When the Morning Stars Sang Together (Job 38​.​7)

by John Harvey

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Job’s reference to ‘the morning stars’ may, some commentators believe, refer to the stars visible on the morning of creation. Others interpret them as being a metaphor for angels. My adaptation of the Jobian image is poetic rather than theological. I envisioned a choir of stars singing praise to their maker – a Judaic take on the musica universalis or Harmony of the Spheres, if you will. What would they’ve sounded like? Biblical astronomy has no term corresponding to ‘planet’. There are only stars, Sun, Moon, and Earth. Venus and Saturn are referred to in the Old Testament, but as stars. Therefore, in answering my question using planets, I was not straining the biblical vision (or audition) too greatly. But this was an intent that arose only after the composition had been completed.

Originally, the composition was conceived as a trial sound work made on behalf of one of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University’s MA Fine Art students, following a brief discussion that we had had a day earlier. The student wanted to generate a sonic accompaniment to a sci/art project about astronomy, which they were finalising for exhibition.

The student had already some idea of what would be appropriate and, to illustrate, played me a YouTube video of the sounds of planets recorded by NASA space probes. Every star and planet emits radio signals or electromagnetic vibrations and interactions that cannot be heard in the vacuum of space. Scientists have translated these frequencies into the audible spectrum. Copyright issues prevented the student from using the on-line files. In any case, they were not sufficiently and imaginatively processed, in the manner of the visual artwork that the sound work would accompany.

Rather than mimic the source sounds, I turned to the most well-known and much-loved sonification of the celestial spheres: Gustav Holst's suite, 'The Planets' (1914–16). My soundtrack (for want of a better word) derives from a recording of the music made in 1926. The suite’s movements, one for every planet (with the exception of the Earth) in the, then, known solar system, were stacked (superimposed) and mixed-down together. I extracted a small sample from the aggregate, which was, then, cleaned up, re-equalised, converted into a stereo signal and, finally, stretched twenty times its original length.

The extract was chosen because it represented, to my mind, the most exquisite part of the whole: a shimmering and yet fiercely jubilant ecstasy that transcended any resemblance to the source material. For this brief period (in real time) one relatively subdued section from each of Holst’s seven planetary compositions (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) aligned perfectly for what seemed like an eternity (in stretched time).

credits

released May 18, 2018
Personnel: London Symphony Orchestra and Womens' Chorus, and John Harvey.

Instrumentation: Adobe Audition CS6 and Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch software.

Context: Composed and recorded in Aberystwyth, UK, 18 May 2018.

Source: Gustav Holst, 'The Planets', Petty France Studios, Columbia, 1926. (78 rpm records, courtesy of the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales.)

Track cover: John Harvey. The image comprises a series of transparent superimpositions of photographs (courtesy of WikiCommons) taken of the planets referred to in the suite.

The Aural Bible series represents an explorative engagement with sonic material associated with the Judaeo-Christian and the acoustic culture of Protestant Christianity in particular. This is to the end of developing not only creative outputs but also a practice-based hermeneutic. The latter seeks to offer interpretations and discern significances that are otherwise not immediately evident either at source or using other modes of academic inquiry.

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John Harvey Ceredigion, UK

Harvey is a historian of art, visual culture, and sound art, and also a sound- and visual-art practitioner. His research field is the visual and sonic culture of religion, principally. He explores non-iconic attitudes to visualization and sonic articulations of religion by engaging visual, textual, and audible sources, theological and cultural ideas, and systemic and audiovisualogical processes. ... more

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