Wonder: a Scientific Oratorio

Wonder_A Scientific Oratorio_photograph


All composers have a touch of the megalomaniac about them – it comes of believing they are thinking up new “sound-worlds” all the time. So when I got the opportunity to work with Jodrell Bank astronomers on a piece which tried to portray the creation of the universe, I jumped at the chance.

In 2007, Teresa Anderson had approached the BBC Philharmonic with the idea of making a piece celebrating the IAU’s International Year of Astronomy, due to take place in 2009.

I had also been talking with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra in 2007 about a potential project marking the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death in 2009, and Martin Maris, projects manager of the BBC Philharmonic, saw a way of linking the two ideas. I had been thinking of an updated version of Haydn’s religious oratorio The Creation (written after Haydn had visited astronomer William Herschel in his observatory), and in conversation with Teresa, and with Tim O’Brien, the project grew to the more ambitious plan of making an oratorio – a choral piece with orchestra and solos – which would tell the story of the formation of the universe – this time the scientific one, rather than the religious one of Haydn’s oratorio.

I worked with playwright Philip Goulding who I think had devoured every popular cosmology book published in the last 10 years, to create a libretto, and Tim O’Brien revised it for scientific accuracy. The oratorio, which was to be sung by Salford Choral Society and the BBC Singers fell into 7 themes, and meanwhile Martin recruited 200 year 8 students from across the city of Salford to make accompanying visual and sonic work reflecting these themes. We obtained funding from Arts Council England to enable all the school participants to attend workshops at Jodrell Bank led by researchers and science educators so they would have direct contact with the latest research in cosmology and astrophysics.

The project all came together in November 2009 at Maxwell Hall in the University of Salford, complete with Jodrell Bank astronomers helping attendees look through telescopes (between breaks in the cloud), projected imagery and lighting (some of which was borrowed from Dr Who –shhh!), and some amazing weather balloons which had projections making them look like planets. I knew at the time I might never get another chance like it, and to my knowledge it remains unique in setting real scientific terminology in choral settings, involving school children and community groups, a professional orchestra and singers, and researchers from a world renowned scientific research institute.

Alan Edward Williams

Professor of Collaborative Composition
University of Salford
Blog : http://alanwilliams123.wordpress.com/
Twitter : @Alanwilliams123