Symphonies of Galaxies #OISF

The Orkney International Science Festival

SYMPHONIES OF GALAXIES, The Orkney Club, Harbour Street, Kirkwall, September 9th

By Eamonn Keyes

Astronomy is one of the rich mix of influences on the Scottish composer Eddie McGuire, in conversation with astronomer Dr Anne-Marie Weijmans and trumpeter and conductor Bede Williams, both from St Andrews University. He has also played for more than 40 years in one of Scotland’s most distinctive traditional music groups, the Whistlebinkies, and a group of Orkney traditional musicians will help to celebrate the occasion.

Eddie McGuire playing his flute
Eddie McGuire

Music and Astronomy are no strangers to each other.

Throughout recent history Astronomy has been an inspiration for some of the finest musical compositions, both classical and contemporary. From the Pythagorean philosophical concept that turns the proportions of the movements of celestial bodies into the Music of The Spheres to the mega-selling ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by Pink Floyd or the majesty of Holst’s ‘The Planets Opus 32, mankind has been translating the joy of observing the heavens into a fitting musical accompaniment.

This event saw Scottish composer and flautist Eddie McGuire in conversation with Dutch astronomer Dr Anne-Marie Weijmans, who specialises and teaches studies primarily on Dark Matter haloes surrounding galaxies and also with New Zealand trumpeter and conductor Bede Williams, coming in via Zoom from St.Andrews University.

Eddie has produced an astonishing range of compositions over more than 50 years to great acclaim in classical music circles, winning awards on the way, but he is no purist, as for 50 years he has also been a member of the Whistlebinkies, a Scottish folk band who have played all over the world, and who were even the first Scottish folk ensemble to play in China in 1991.

The Whistlebinkies and their musical instrumnets
The Whistlebinkies

This has given Eddie a more eclectic attitude and approach to his compositions and performances, leading to scoring for operas, ballets, choral works, song cycles, ensemble and solo pieces as well as concertos and orchestral works. A large number of these are notably also works for guitar.

Despite the immense body of music he has produced over the years, Eddie is a modest and engaging conversationalist, with a penchant for making the remarkable seem insignificant and an everyday diversion, with his wry humour and his deep interest in his subject matter always shining through.

Given his interest in Astronomy it was completely appropriate for astronomer Dr Anne-Marie Weijmans to be his foil here, drawing out Eddie’s interest in the cosmos and discussing how it is developed within his music.

Bede Williams provided the musical balance here, having worked with some of Eddie’s repertoire both as trumpeter and as conductor, and this association helped both to illuminate the conversation and to add to its diversity.

As the evening progressed Eddie used his flute to demonstrate the musical themes in the pieces, preventing the subject from becoming too static, whilst discussing the inspiration behind pieces like ‘Five Stars In Auriga’, ‘Earthrise’, ‘Orbit’, ‘The Big Bang’ and others which go to form his Symphonies of Galaxies.

Eddie also mentioned how discussions with and suggestions from Orkney News contributor Duncan Lunan had helped work towards the naming of some of the pieces. Eddie then produced a music chart for one of the pieces which showed how the music looked like a side on view of a spiral galaxy. Beautifully made, I’d pay good money for this as a poster or print.

The discussion ended with questions from the audience which veered from the practical, such as whether there could be an Earthrise if you were on the Moon, as it always has the same face pointed towards the Moon, to the occasionally esoteric.

Altogether it was a fascinating evening. Eddie has the rare gift of being a speaker I could listen to for hours without tiring, and at the end of the evening he rounded things off by playing his flute and leading the audience off to the Orkney Club bar in a modern Pied Piper style.

Do yourself a favour and catch this truly remarkable and talented man in any future visits he makes to Orkney.

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