and reaches more than 4,000 audience members from the local community and across the nation.