Star Messengers in the Millennium
By Jillian Hanson
The natural world has inspired art for centuries, and many great artists have had an abiding interest in science. But these days, new works for the musical theatre don't often have scientific discovery as their theme. After all, what is entertaining about science? It turns out quite a lot, according to Paul Zimet, associate professor of theatre. The proof is in his new work, Star Messengers, which will debut at Smith in April 2000. This new piece of musical theatre about early 17th-century astronomers Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler is at the center of the scholarship, research and artistic creation that make up Star Messenger: Galileo at the Millennium, the 1999-2000 project of the Kahn Institute.
Theatre professor Paul Zimet's
newest piece of musical theatre is about 17th-century astronomers
Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. The production, which debuts
at Smith in April 2000, promises to be anything but conventional.
Star Messengers, which Zimet refers to as a music-theatre work (the word "play," he says, does not accurately describe a performance in which much of the dialogue is sung), revolves around Galileo and Kepler, who lived in Italy and Germany, respectively. Although Galileo and Kepler never met, Zimet says their "lives paralleled each other's in many ways. They both faced many obstacles in coming to their discoveries in new ways of thinking."
Although the two had much in common, their styles and personalities were quite different. "One of the reasons Galileo was so influential, aside from having developed this telescope that could see things no one had ever seen before, was that he was a great writer and he was able to propagate his ideas in ways that people actually understood," Zimet says. "Kepler's writings were in Latin and very abstruse, and only a learned few actually read them." Despite this, Zimet says, the lesser-known Kepler's contributions to science were just as significant as his counterpart's. "Conceptually, Kepler's ideaslaid the groundwork for Newton and his laws of gravity," Zimet notes. "Kepler's laws of planetary motion, in which he realized that planets didn't move in circular motions but in an ellipse, were in ways almost as revolutionary as the idea that the earth wasn't the center of the universe."
In addition to scenes that spotlight various moments in the astronomers' lives, such as the witchcraft trial of Kepler's mother and the introduction of Galileo's telescope to the Italian aristocracy, the script contains intriguing diversions from the basic story line. Several scenes illustrate complex scientific principles using the broad characters and physical humor of the commedia dell'arte style of theatre, a form Galileo himself sometimes used when writing up his theories for public consumption. There are also three interludes Zimet calls Intermedi. These scenes are fashioned after the entr'actes popular in 17th-century Italian plays, elaborate musical spectacles that often had little to do with the plays in which they were inserted. Zimet's Intermedi will use music and movement to explore abstract notions about how we perceive the world.
Using music, dance, spectacle, centuries-old theatrical styles and contemporary scientific ideas, Star Messengers promises to be anything but conventional. Zimet has worked closely with composer Ellen Maddow to set much of his script to music, and he hired choreographer Karinne Keithley to provide movement and dance.
Music is integral to the piece in part because Zimet and Maddow see an intrinsic link between music and science. "Kepler believed in the music of the spheres," says Maddow. "People of his time had this idea that different planets and different celestial bodies had different pitches." She says she was able to use this concept as a jumping-off point in her composition. "I actually found some series of notes that were believed to belong to the different planets, and I used those as the basis for some of the music."
Maddow, who likes to highlight the visual aspects of music for the theatre, has written the score to be played live, onstage, by accordion, cello, saxophone and keyboard. "I'm giving some of the characters specific instruments to always accompany them," Maddow says, "because the instrument has something to do with the character, and the way the instrument looks with the character and the way that it sounds also. So Galileo is always going to have an accordion accompany him when he sings, and sometimes when he speaks too."
Maddow has assigned the cello to Kepler: "His stuff is more classical and formal, like his personality." Some less traditional sounds will be incorporated into the mix as well, such as the recording of a pulsar that Maddow was able to download from the Internet. "It sounds kind of like African drumming," she says.
Star Messengers is the culminating special event in a series of lectures, exhibitions and symposia that make up the public component of Star Messenger: Galileo at the Millennium. This intensive, year-long look at Galileo, his contemporaries and their discoveries is being co-organized by Zimet and astronomy professor Dick White. According to Kahn Institute director Marjorie Senechal, the institute's mission is to enable groups of faculty and students from a variety of academic disciplines to work together on scholarly endeavors with a common intellectual goal.
Senechal, who is also Louise Wolff Kahn Professor of Mathematics and the director of the Program in the History of the Sciences, says project ideas originate with Smith faculty. "The initiative comes from the faculty, who bring proposals to us," she says. "And then we look at the different proposals and select the ones that we think are going to have the broadest appeal and have the most focused research effort."
It is no accident that the institute's year 2000 project focuses on the scientific discoveries being made in the early 1600s. Zimet points to the link between what was going on in Galileo's time and what is happening in ours. "The early 1600s were a time of tremendous discovery and sense of things turning upside down," Zimet says. "And the thought was that perhaps that was a good lens through which to look at the coming millennium It's sort of a way of looking back at that time as a parallel to the present."
Star Messengers will debut on campus as part of the theatre department's mainstage season. According to Zimet, who is also directing the show, the cast will consist of students and professional actors. And after its run at Smith? "Right now the plan is for my theatre company, The Talking Band, to produce it in New York sometime in the next year," Zimet says. "And we're always hoping there will be other productions of it as well."
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