BERRIEN SPRINGS — When José Francisco Salgado first heard the music of contemporary Canadian composer John Estacio, the astronomer and experimental photographer knew he had found a kindred spirit.
“He had independently composed two pieces, one called ‘Solaris,’ which is inspired by our closest star, and another ‘Borealis,’ which is inspired by first seeing the Northern Lights in the 1990s,” Salgado says by phone from his home in Chicago. “When I listened to his music, I immediately knew it would be wonderful to marry it with my visuals so I contacted him about bringing these two pieces together to show the origin of how these particles come from the sun and the beautiful display they produce in the upper atmosphere.”
Fortunately, Salgado has some experience in this department.
Since creating a visual backdrop for the Chicago Sinfonietta’s 2006 performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” Salgado’s nonprofit science and arts education organization, KV 265, has collaborated with orchestras, composers and musicians to present films that provoke curiosity and a sense of wonder. To date, his “Science & Symphony” film series has been presented in 175 concerts in 60 cities reaching more than 375,000 people.
“After seeing my work, John Estacio gave me his blessing, which I was really excited about,” Salgado says. “This doesn’t happen all the time, where you have music that has been inspired by the subject that you want to cover. As an artist, I have to be inspired by the music and in my mind I have to see that I can make a connection to the music and the visuals. So this music was perfect for that.”
Using images and animation from NASA, and his own original photography, Salgado has created two high-definition short films that follow the tempo and tone set by Estacio’s compositions, which will serve as a visual backdrop this afternoon when the Southwestern Michigan Symphony Orchestra performs them during its concert, “Fire & Light,” at Andrews University’s Howard Performing Arts Center.
While “Borealis” premiered in 2015 and has been featured in Chicago, Allentown, Pa., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Salgado says this concert will be the debut of the recently completed “Solaris.”
“The objective of the ‘Science & Symphony’ project is to combine multiple disciplines of science and music with photography and filmmaking just to plant that seed of curiosity about subjects that people may not have been exposed to before,” Salgado says. “There is, of course, a connection between the northern lights and the sun. The northern lights are produced when electrons from the sun interact with the upper layers of our atmosphere and make the gasses in the atmosphere glow.”
For “Solaris,” Salgado predominately uses time-lapsed, high-resolution images of the sun taken by a NASA spacecraft as well as an animated, scientific visualization based on real data, while every single frame of “Borealis” is based on his photography series taken in September 2014 in Yellowknife, the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
“When people are thinking about how people’s brains work, they normally put the sciences in one bucket and the arts in another one,” says SMSO music director and conductor Robin Fountain, who previously worked with Salgado for the 2011 concert of Holst’s “The Planets.” “José is a person who has had a very serious scientific career, but he really has a tremendous flair for the use of artistic techniques to explore the universe. He has a good feel for how music and visuals go together and working with him is a fascinating process. He’s a remarkable man, and what he’s produced is really quite remarkable.”
The Puerto Rican-born Salgado, who earned his doctorate in astronomy at the University of Michigan, has had a long career in science communication, taking the wealth of information coming out of NASA and other science centers and presenting those findings in visually interesting and entertaining lectures for fellow scientists, students and the general public. As an experimental photographer, he also contributed visuals to documentaries produced for History, Discovery, BBC and National Geographic channels, which led to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s request for Holst’s “The Planets,” sending Salgado on a new career trajectory.
“All this time I had worked with stills – illustrations and photography – and this was my chance to move into motion graphics and filmmaking,” he says. “Instead of creating something just on screen that is beautiful but that could also distract, I wanted to create a film that is highly correlated with the music. I wanted the audience to see a connection between the character of the music and how these visuals are moving on screen. What I’m doing is like a soundtrack in reverse. The music is already composed so it is up to me to shape these visuals to fit the music and at the same time tell a visual story.”
Ironically, Estacio wrote “Solaris” as an overture to begin a concert that could feature Holst’s “The Planets.” Just as Holst fashioned a suite based on the characteristics of the gods and goddess associated with the planets, “Solaris” aimed to capture the essence of the sun.
The piece is divided into three sections. The first depicts the sun’s inhospitable nature of burning gas with gigantic flares leaping off the surface sonically illustrated with continuous rhythmic passages for the strings and winds, and swells from the percussion and brass. In the second, as the sun’s energy travels through space, there are hushed strings and wisps of woodwind instruments, followed by solos for the bassoon, violin and cello, French horn, and the oboe. As the sun rises on our planet, the delicate melody transforms into a fanfare for the full brass. The piece concludes with music from the first section, and a flurry for the brass and strings.
The music of Estacio’s “Borealis,” in contrast, attempts to capture the curving lights that abruptly disappear and reappear in the northern skies. Originally written as one of a pair of movements (the second being “Wondrous Light,”), “Borealis” begins with the strings playing a major chord then gradually glissing until they all arrive at a different chord. A flute introduces fragments of a melody, which isn’t heard in its entirety until later in the piece when it is performed by a bassoon and then a horn. The strings perform the melody and the composition swells to its climax featuring the brass and the sound splashes provided by the percussion, ending with an auditory effect in the percussion section.
“‘Borealis’ is mostly a slow atmosphere piece, and ‘Solaris’ is a more uptempo, brighter piece,” Fountain says. “Both have a beautiful combination of contemporary kind of techniques. Then there are passages of just unabashed lyricism. The net combination is, I must say, extraordinary beautiful contemporary music and very approachable contemporary music, particularly if it’s being simultaneously interpreted for the listener in a visual way. It’s really quite brilliant.”
In addition to the two Estacio pieces, the SMSO also performs Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Op. 26, also known as Fingal’s Cave, alongside the Lake Michigan Youth Orchestra, and Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73.
“I decided to keep (the rest of the program) in this inspiration by nature theme, hence Hebrides Overture, which is a challenge for the youth symphony but I think it’s a good one,” Fountain says. “This also is sort of an optimistic concert about things that are intensely positive so I wanted to include a truly profound oldie but goodie that would have that feeling, and I think this is the sunniest of Brahms symphonies and fits that bill very well.”
For Salgado’s part, he just wants his own visual work to emphasize and, perhaps even enhance the experience of hearing this music.
“The idea is always to build on the music and to reinforce the music and to enhance the concert experience by combining science and music,” he says. “I would never make a film that distracts from the music. As much as I love science, that part is completely artistic. I couldn’t write a paper on how to successfully achieve this. It’s completely subjective and it’s something you either feel that it works or it doesn’t. But if I feel that it does, then I know that I have to try again.”
Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio
If you go
What: Southwestern Michigan Symphony Orchestra presents “Fire & Light” featuring original short films by José Francisco Salgado
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Andrews University’s Howard Performing Arts Center, 4160 E. Campus Circle Drive, Berrien Springs
How much: $20-$37, $5 for students