Frontiers 2023

Symphonies of Galaxies

Written by Eddie McGuire

To mark the 75th birthday of the Scottish composer Eddie McGuire, all five of his astronomy-inspired works will be performed in this year’s Orkney International Science Festival. They will be brought together on film, with recordings specially made by musicians from the University of St Andrews under the direction of Bede Williams interwoven with NASA imagery in three films created by Selena S Kuzman. An introduction to the closing piece, Symphonies of Galaxies, was given by the composer himself at a performance in St Andrews in 2015, the International Year of Light.

Well, the title of the piece is Symphonies of Galaxies, and I’m using that word ‘symphonies’ just to tell you that everything is sounding together, and a bit like Stravinsky who uses the word in his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. So I’m bringing together all the imaginary sounds of the galaxies into a piece of music. All that music can do is give you a hint of the ideas involved; you can’t really paint a picture directly of reality using music. I’m just going to spark your imagination, that’s all I can do. By letting you hear some beautiful sounds then you can imagine: you’ve got to do the work of imagining that universe out there. So we’re all part of something much bigger.

In fact this project is part of something that the United Nations sparked off; the General Assembly of the United Nations voted in 2013 to make this year, 2015, the Year of Light, so the piece of music you’re going to hear is a bit of a celebration of that. We hear about the universe accelerating in its expansion. If you wait patiently until the end of the piece you’ll hear the music becoming more excited and faster, symbolising that expansion. And that’s what music can do: symbolise things, and spark off some ideas.

The piece is a celebration of the work that Anne-Marie Weijmans and her colleagues are doing at the University of St Andrews in which they are mapping ten thousand nearby galaxies. It’s not like your local neighbourhood or local streets: these are galaxies out there. Amazingly the light from those galaxies takes millions of years to reach us here.

An expanding universe

I was also thinking during the earlier lecture [by Dr Tom Brown] that I was feeling a bit sad for poor Albert Einstein: he didn’t get a Nobel Prize for his greatest work – the Theory of Relativity .

I think we should dedicate the piece and this performance to him, I hope he is listening – maybe he’s listening in some type of time warp. We’ll dedicate this performance and piece to him instead of getting the Nobel Prize, I hope he’s happy with that.

But it’s actually one hundred years since he launched his General Theory of Relativity, and that has led to the insight that we can say that the Universe is expanding , and as the previous speaker said, that the colours of the light tell us how fast the galaxies are receding. And I tried to copy that, I tried to give a hint of that in my piece of music: the piece accelerates to the end, it gets more excitable. You’ll hear in the piece that it is quite a romantic expression, because it’s the human element, the researchers that are doing all this work – it’s Albert Einstein, it’s Newton, it’s Anne-Marie and her colleagues who are looking into the universe and finding out much more about it.

The piece has a bit of a parallel with the new techniques that they’ve invented. They’ve fabricated bundles of fibres that can look at not just one spot in a galaxy and expand it – they can look at the entire galaxy by multiple fibres that are fitted into a hexagonal shape to receive the information through all the different wavelengths of light that you heard about in the previous talk. The theme that you’ll hear at the very beginning is a theme that starts on one note and expands into a hexagonal shape:

Symphonies of Galaxies theme diagram


It starts on one note, expands to two notes, expands wider, comes together again and comes back to one note at the end. You can turn it upside down and see the same thing again, and that matches the bundle of fibres that are reaching out to those distant galaxies to collect the light and tell us if they are going away or are they coming towards us. I was alarmed to hear that there is a galaxy heading straight for us, and it’s going to crash right into us; but don’t worry – it’s not for about ten billion years, so it’s not for quite some time. But what I also learnt was that these galaxies are held in place by dark matter. So there’s a lot to be found out from this research, and it’s that kind of thing that I symbolise in the music. In the third movement you will hear it starts with one note and expands, and it goes in that manner into the very shape of a galaxy, this is my rough sketch that I did when I woke up one night and had the idea to make the third movement into the shape of a galaxy:

Symphonies of Galaxies 3rd mvt diagram W on B

Starting with one note, getting wider and wider and denser and denser, until it has all twelve notes. Luckily there are twelve instruments in the orchestra, and twelve notes in the note row I’m using (there are only twelve semitones that people use), so all the notes are heard at the middle point, the densest point of this musical galaxy. Then it fades out again, gets less and less and comes together on one note. So it’s a bit like looking side on at a massive spiral galaxy; the third movement is a painting in sound of a spiral galaxy.

