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Most of us know that Galileo was a seminal astronomer, a brilliant scientist, and a visionary. Less well-known is the fact that he played the lute. His father was an influential composer, and his circle of friends included Claudio Monteverdi.
The link between pioneering astronomy and Baroque music might have remained obscure if Canadian astronomer John Percy had not happened to be a subscriber and fan of the Toronto-based period instrument ensemble Tafelmusik. From his post on the organising committee of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, which was celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope, he approached the group. Would it not be good to put together an evening of music around this idea?
Alison Mackay, a double-bass player with Tafelmusik, had long been dreaming of creating an evening of music for which the musicians would all play from memory. In thastre Galileo idea, she saw an opportunity.
At first, music director Jeanne Lamon was sceptical. "I was one of the last people to think that there would be any point in learning a program by heart," she remembers. "But in fact I found that it has given us a relationship to the music and an intimacy with each other as players which is deeper than anything we've ever experienced with music stands."
Inspired by the idea of a program that linked astronomy and music, Tafelmusik teamed up with actor Shaun Smyth, stage director Marshall Pynkoski, and designer Glenn Davidson for a 7-day residency at Banff, Canada's utopic Rocky Mountains arts centre.
That time of intensive rehearsal, which culminated in a presentation attended by both music-lovers and astronomers, with a chance to view the night sky through historic telescopes for all, was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work invested in the Galileo Project.
"In my 30 years of directing Tafelmusik, this is the best-prepared music we've ever presented," says Lamon. Anxious about their capacity to memorise the music, the players added extra "play dates" to their rehearsal schedule, meeting wherever and whenever they could - including, memorably, the abandoned ballroom of a Canadian railway hotel at midnight - to run through the music.
"We were joking the other day that if we had Alzheimer's, the last thing we would forget would be the music from the Galileo Proect, because it's so deeply embedded in our cells now," Lamon observes. "All that painstaking work paid off."
Tafelmusik and the Galileo team created a performance that breaks the boundaries of conventional formats. With projected images of historical and contemporary astronomical observations, a broad and engrossing narration from Smyth in a wide range of different characters, and a fastidiously choreographed series of musical performances that use the entire space of the concert-hall and become a kind of dance in themselves, the Galileo Project tells the story of man and the universe, science and music from Galileo's thrilling discoveries and unjust imprisonment through to the free, enlightened future that he predicted.
"Alison did a brilliant job of putting this program together," Lamon enthuses. "It appeals to people who love music as well as people who are interested in science. It is so well-paced and beautifully interwoven that it never feels didactic. People in the audience see it as a joyful experience; some are moved to tears by the beauty and breadth of the experience."
In a glorious coup at the end of the evening, Smyth reads from German astronomer Johannes Kepler's 1619 Harmonices Mundi, in which the laws of planetary motion are given harmonic expression. Kepler attributes a small melody to each planet, and the musicians of Tafelmusik weave these into Bach's How Brightly Shines the Morning Star [BWV 1].
"Kepler's idea is that the celestial orbs create their own music, and are in harmony with each other," explains Mackay. "The night sky inspires so much wonder that it's not surprising people thought of expressing that in terms of music. And we wanted to finish the programme with Bach, because Bach seems the most appropriate expression of wonder at the achievements of the human spirit."
It is this double sense of awe at the magnitude of the universe and the magnificence of human creation that gives the Galileo project its grandeur.
"You're on this little speck called earth, and you're just a little speck on this speck," says Lamon. "It makes you feel very small and very human and very vulnerable, but it also makes you feel very privileged to be a part of it."
Galileo, in his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, comments on both the wonder of the night sky and the greatness of the achievements of the human spirit.
"And actually, that's what we're doing for the entire two hours," says Smyth, "showing what humans have created. Against the backdrop of the universe, you come down to the speck that we're on. And then you look at the incredible discoveries that have been made, the music that has been written, and the artistry of the musicians on stage - counterbalancing those two things are part of what the programme is about."
Far from fizzling out when the 2009 astrological anniversary was over, the Galileo Project has gained a life of its own, taking Tafelmusik as far afield as China. But their forthcoming Musica Viva tour will be more than just the Canadian ensemble's Australian debut. It will also be the performers' first chance to see the Southern Cross. And they will, they insist, be rushing out to search the sky for the new constellation after each concert.