Tag Archives: music

Songs of Science #7: Saint-Saëns

10 Sep

Camille Saint-Saëns was a French late-Romantic composer who’s probably best known for his The Carnival of the Animals suite – a lively musical journey through the natural world. Most of the suite’s 14 movements are inspired by a particular animal. “Tortoises”, for example, sees the strings play the can-can music (“Galop infernal”) infuriatingly sloooowly; “The Elephant” has a double bass playing a lumbering, comical melody; and “The cuckoo in the depths of the woods” features a clarinet mimicking the Common Cuckoo’s famous call.

One of my favourite movements is “Fossils”. I’m not sure what kind of fossils Saint-Saëns was imagining when he wrote it, but the clickety-clackety xylophone makes me think of dancing skeletons. The addictive melody still sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it must have done when it was first written in 1886. Listen out for the short snippet of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” – this may have been Saint-Saëns making a joke about those musical ‘fossils’ which we always dig up generation after generation.

“The Swan” is probably the most famous movement in The Carnival of The Animals, featuring a romantic cello solo floating gracefully over a surface of tinkling pianos. It’s nice, but a little on the melodramatic side for me. I prefer one of the other aquatic movements: the magical “Aquarium”. You might recognise this one – it’s been used in several films, as well as inspiring the soundtracks of countless others. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and it whisks me off to cloud cuckoo land every time I hear it.

Watch a virtuoso performance of the Carnival of the Animals suite on YouTube here.
For more of my ‘Songs of Science’ posts click here!
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Songs of Science #6: Björk

6 Apr

Last year, everyone’s favourite Icelandic songstress (that’s Björk, in case you’re wondering) released Biophilia, an album inspired by science and nature. The song “Moon“, for instance, features repetitive musical cycles that pay tribute to the lunar cycle, whilst the bassline in “Thunderbolt” is the sound of a Tesla coil’s electrical discharge.

Probably the most accessible track on the album, though, is “Cosmogony”, a hymn-like song about the birth of the universe, built around a beautiful, heart-rending melody. Each of its four verses describes a different version of the creation story: Native American, Sanskrit, Aboriginal, and then, finally, the scientific version:

“They say back then our universe wasn’t even there / Until a sudden bang / And then there was light, was sound, was matter / And it all became the world we know.”

Here’s a performance of the song recorded for Jools Holland last November. It’s slightly different to the album track, with some extra backing vocals provided by an all-female choir, and some marching percussion in the final verse. I defy anyone not to get at least a little bit emotional watching this:

For more science-themed music, click the image below to read an article based on my Songs of Science posts, written for the new issue of Guru magazine. There’s even an accompanying mixtape (well, a YouTube playlist anyway).

Songs of Science #5: Joanna Newsom

1 Mar

Ever wondered what the difference is between meteorites, meteors and meteoroids? In this 12-minute ode to her astrophysicist sister, “Emily”, Joanna Newsom attempts to explain:

“The meteorite is a source of the light / And the meteor’s just what we see / And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.”

The only problem is that Joanna’s got meteorites and meteoroids mixed up. Meteoroids are small chunks of rock and debris in the Solar System. In other words, they’re the “source of the light” because they glow if they fall through a planet’s atmosphere. If a meteoroid reaches the Earth’s surface and survives impact, it becomes known as a meteorite – a dull stone, “devoid of fire”. A meteor is just the visible path of a meteoroid as it passes through a planet’s atmosphere (a shooting star), so she got that one right.

But does anyone really care about this little mix-up? Probably not. And in any case, a small amount of artistic license is quickly forgiven when the song’s as beautiful as this one.

Click here to read all of the previous “Songs of Science” posts.

Songs of Science #4: British Sea Power

20 Jan

In 2002, a huge chunk of the Larsen Ice Shelf – “Larsen B” – collapsed into the sea. In just over a month, an area the size of the US state Rhode Island vanished from the Antarctic Peninsula – the most dramatic ice shelf disintegration ever recorded.

Scientists attributed this collapse to a series of warm summers, which led to increased air temperatures and the formation of meltwater ponds on the shelf’s surface. This water flowed down through cracks in the ice, helping to lever it apart and bring about its downfall.

The Larsen B ice shelf, before (left) and after (right) its collapse in early 2002 (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

The lovably eccentric band British Sea Power paid tribute to this defunct ice shelf on their 2005 album Open Season. “Oh Larsen B” features the glorious lyrics: “You’re fractured and cold but your heart is unbroken / My favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf / Oh Larsen B, oh you can fall on me / Oh Larsen B, desalinate the barren sea”.

And the music is equally glorious – one of British Sea Power’s trademark anthems, all buzzsaw guitars and breathy vocals. In fact, it’s probably the best love song to a collapsed ice shelf ever written…

Click here to read all of the previous “Songs of Science” posts.

The Myth of the 27 Club

30 Dec

A few months ago, I turned 27. Had I been a famous musician, I may well have dreaded this moment and gone into hibernation for a year, because 27 is the age of the rock star death.

The membership list of the ’27 Club’ – those musicians who met an untimely end at the age of 27 – reads like a Who’s Who of influential rock stars: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones…and so the list goes on. A rather morbid website dedicated to the phenomenon names many more, and this year saw the addition of another high-profile member: Amy Winehouse, who tragically died last July from alcohol poisoning.

Three members of the '27 Club' (l-r): Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse

So why do so many musicians seem to crash and burn at the age of 27? Is it all just a spooky coincidence, or do rock star deaths really group around this fabled age? A team of statisticians in Germany and Australia recently set out to solve the mystery of the 27 Club once and for all. Continue reading

Songs of Science #3: Bon Iver

26 Oct

“Holocene” is a song by Bon Iver (a.k.a. Justin Vernon), a man who proves that beards and falsettos aren’t incompatible. It’s a lovely, slow-burning track, built around a looped acoustic guitar and skittery percussion…the crescendo at 4:40 still gets me every time. Here’s the equally jaw-dropping video, shot in the Icelandic wilds:

The Holocene is the name of the Earth’s current geological ‘epoch’, which began around 12,000 years ago at the end of our planet’s last major glacial period. The entire history of human civilisation has been played out during the Holocene, from our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors through to today’s modern society.

Talking about the song, Justin Vernon said: “Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance…” The lyrics are about those moments when you feel humbled by the bigger picture (“And at once I knew I was not magnificent…I could see for miles, miles, miles”).

Now maybe Bon Iver should go on tour with Pleistocene and Younger Dryas…it’d be a geologist’s wet dream.

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