A musical hexagon

All through the piece follows the hexagonal kind of pattern, it’s a symmetrical pattern that goes up a tone, up a minor third, down a tone and reverses that; the same is a reflection in the bass – it’s harmonies and melody going in the opposite direction. So that was my thinking on constructing the piece – getting the little bits of melody in the piece to match the ideas. Another idea is that sometimes the sound is a bit diffuse: a lot of tremolos and sounds cover up the melody. That’s because a lot of research is being done into how to look through the veils of dust that covers, say, the centre of our galaxy – you can’t really see it with your own eyes because it’s totally covered with dust, no hoover could hoover it up. What you can do is look at different wavelengths of light, you saw in the diagram from the previous speaker.

Towards the right side of the diagram was very sharp radiation that is gamma rays, X-rays these can cut through dust. If you look at them you’ll find out a lot of information about the centre of our galaxy, which is presumed to be the massive pulling power of a black hole. So that’s the ideas I’m trying to get across in the piece, we’re looking through that dust, and you’ll hear the dustiness in the music, but you’ll also hear little explosions of bright chords, dense chords, colliding sounds, and little bits of melody that break through into the light.

Movements and dancing

There are four movements; it starts with ‘Dust-veiled Starlight’. The second part is about the idea of the galaxies coming towards us; it’s about the galaxies dancing together. If you look at some of the computer simulations of galaxies colliding it creates very beautiful [images], probably horrific if you’re in the centre of it. But galaxies colliding are almost dancing with each other. So the second movement is a bit of a waltz, you can imagine galaxies waltzing together as they merge; they almost create Celtic knot work when they’re doing that, Celtic spirals. So ‘Embrace, Waltz and Merge’ is the name of the second movement.

The third movement is the one I mentioned before, in which I paint a picture of a galaxy starting at zero and expanding into a dense centre point. And then the fourth movement is what I mentioned earlier: that the universe is accelerating. Of course one day, we might all come to a rest in entropy, a kind of silent universe, but in the meantime the Universe is expanding and the pace of that increases. It starts off as a jig, six beats in the bar. Later you’ll hear the instruments in an energetic moment of seven beats in the bar, and then it becomes eight beats in the bar – a kind of reel dance, but it ends up with nine beats in the bar in a slip jig. So the last movement is a bit of a dance movement going through this kind of expansion and getting faster.

I was also intrigued, thinking back that when I was six, seven, eight and nine years old I was very fascinated by galaxies. I brought some of my notebooks in which I actually mention galaxies, and how far away they are, and how many billions of stars they had.  Here’s an extract, as written when I had just turned 9. I wrote out the full length of all the zeros there:

Solar System etc data Eddie March 1957

And I actually drew a map of the solar system; the date is 26 May 1961.

Solar System Eddie May 26th 1961

So I was fascinated by galaxies at that time. I haven’t done anything since then, but it’s great to come back to it, remember my childhood fascination and try and construct a piece of music which is both listenable and explanatory, pointing out some of the salient facts of the MaNGA project – mapping of the nearby galaxies at the University of St Andrews. I hope it elucidates and informs, is a tribute to the MaNGA project, and let’s dedicate it to poor Albert Einstein, who didn’t get a Nobel Prize for his Theory of Relativity.

Symphonies of Galaxies, along with Eddie McGuire’s other astronomy-inspired works, was performed on film in the 2023 Orkney International Science Festival on Thursday 7 September in the Orkney Theatre in an evening event titled But Oh! The Stars with Music Shine. On Saturday 9 September he joined astronomer Anne-Marie Weijmans and musician Bede Williams in conversation in the Orkney Club in an event with the title of Symphonies of Galaxies itself.

FEATURED IMAGE: The bright star at the center of NGC 3132, Southern Nebula Ring, while prominent when viewed by NASA’s Webb Telescope in near-infrared light, plays a supporting role in sculpting the surrounding nebula. A second star, barely visible at lower left along one of the bright star’s diffraction spikes, is the nebula’s source. It has ejected at least eight layers of gas and dust over thousands of years. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

About the author

Eddie McGuire

The spectrum of composer Eddie McGuire’s works ranges from Celtic Knotwork and Clyde Built to Chinese Knotwork and Winds at Sea. His music has been performed by many orchestras and groups. He has also written a ballet Peter Pan, and an opera The Loving of Etain, as well as concertos for guitar, trombone, violin, viola, bass and accordion. A lasting insight into choral music comes from his childhood in Possilpark, north-west Glasgow, when his father's male voice choir rehearsed at the family home and he had access to the local church organ. He has also played for more than 40 years in one of Scotland’s most distinctive traditional music groups, the Whistlebinkies.