The Secret Life of Planets: Heavenly Bodies and Earthly Gossip (world premiere, LA Phil commission with generous support from the Lenore S. and Bernard A. Greenberg Fund)
About this Piece
As I did my research for “The Secret Life of Planets,” I was struck by each planet’s unique characteristics and inherent personality. I wrote songs that cast each planet in human form, imagining stories of a ragtag bunch, that like us, are flawed, idiosyncratic, lonely, and harbor secrets. Maybe it was the lockdown: gazing out the window into the night sky, coupled with seeing so few people, naturally led me to transmogrify the heavenly bodies into human companions. During interludes and transitions, I snuck in a cache of noisy, unpredictable interplanetary sounds recorded by NASA, adding site-specific noise to the mix, which has always been an important element in my work.
This song cycle has its own origin story: it is drawn from the “concertus interruptus” that opened “War of the Worlds,” the 2017 opera directed by Yuval Sharon. This imaginary “Planets Cycle” was repeatedly interrupted, and didn’t survive the first Martian attack. I had a blast writing those pieces - I was inspired by the original 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” which featured dance bands that were beamed live from hotel ballrooms in New York City. In our 2017 opera, I referenced the crackling ambience of those random radio orchestras, with invented dance numbers that shifted through a cycle of interplanetary moods. In this 2022 work, I imagined what might have happened if the song cycle had continued, uninterrupted by Martians, meteorologists, and generals. I revisited pieces, glued them back together, expanded and adapted some sections, added interludes and transitions, and composed some completely new songs. Reflecting my own mixed background, the music incorporates humor, darkness, noisy recordings of outer space, and dance music. The songs draw more on popular music, radio broadcasts, and noise, than on the European art song tradition. This song cycle will be premiered by the dynamic duo of Hila Plitmann, who was wildly virtuosic in her role as the voice of the Martian, and James Hayden, our beloved crooner. The fantastic David Bloom will conduct the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group.
“Mercury” serves as our opening theme, an overture that kicks things off with a fast-paced sample-driven instrumental whirl that pays tribute to Sun Ra, King Tubby, and some sci-fi sounds of analog synthesis.
“Venus” employs James Hayden as the modern counterpart to a ballroom crooner. He sings a ballad about Venus, who longed to escape her lonely planetary existence, only to wind up reading “The Hollywood Star” (an astronomically named gossip rag that was published in the basement of the L.A. apartment building where I lived years ago). The soprano steps in, showing a glimpse of her wild virtuosity and very personal interpretation of these planets.
“Earth” is a conversation about the rapidly deteriorating state of our planet, carried out by the soprano and bass with increasing desperation. The bass is clueless, and the soprano, in spite of her wisdom and patience, gets increasingly annoyed. “Earth” makes use of Disney Hall’s remarkable organ, focusing on its visceral, psychedelically low terrestrial frequencies, like an earthly ritual gone awry.
“Mars” features a visitation from a martian, in the form of Hila Plitmann’s wild virtuosic interplanetary stylings, which were a driving force in “War of the Worlds.” She pumps her home planet for information about its potential concealed life forms, quizzing Mars if he is “hiding his secret life beneath his icy exterior.”
“Io” is an interlude that incorporates sounds of lightning on Jupiter, plasma waves, and whistler tones, taken from data collected by Voyager. The bass intones the names of the four largest moons of Jupiter—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Phonetically, we can say “io” (pronounced “I owe”) you a planet, because nobody wants to sing about Uranus.
“Jupiter” profiles the giant aging bully of the galaxy, who, in the end, is revealed to be just another failed star. I was inspired by Konstantin Batygin’s research, that argues that Jupiter’s “grand tack” could explain the gaping hole at the heart of our solar system, and that Jupiter’s inward spiral created an interplanetary demolition derby of whirling, colliding fragmenting worlds. I saw Jupiter as a cosmic prize fighter, who thought the whole world revolved around him - any planet that got in his way didn’t stand a chance. Shifting string harmonics represent the changing orbits of Jupiter’s 79 (and counting) moons.
“Neptune” is a short instrumental interlude. Multiphonics in the low woodwinds and brass echo Neptune’s thick, windy atmosphere. The instruments huddle together to create a thick web of sound on a planet that is dark, cold, and very far from the sun, accompanied by recordings of noisy electromagnetic waves from Ganymede, our solar system’s largest moon.
“Saturn” reveals the dirt behind this planetary daydream. Saturn’s iconic ring-encircled form is the furthest planet visible to the naked eye. In spite of its pristine appearance, those rings hide debris and rust, like a diamond gathering dust, ranging from particles as small as of cigarette smoke, to as tall as a telephone poll. The song cycle closes with thoughts about the state of our own planet: our celestial body is slipping, slipping away.
Thank you to the LA Phil and all of the musicians, Hila Plitmann, James Hayden, and David Bloom for being part of this project and for your invaluable contributions. Dedicated to my mother, Phyllis Gosfield, 1929-2020.