(Picture Source: NASA. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap050322.html )
Currently my time is being split between writing for the Sound Festival's You Can't Get there From Here (about which I blogged earlier, and will do so again soon), trying to finish my PhD, getting ready to start back teaching at the Conservatoire, and, at the moment, preparing for something of an audio-visual spectacle of a show of original music with gamelan group Gamelan Naga Mas.
Gamelan Untethered is a show all about Outer Space, and our relationship with the cosmos. It takes in everything from earthly glow worms looking up at space to constellations themselves, from astronauts free floating in space to orbits of planets, and space ants from a B-Movie nightmare. It's a really lovely, colourful show, and I've enjoyed every minute working on it. It's got a sort of "indie" quality to it that I think works well for it, and for Naga Mas.
My first contact with gamelan was a Naga Mas rehearsal in 1994 and a gig in Kelvingrove museum shortly after. Since then I've played with Naga Mas on ocassion, often if they're down a player or two. I enjoy my sporadic yet very friendly relationship with the group (several of the players were already very good friends anyway), and with gamelan in general.
Working with Naga Mas on Gamelan Untethered has afforded me the opportunity to write for gamelan again. I first composed a piece for gamelan back in 2000, for a commission from SPNM (now Sound and Music) for a concert with Joanna MacGregor and the South Bank Gamelan, led by John Pawson, and the concert featured both original gamelan music and also John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (which was a nice combination). The piece I wrote at the time, called 'Hammer', had some nice moments, but I was ultimately fairly dissatisfied with it as a piece. The piece was just a little over-complicated and not wholly well-conceived.
15 years later and I've had the chance to write again for gamelan, this time much more succesfully. The group have taken to my piece very well, and I've had some of the most straightforward rehearsals I've ever had of any piece.
The piece is called Untethered, and is about the first "untethered" spacewalk by astronaut Bruce McCandless in 1984, completely unattached to the spacecraft. The images of this moment are still simultaneously some of the most awe-inspiring and terrifying ever committed to film. They have also become one of the iconic images of all of our endeavours in space. This man floating alone in the most inhospitable of environments speaks strongly of Possibility. It has for me become a metaphor: both for the delicate, fragile nature of human life, and for the solitude that often must accompany many of our most challenging of endeavours.
A fact that emerged for me while researching the piece was that the space shuttle used to take McCandless into space was Challenger, the shuttle perhaps more well-known as the shuttle that exploded so horrifically shortly after its final launch in 1986, killing all seven of the crew. What's perhaps less well known is that Challenger had a huge, rich history of achievement before its final destruction, and was in fact the most succesful of the space shuttles. 85% of the the space shuttle missions were flown by Challenger, and many of the "firsts" in space were achieved with its help. The first woman in space, (Sally Ride, 1983), the first African-American (Guion Stewart Bluford, Jr, 1983), first in-space deployment and retrieval of satellites, mountains of research, and of course McCandless's untethered space walk. However unsurprising, it's something of a shame that Challenger's prior acheievements are overshadowed by it untimely destruction. As any sort of vehicles go, it really was a high achiever.
In any case, come along to Gamelan Untethered.
Gamelan Untethered is on Wednesday 9th September, 7.30pm at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It features original music by Colin Broom, J. Simon van der Walt, Margaret Smith, Katherine Waumsley, Jamie Dunnett & Gordon Mackinnon, with video by Alex Mackay, J. Simon van der Walt and Colin Broom. It's part of Cryptic's Discover Indonesia season.
Book tickets here.