A Composer Turned the Sounds of Stars into Music, and You Can Hear it at the Nasher

The Vela Pulsar emits radio signals that will be used in tonight's performance.
The Vela Pulsar emits radio signals that will be used in tonight's performance.

In 1967, when two astrophysicists picked up regularly recurring radio signals from the heavens, they didn't really think the signals were coming from little green men in outer space. But the thought did cross their minds.

What else could it be? The rhythms they detected were so accurate and musical, a natural explanation seemed unimaginable. Eventually the scientists discovered that they were actually observing a new kind of star -- a pulsar, or the rotating, radioactive remains of a supernova.

Twenty years later, French composer and U.C. Berkeley professor Gérard Grisey became fascinated with the rhythmic sounds of one pulsar in particular (the Vela). He built upon its natural rhythms and composed Le Noir de l'Etoile, an hour-long piece for percussion ensemble, tape and live electronics. The performance can take place indoors or outside under the night sky from which the pulsar's electromagnetic radiation beams. The six percussionists are dispersed around the audience.

Tonight, the Nasher's Soundings series brings two opportunities to hear this other-worldly "music" inside the museum. The twilight performance (8 p.m.) is preceded at 7 p.m. by Science, Music, and the Galaxy Song, a presentation and discussion with Matthew Shetrone, Ph.D., a research scientist at the McDonald Observatory.

At 9:30 p.m. the discussion will be repeated and followed by a second, late-night performance (11 p.m.). Complimentary wine will be served at each talk.

The sounds of Le Noir de l'Etoile are primitive and focused entirely on rhythm instead of pitch. This is the kind of programming that will bend your perception of what "classical" music -- or music itself -- can be.

Tickets at www.nashersculpturecenter.org

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