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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Music Of Cosmos

posted by on April 30 at 16:24 PM

In 1980 PBS aired the TV series, Cosmos, narrated by Carl Sagan. Easy to make fun of now, with his famous line, “Billions and billions of years ago…” Sagan at the time was the leader of the pop scientific community. Unabashed in his straightforwardness about subjects like biological evolution (a topic still hot today as ever), and the faux science of astrology, Sagan was the totem for all that was good in science. A man who could talk calmly and beautifully about the logic and confusion of the scientific world here on earth and out in the stratosphere.


I was 9 years old at the time, and my father was the science and math teacher at a small indian reservation high school in northeastern Washington. He loved Carl Sagan. He read his books, followed his writing in magazines, and was thrilled to see Spokane was going to air the series along with most of the rest of the PBS affiliates in the United States. Why my father, a devout Episcopal secularist, loved Sagan so much, yet also sent me and my brother to a small christian private school is beyond me. I assume he wanted us to have a good education, and maybe at the time, the Spokane school district wasn’t good. Who knows? But as rigorous as our private christian education was, so was our scientific education via Carl Sagan.

My brother was a math geek, so he probably remembers these things better than I, but what I do remember was the amazing, at least to me, at the time, special effects achieved in the series. While spaceships flew out into orbit, Carl Sagan walked around them as if he was on a life size set. Showing us quasars and imploding galaxies. Pontificating about what ancient scientists might have thought of the heavens, while reaching out in wonder and talking about the life he was certain was out there looking back at us.

The other important memory of the series i have is of the amazing and evocative soundtrack. As I’ve talked about before, I’ve always had a love of classical music, and love to see in what ways it can be referenced in modern electronic music. The music in Cosmos did this beautifully. Classic baroque by Bach and Pachelbel, intermingle with modern works by the vanguard of electronic music, Vangelis, Tomita, and Takemitsu. Vangelis and Tomita hadn’t yet achieved the status that they would in the following years when Vangelis’ soundtrack work (Chariots of Fire) and Tomita’s classical recordings (The Planets) made them household names. But this was the television event that really put them all on the map. I remember my parents going out and buying Vangelis’ two albums, Heaven and Hell, and Albedo 0.39 after songs from them were aired on the series. And being a “classically trained” household, my brother and I were force fed infinite listenings of Tomita’s various albums which my mother would special order from the small local record store.


Needless to say, when I found this record in a dusty bin of “New Age” music a few weeks ago, a rush of memory flared out to me, like lens glare on film. Bach’s “Partita” and Vangelis’ “Alpha” started playing loudly inside my head, blocking out the Judas Priest that was blaring in the used record store. Mixing and intermingly their tones as I gazed at the martian landscapes inside the gatefold cover.

It would have been easy for the producers of the series and album to put together a little compilation with snippets from each artists, one after the other, but that’s not what they did. Sagan and his producers and sound engineers put together a thoughtful soundtrack which literally mixes classical pieces with the modern spacey electronic music, and programs them into “Parts” titled “Space/Time Continuum”, “Life”, “The Harmony Of Nature”, “Exploration”, “Cataclysm”, and “Affirmation”. Each part has one to four songs ranging from Hovhaness and Japanese flute music to Stravinsky mixing in with Kitaro, Tomita and guitarist Roy Buchanan.

It’s really cool.

I don’t know. Lineout readers might be too young for this kind of aural deja vu, or memory evocation, but just hearing this creative mix of great music brought me waves of nostalgia for a time when, I think, I was happy, well adjusted and my father and I could find something in common to gaze at in wonder.

The Music Of Cosmos.

Part 1: Space/Time Continuum A: Vangelis - Heaven And Hell, Pt.1 B: Shostakovich - Symphony No. 11 C. Vangelis - Alpha

Part 5: Cataclysm - A: Roy Buchanan - Fly Nighy Bird B: Vangelis - Beaubourg, Part 2 C: Stravinsky - The Rite Of Spring

RSS icon Comments


Yes! That soundtrack is great. The Vangelis track particularly owns.

Also, as fond as Sagan was of the word "billions", he never actually said "billions and billions" as that would be an incredibly imprecise measurement—3 billion? 957 billion?

Carl would have broken down that range into "billions", "tens of billions", or "hundreds of billions". I think Johnny Carson actually coined the phrase during a Carl Sagan parody skit.

Posted by Paulus | April 30, 2008 5:02 PM

Awesome post Terry. Sagan pushed me into astronomy at an early age. For that I will always be grateful.

Posted by Biggie J | May 1, 2008 7:52 AM

You have made my day—a day later than you meant to, sure, but still.

Posted by the man who couldn't blog | May 1, 2008 9:54 AM

OH YES, this was an awesome show and a brilliant soundtrack!

I must, however, take exception to your characterization of evolution as a "hot topic", which it really, honestly is not, anywhere except the minds of the ID crowd. In *real* science, evolution is a pretty happily settled topic with some hotly contested details. :)

Posted by Breklor | May 1, 2008 3:56 PM

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