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Tuesday 21st November 2000 (November Edition)
Article from the BBC in-house magazine "ARIEL"

British composer writes piece inspired by radio waves from the stars
by William Horsley, European Affairs Correspondent ©BBC News

At last I have heard the Music of the Spheres. In ancient times philosophers imagined that the music that accompanies the movement of the heavenly bodies must be transcendentally refreshing to the human soul. They were so right.

To hear this music, I had to travel to the remote coast of Latvia, on the
Baltic Sea. Soon you, too, will be able to hear the Music of the Spheres in greater comfort, thanks to a series of coincidences. The first was my good fortune to go on assignment last April to Latvia. I ventured into the former military exclusion zone near the oil port of Ventspils, which for many years was unmarked on ordinary maps. There, in a clearing, stands Little Star, a high-powered radio telescope once used by the Russians to intercept secret NATO communications and plan for Armageddon. Nowadays it scans the depths of the universe, and Little Star produces other-worldly music, which I recorded for my TV and radio reports.

THEN, SOMEWHERE IN NORTH LONDON, A BRITISH COMPOSER, MICHAEL OMER, heard my description of Little Star's enchanting music on the World Service edition of "From Our Own Correspondent". He felt impelled to write a musical piece for string orchestra. And the first performance of "Little Star Began To Sing" will be in London on February 3rd. The premiere, at the Guildhall School of Music in the Barbican, will be the first time as far as the programme's producers know that a FOOC despatch has inspired a new musical composition. Michael Omer calls it a synergy between life and art.

Little Star, the messenger which beams the ethereal music down to Earth, is the largest radio telescope in northern Europe, with a magnificent 32-metre wide dish. Its task now is to search for inter-stellar bodies -- quasars and the like - to help to map the universe. The Latvians themselves did not even know of Little Star's existence until 1994. I wanted to find out how a handful of astronomers had rescued Little Star from the scrapheap after the withdrawal of the Russian army, which would have preferred to blow it up. Happily, it now seems that Little Star is safe, and playing a part in the search for life beyond our solar system.

The air of mystery was palpable before I even saw Little Star. I had a rendezvous with the scientists who are working, with too little money and no heating in the freezing winter nights, to restore the telescope's faculties. Before they left, the Russians had cut the power cables, poured acid on the motors, and smashed the supporting infrastructure.

We approached by car, past the ghost town of abandoned apartment blocs once lived in by 2000 Soviet scientists and spies. Now the buildings stand bare, stripped even of their window-frames. As we pulled up on a dirt track in the forest, I saw Little Star, fifty metres high, soaring above the pine trees.

With a mischievous sense of fun, the astronomers inside were already putting on a show. The yellow-ochre dish antenna twisted round, amid a whirring of engines, to face us. And then Little Star began to sing.

It was a haunting sound -- a piercing, metallic note, followed by another, equally insistent. Each was accompanied by strange harmonics, which echoed through the forest. I asked a veteran among the team of star-gazers there, "What makes that sound?" And the wise old man replied, as if to reveal a mystery: "It is the selsyans. They vibrate, you know".

My mind raced. What on earth could these "selsyans" be? I imagined tiny creatures, as light and graceful as angels, dancing on the surface of the dish. The truth was scarcely less fanciful. The astronomer, Guntis Ozolins, explained that the selsyans are transformers on Little Star's ultra-sensitive antenna, which pick up radio waves from outer space. As they vibrate they turn these into sounds, and hence into music -- the Music of the Spheres.

When Michael Omer received my audio dubs of Little Star's music, he called up in high excitement to say that the muse had done her work. He had been inspired. "Little Star Began To Sing" is a musical evocation of the selsyans' chorus and the whole ensemble in the Latvian forest. And the climax of the selsyans' singing corresponds exactly with the pitch and quality of the notes which I heard ringing out from Little Star through the Latvian forest.

A lot of Michael’s music is inspired by outer space. Last July his choral work "To The Stars", dedicated to the astronauts who lost their lives in the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, was played at the BARBICAN HALL. "Little Star Began To Sing" will have two further performances after the one in the Guildhall School of Music - including a double bill with "To The Stars" next April 20th in ST JOHN'S SMITH SQUARE.

I am glad that Little Star's celestial music will now be heard by others. For me it will bring back the time when, with my team of cosmic tourists, I stopped before sunset on the road back from the majestic telescope. We turned back and saw the great dish turning again towards the heavens -- presumably for an evening concert before bedtime. And as I watched I thought to myself, "Surely, those selsyans must be vibrating now!"

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