Music of the Spheres

Interview / by Lee Billings /

The composers of One Ring Zero’s new astronomy-themed album, PLANETS, discuss the scientific inspiration behind their music.

Courtesy of One Ring Zero

When they began their musical collaboration in 1999, Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp were both college students working part-time as instrument-repair technicians in Virginia. Now, more than a decade later, they live and work in New York City, and their ensemble band, One Ring Zero, has become a celebrated fixture of thoughtful, eclectic ethno-pop music.

The band’s latest album, PLANETS, is a paean to the solar system and the scientists and spacecraft that have helped explore it. Hearst and Camp spoke with Seed’s editors about their creative process, and the inspirations for their celestial sounds.

Seed Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for this album?

Joshua Camp: It started when the International Astronomical Union decided to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet.  At the time, we had just finished our album Wake Them Up, and hadn’t begun any other projects.  The news of Pluto’s demotion was shocking, inspiring, and funny, which led to us write and record a song about it. 

Michael Hearst: Yes, at that point, it dawned on us that maybe we should write songs for all of the planets. After all, it had been just about 100 years since Gustav Holst had composed his song cycle. Our knowledge of the solar system has changed since then, with many new discoveries. Of course, music has also changed since then.  At the same time, Holst’s The Planets was a big inspiration for us. It’s such an epic and entertaining piece—it seemed almost daunting to try and do what he had already done so well.  And yet, the challenge was what really sparked our interest.

SM: How did you go about researching this material, and did you find anything surprising?

MH: A lot of research went into the composing and recording of this album. Not just astronomy, but also astrology, and even history. After all, Holst’s The Planets is based on astrology, which is why the order of sections is based on distance from Earth. Our version starts at the Sun and works its way out. Nonetheless, we did our share of looking into the world of Greek and Roman mythology, and make references to such topics in songs like “Venus.” The original version of “Saturn,” which didn’t make the album, was largely inspired by Goya’s Black Painting of Saturn Devouring His Son, and all the associated mythology. Ultimately, however, it was science that dominated our inspiration for this project. Aside from the regular routes of internet and book research (as well as a lot more NOVA watching), we were lucky enough to be able to talk to several amazing scientists. A friend of ours Stacy Irwin, who is working on her PhD, was very helpful. She even put us in touch with one of her professors, astronaut Sam Durrance, who flew aboard a couple of NASA shuttle missions. And Neil deGrasse Tyson was kind enough to respond to several emails from me, too.

JC: I think what we really gained from this project was a much more in-depth information about each of the planets. Orbital periods, axial tilts, number of satellites, things like that. We also became much more interested in the extrasolar planets, in particular ones that just might be habitable. Totally fascinating stuff.

SM: With the composition and performance of the instrumental music, how did you try to make the music sound like or embody each different planet? What sorts of scientific data or discoveries did you rely on while composing the music?

MH: In order to really explain this, we would need to go from song to song. But for example, in “Jupiter,” we have a driving bass line, which pulses along steadily as a thunderous sounds booms in the background, much like how I imagine the turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter to be. This huge world, the largest in our solar system, also has the shortest day of a major planet. Jupiter rotates so fast that its day is only ten hours. We used this in the lyrics: “Only ten hours in a day. Another rising sun’s not far away. Only ten hours in a day. The never-ending storm will come our way.” And then the chorus enters, in a rather large and boisterous way, implying the power and immensity of the gas giant, maybe like the Great Red Spot sweeping over the horizon.

JC: Another example would be “Mars (Part I)” and “Mars (Part II),” where we used the ancient, vanished oceans of Mars to riff on the politics of planetary warming here on Earth and to wonder whether or not we are alone. We wound up with something of a Martian dance song. At the very end of the song, after a climactic false ending, we give a nod to Holst by sneaking in the melody from his version of “Mars: Bringer of War,” played on a glockenspiel, and then we drop in an actual sample of the Phoenix probe making its descent onto the surface of Mars, as recorded by NASA.

SM: What were your main influences on this album, in terms of the sound and in terms of the thematic content?

JC: We really wanted to create a symphonic rock album with epic songs comprised of multiple sections. So aside from Holst’s work as mentioned before, 1970’s progressive music was a main source of inspiration. We went back and listened to our favorite bands of that period like King Crimson, ELO, YES, and of course Pink Floyd, particularly their Atom Heart Mother record. We decided to try and balance the literal/narrative approach to lyrics with non-sequential/impressionist lyrics. Sometimes in the past, concept records by bands like Genesis and Rush, both of which we love, got bogged down in a narrative, which distracts from the music, so we tried to avoid that on this record.

MH: I definitely spent a lot of time watching PBS and Discovery. Most of the time, it seems MythBusters is on, which I also totally adore—in fact, Joshua and I are currently writing a song about MythBusters for the addendum CD to Esopus Magazine! But I’m always glued to the television when a show like NOVA scienceNOW comes on, which, for me, can’t help but conjure musical ideas.

SM: Have you performed this live anywhere yet, maybe some Pink-Floyd-style planetarium shows?

JC: Planetarium shows are definitely the goal for this record! We’re of that generation that grew up on the laser show, so yes, it was absolutely in the back of our minds while making this. We’re gearing up right now to try and tackle this material live. It will be a challenge to create a large “planetary” sound, but we have an ace five-piece band that’s up to the task.

MH: Yep, I actually just sent an email to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago about this. And perhaps our friend Neil deGrasse Tyson can help hook us up with a gig at the Hayden Planetarium.

SM: Were there any compositions that didn’t make the cut? Are there b-side tracks for Saturn’s moon, Titan, or the asteroid belt? Anything like that?

MH: I wouldn’t say there are any songs that didn’t make the cut, however, there are tons of sections and versions of songs that didn’t make it to the album. For just about every song, there are probably three or four version that got thrown out. We probably rewrote “Venus” five times, with the same lyrics each time, but different musical approaches, trying to get it just right. “Uranus” was recorded twice. “Pluto” twice.  “Saturn” had about three versions. “Neptune,” about four versions. There was a lot of extra material. 

JC: At one point, we did consider actually writing songs for some of the other dwarf planets and exoplanets. After all, if Pluto gets a song, why shouldn’t Ceres? But Pluto, of course, is much more familiar to us, and it has such a strong story, at least from our Earthling points-of-view.

SM: So after this process, what’s your favorite planet? Why?

MH: For me, I think it would have to be Saturn. Both musically and otherwise. As silly as it sounds, the rings have always been a big attraction for me.  It’s like a woman with really nice hips. Lyrically, we tried to imagine ourselves in a spacecraft, floating past Saturn, and what would that be like. Of course, it’s easier to imagine with the Cassini orbiter sending back so many great pictures. I imagine the sunlight reflecting from the ice and dust particles in a magnificent, singular way. It’s the greatest sky show our solar system has to offer.

JC: I still have a soft spot for Pluto, which is what started this whole album for us. I always tend to root for the underdog, or dwarf planet, as it were.


Originally published August 17, 2010

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