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Watcher of the Sky
People have been asking me (well, one person has), why have you been chosen to compose a piece in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the birth of astronomer George Ellery Hale? And who was Hale?
George Hale, born in 1868, founded Kenwood, Yerkes, Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Observatories. He also built the largest telescope in the world four times – the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes, the 60-inch and 100-inch at Mount Wilson, and the 200-inch at Mount Palomar. Among many other achievements. (To learn more, check out the documentary film www.journeytopalomar.org by Todd and Robin Mason.) My family has been connected to George Hale and his legacy since 1893.
Kenwood Observatory, built by Hale's father for George, age 12
In 1893, at age eleven, my grandfather Harold Delos Babcock attended the Columbian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World's Fair. There he saw the then world's largest telescope, the 40-inch refractor, on display, built by Hale, then 25.
The Yerkes 40-inch refractor at the Chicago World's Fair
In 1909, Harold was hired by Hale to join the staff at Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, which was founded in 1904. Harold remained on the staff for 40 years. He then continued his observations of the sun at the Hale Solar Lab, Hale's private solar observatory in San Marino, for another 15 years. During World War One, Harold performed defense work for the National Research Council, for which Hale served as chairman of the organizing committee and first chairman of the council itself.
My father, Horace Welcome Babcock, graduated from Caltech (founded by Hale) and earned his doctorate at UC Berkley. My parents met while Horace was working at Yerkes Observatory, the home of the 40-inch refractor Harold had first seen in 1893. Horace joined the staff of Mount Wilson in 1946. He became Director of the Carnegie Observatories in 1964 and remained so until his retirement in 1978.
As early as 1903 Hale had begun to anticipate the creation of a major observatory in the Southern hemisphere. Under my father's direction, the Carnegie Observatories established the Las Campanas Observatory in the southern Atacama Desert of Chile in 1969.
The 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson
The 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson
The 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar
The Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas
In 2004, at the Caltech memorial event for Horace, I met Todd and Robin Mason, who were working on their documentary of the life of George Ellery Hale, "Journey to Palomar," eventually shown on PBS. Todd, in addition to being a documentary filmmaker and Juilliard-educated composer, has been creating digital images of what the GMT will look like when complete in a few more years. Harold gave me the Columbian half-dollar you see at the top of this post in 1961.— Bruce Babcock
Bruce and Harold Babcock
The Canary Who Sang
Brought into the coal mines caged, canaries were used to warn the people around them that danger was imminent. The birds’ songs and chirps would sound in these dark, manmade echo chambers. Their silent deaths would bring a final warning to the coal miners that the suffocating danger was imminent, prompting the miners to run for their safety. Through their sacrifice, these birds saved many miners from deadly catastrophes. The Canary Who Sang is an allegorical comment on today’s political climate of how a single voice can disrupt, challenge, and change opposing and unrelenting forces of power to create a hopeful future for change.
Inspired by women’s voices and stories from the Me Too movement, I was drawn to composing a piece for the early whistle-blowers whose stories and reports are often not told or silenced. Through the choice of medium, references, sonorities, and its opening theme, The Canary Who Sang follows the narrative of a young girl coming forward as a force of power tries to stomp and stifle her voice. Through her bittersweet return of her canary-theme, a sense of hope is potentially on the horizon. — Dayton Kinney
Variations on Emotions
Through a so-called theme and four variations that follow, this little piece hopes to depict how four emotional states – happiness, anger, sorrow and joy – can be captured and displayed. The combination of the above states comes from a Chinese phrase, which simply means the different emotions that we have in our lives.
In the theme, two simple lines stem out from the violin and cello part. They are not that dissonant, but when the other two parts come it, the music starts to go tweaky and bumpy in terms of its smoothness. Some tremolos at the end reveal tensions, showing palpitations before the music closes and proceeds into the 1st variation.
The 1st one is simple and direct, symbolizing happiness, perhaps some Classical style there. It is straight forward, casually sprinkled with interesting scales and vertical harmonies. The G# interjections from second violin open up the anger part in the 2nd variation. Highly dissonant, the second violin (finally) gets its chance to do its “melodic” part but never too pleasant – irritating enough. Those angry tremolos come at the end and the music fades into the sorrow part, led by viola.
The melancholic 3rd variation is directly delivered from the viola, with sentimental phrases, accompanied with harmonies in 7th and 9th spaced distantly. It looks to the distance and sighs. Weighty grievances are sensed at the end of the variation, only with the cello picking up at the 4th variation that joy returns. Cello leads the 4th variation, not explicitly happy but with some subtlety that eventually turns into a pleasant smile.
The pizzicatos come out, eventually tutti from all part. Well, negative emotions always linger and ponder on us not far away as the final phrase remind us. But let us hope for the best and that is the end of some brief glimpses on our emotions. — Roger Fong
Puck’s Game is inspired by the actions of Shakespeare’s mischievous sprite, Puck, the fairly-like jester from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music reflects Puck’s playful and restless nature through leaping gestures, frolicking motives and restless rhythmical figures. While there is a moment in the work when Puck exudes a more tender side, his truly impish nature quickly returns at the conclusion of the piece. — Daniel Burwasser
String Quartet - Mvt.1
The string quartet featured on Playing on the Edge 2 was completed in 2018, and is characterised by a first movement where melody and structure are shared equally by all the players; a second movement of stark contrast where the 1st violin solos over an ostinato figure shared by various combinations of the other instruments, and a third movement which talks constantly between the players.
Gregory J. Harris
STRING QUARTET NO.1 - Landscapes
For this piece, I wanted each movement to evoke an environment or setting into which the listener would be carried through several scenes, each characterized by a certain nerve or emotion, accompanied with a strong tactile quality to the imagery.
My intention was to take the listener on a journey where the physical and psychological terrain are wedded.
The string quartet model provided a perfect vehicle for the ideas expressed in this piece. The medium is ideal for its flexibility, as it can span across a wide spectrum of expressiveness. It can evoke an orchestral sense of power and timbral variation, while offering a rhythmical precision and subtlety (which is much harder to accomplish with an orchestra), as well as the most intimate and delicate qualities of a solo performer. A perfect balance of large and small.
Compositionally, it is constructed by exploiting the motifs introduced in the first couple of minutes. These melodic and rhythmic patterns expand, contract, invert and morph through many events of varying stylistic contexts (or backdrops), and are distributed throughout the 3 movements. — Gregory Harris