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Duncan Copp's Barbican Space

The scientist and filmmaker presents a set of stunning visuals of recent space voyages alongside Holst's orchestral suite, 'The Planets'

A collection of Roman deities, the controllers of emotional drive, or simply vast spheres of gas and light, the planets have always been a source of great power and wonderment, so it’s not a surprise that a visual and musical collaboration between NASA and the Houston Symphony Orchestra has become a glowing success this year. This Saturday, the Barbican centre will present the multimedia event as part of their Great Performers season. Created by scientist and filmmaker Duncan Copp, Holst’s popular orchestral suite ‘The Planets’ will be played alongside new and visually astounding space imagery taken from recent voyages into the solar system. Dazed caught up with the man behind the production, Duncan Copp to find out more about this exciting astronomical performance...

Dazed Digital: How did you come to create the project? What was the inspiration behind it?
Duncan Copp: Shortly after I produced ‘In the shadow of the Moon’ I received a call from the Houston Symphony. They’d paid a visit to the Johnson Space Centre with the idea of updating a production they had shown before; a visual accompaniment to Holst’s The Planet Suite. A good friend of mine at the space centre put them in contact with me, and the rest is history!

DD: As an ancient study, why do you think astronomical and astrological activity is still so fascinating to us today as a modern audience?
Duncan Copp: Well, with astronomy it’s such a broad science when you think about it, it can’t help but touch all of us at some stage during our lives. A full Moon, a shooting star, the latest Hubble Space Telescope image - when you see these, you can’t help but engage with them. That prompts similar questions which were asked by our ancestors, how did it form? How long has it been there? And before long the questions become more profound; how big is the universe? How did we come to be?
Astrology, of course is a pseudo-science lacking the rigor of scientific thinking. But today horoscopes have more significance in the newspapers than financial information – most people read their stars rather than share prices.  That I guess is testament to the fact that we all want to be guided to some degree.

DD: How did you bring the performance into the present day? What was the process of selecting the HD footage?
Duncan Copp: A good score is timeless. You can listen to Bach or the Beatles, some of those tunes transcend time and will be with us forever. I think Holst’s ‘The Planets’ falls within this genre, it’s why this piece of music is so often the basis for film scores past and present, so I didn’t really have to work hard to bring the performance into the present day, it’s always been with us.
After studying planetary geology for my Ph.D. thesis, I was pretty familiar with all the wonderful imagery which was out there, or so I thought! When it came to actually selecting the images I hadn’t fully appreciated just how many incredible images existed. The exploration of the solar system has been so successful since I left university that the number of images to choose from was bewildering, and there was no real substitute than to sit down and start sifting. I reckon I looked at many thousands.

DD: The ‘concept’ of the planets can induce fear, wonderment, dread and pure fascination. Where does the fascination lie for you? Why did you become a scientist?
Duncan Copp: I think wonderment is instilled in you at a very early age, I guess fear and dread is too. With me I simply got a feeling in my stomach. It sounds corny I know, but that’s the best way to describe what I can recall when looking up at the sky as a young boy. Getting up at 2 am to see a meteor shower, waking the parents at four in the morning to see an eclipse of the Moon, or finding a fossil which looks like a toenail in a rock, and your Dad recounting it’s been there for millions of years! These things, simple as they sound, spark a curiosity, which at that age you aren’t eloquent enough to put into words or explain - it just happens. That led to me wanting to find out more and study science, which eventually led to my participating in helping create the first high resolution geological maps of Venus.

DD: Are there any aspects of the planets, either scientific or mythological that you feel particularly drawn to?
Duncan Copp: I’m not drawn to the planets in a mythological sense since I don’t really identify with that. But I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to actually be there. I love the incredible scientific statistics, for example it’s hot enough to melt lead on the surface of Venus, why so? Or the Valles Marineris on Mars would dwarf the Grand Canyon, so how was that formed then? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I guess it boils down to curiosity again, and the ever present ‘What if’ question, What if we could walk, fly over, touch, these other worlds, that’s what draws me to them.

DD: What effect are you trying to create by pairing Holst’s music to space imagery?
Duncan Copp: Holst’s ‘The Planets’ is a wonderful score, and individually, the images beamed back by robotic spacecraft from other worlds are fascinating. But I hope by putting the music and images together one enhances the other – there’s a synergy which creates even more enjoyment. I don’t think you could do this with every piece of music, but I think it works with ‘The Planets’.

DD: Each movement in the suite is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche. Do you think the planets effect the psyche, if so, how?
Duncan Copp: This is going to sound rather dull, but no, I don’t think planets effect the psyche. It’s true in past times they were personified and thought to affect us – but today sadly I don’t think many people would be able to point out a planet in the sky and name it, let alone say that its presence there effects the way they feel, if that’s what you mean by the question.

DD: You previously shot the much acclaimed film ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ - where next in the solar system do you think you might explore?
Duncan Copp: I’d like to make a documentary about the Sun. It’s a very fertile area of research at the moment. We take the Sun for granted and yet if we stop and think about it it’s incredible. It’s a real live star, and as far as the distance of stars go, we’re practically staring it in the face. We owe our existence to it and depend on it entirely. I think it represents the largest and most amazing physics lab in the solar system.

‘The Planets’ will be performed at the Barbican on 16 October (a Family matinee at 3pm and an evening concert at 7.30pm) which will start off the Barbican's "Great Performers" season