The Guardian AUGUST 21, 2009 - by Will Byers


From swans in flight to the awesome beauty of the heavens, there are plenty of sights in the universe to fill musicians with wonder. But their responses are intriguingly diverse.

Music is one of the most effective ways to convey the feeling of being struck dumb by the wonder and beauty of the universe. But how do you go about achieving the desired effect? Here are a few examples of musicians who have found wonder in music.

CASE STUDY ONE - Ligeti: Lontano

For obvious reasons, the 1960s and '70s were a hotbed for accounts of the wonder of space travel. Kubrick introduced the wider world to György Ligeti and forever stamped upon his '60s work a celestial beauty by using it liberally throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although it wasn't used in the film, the orchestral piece Lontano is my top recommendation from this era of Ligeti's work. Ligeti linked this not to space but to the dreamworlds of childhood. Nevertheless, the arrhythmic drift and unearthly harmonies are akin to his music of the same period that so perfectly suits Kubrick's film. This drift was achieved by building up textures from single instruments to the full ensemble - something you can see in the score, from the notes introduced in diagonal swaths across the page (you don't even need to read music to be able to see this).

In his previous pieces in this style, Ligeti had avoided using familiar chords in favour of atonal clusters. However, in Lontano, gleaming intervals and structures shine out from the haze. Listen to the clear-as-a-bell octaves that pierce through the murk like starlight over the crest of an approaching planet at 2:30, or the suggestion of a move into D minor that dissolves into a blur at 7:30. This provided meat for progressive rockers such as Van der Graaf Generator, as well as European synth pioneers Tangerine Dream.

CASE STUDY TWO - Brian Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks

The influence of Ligeti's music continues right up until Johnny-come-lately Brian Eno laid down the beautiful Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks in 1983. Here, for the most part, traditional chords and melodies are easier to pick out, though in Drift, the tonally ambiguous lineage is clear. Simple but crystalline, the synthesizer chords build and hang, combinations of notes forming momentarily before the long release of the note fades, leaving the impression of the next chord.

Before we snooze off, though, we should remember that a sense of wonder doesn't have to involve a drift into the Magellanic Clouds...

CASE STUDY THREE - Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

Sibelius was immensely moved by nature, and he has said that one of his most majestic themes - the final movement of his 5th Symphony - was inspired by the sight of a formation of swans flying over him in his native Finland. Starting at 1:26 in this clip, the stately brass melody - with changing intervals reaching up towards a constant top note - is an expression of Sibelius's awe at the beauty of nature. The wonder in his music has been infectious, with John Coltrane directly or indirectly quoting a similarly grand theme from the first movement of the same symphony in the opening bars of A Love Supreme.

CASE STUDY FOUR - Arcade Fire: No Cars Go

A more recent band who have proved themselves able to write anthemic passages without lapsing into empty bluster are Arcade Fire. On their first album, Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels), Wake Up and Rebellion (Lies) either begin or end with wordless melodies sawed passionately by strings and oohed and aahed by crowds of vocalists. But it is No Cars Go, at the end of Neon Bible, where they peak.

The opening flurry of notes bears a spooky resemblance to the first spread chord of the Sibelius above. But it's after the middle eight where things become even more oddly familiar. The breakdown begins as husband-and-wife singers Win and Régine lead us into the world "between the click of the light and the start of the dream". Over this, impossibly high strings clean the inside of your skull while woodwinds flutter and accordions begin to grow. The theme to which everything builds is a seesawing motif based on a set of intervals with a constant top note. Sound familiar? By the time the choir has entered and the strings reach up with a countermelody to take us to the end, you can picture Sibelius scouring the sky as those swans soar above again.