Songs from the night sky: How one experimental composer turned stars into music

Artists from all ages, from Van Gogh and his Starry Night to Disney animators and The Lion King, have drawn inspiration from the night sky. Add to the mix: John Cage, experimental composer. You might remember John Cage for his composition 4’33, one of the quietest revolutions of the music world. Cage was a fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for Advanced Studies in the 1960-1961 academic year, and it was only a matter of time before he would shatter the world of music again, only this time a little louder and from the state of Connecticut.

Atlas Eclipticalis (in color)

Star chart in color from Anton Becvar’s Atlas Eclipticalis. Image from Astronomical Institute at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Cage spent time at Wesleyan teaching and composing commissioned pieces; one such orchestral commission was owed to the Montreal Festival Society. Known for incorporating the element of chance in his compositions, Cage took a walk up to the Van Vleck Observatory one day with an idea for his latest commission: he would overlay musical staves (i.e. musical staffs) over charts of stars and, wherever the stars appeared on the staffs, he would record them as musical notes. When Cage arrived, the student worker in the Astronomy Library, Bill Jefferys, pulled the recently published Atlas Eclipticalis off the shelf. As Jefferys later recalled, “I showed [the charts] to Cage, whose eyes lit up as I think it was a lot more than he expected.” Cage checked the book out and worked on the composition in the Honors College.

Atlas Eclipticalis musical notation

Image capture of pages from Atlas Eclipticalis (above) and Variations 1 (right) in the New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Makes a Noise” (11 Sep 1966: 51).

A year or so later, Jefferys was invited to attend the US premiere of Atlas Eclipticalis at Connecticut College. On the concert, the Astronomy Library student worker said, “[Atlas Eclipticalis] was the music for a dance performance [titled Aeon] by Merce Cunningham…and his troupe. Cunningham was dressed as a chicken, I believe. The whole affair was quite amusing.” Seem a bit strange? Welcome to the world of experimental music! Atlas Eclipticalis was then performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and in tributes to the composer. A performance at Wesleyan University took place in 1988 and can be listened to below.

Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis joins the long-running artistic tradition of a fascination with the night sky. As the catalyst for artistic creation, the Van Vleck Observatory is now part of the history of that tradition. This site of education and research in astronomy has also been a place of artistic inspiration and intellectual development that extends beyond the strictly astronomical. What’s more, this tradition will continue in the centennial celebration in the fall of 2015: dancer/choreographer Eiko Otake will occupy the Van Vleck dome as part of her performance “A Body in an Observatory.” And of course, in the spring of 2016, there will be an encore rendition of Atlas Eclipticalis, too.