Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pleiades Visions - Music and Aboriginal Astronomy

Dr. Matthew Whitehouse is an organist, composer, and astronomy educator in the U.S.  He completed undergraduate studies in organ performance at the University of South Carolina, followed by a Master of Music degree in organ performance and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Arizona. One of his major artistic interests is exploring connections between music and astronomy, an interest frequently reflected in his work as a composer and performer.

Dr Matthew Whitehouse

His solo organ work Nebulae, a musical narrative on the process of star formation, has been performed in such venues as Notre Dame Cathedral and St. Sulpice in Paris.  In February 2010, Whitehouse was a featured performer and presenter at a music/astronomy outreach event at Biosphere 2, located just outside of Tucson, Arizona.  Pleiades Visions (2012), his most recent organ work, is inspired by traditional music and mythology associated with the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster.  Improvisation is another of Whitehouse’s specialties, and his organ recitals frequently include improvisations inspired by astronomical images.

Whitehouse's work as an astronomy outreach educator is multifaceted, with a particular emphasis on children, youth, and schools. He is an astronomer partner and teacher workshop leader for Project ASTRO, a nationwide program developed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, which pairs astronomers with classroom teachers.  Since 2006 he has served on the instructional staff of The University of Arizona Astronomy Camp (hosted at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona), for which he has developed a series of guided listening experiences highlighting connections between music and science. He has given presentations and participated on panels at conferences of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the American Astronomical Society, and is published in ASP’s Mercury magazine. In October 2010, he was a speaker at the VII Conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena in Bath, UK.  Finally, Whitehouse has served on the staff of evening public outreach programs at Kitt Peak. 

Pleiades Visions (2012) takes inspiration from traditional lore and music associated with the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster from Australian Aboriginal, Native American, and Native Hawaiian cultures. It is based on research by the composer incorporating techniques from the fields of ethnomusicology and cultural astronomy. This large-scale work employs the organ’s vast sonic resources to evoke the majesty of the night sky and the expansive landscapes associated with the homelands of the cultures mentioned above. Other important themes in Pleiades Visions are those of place, origins, cosmology, and the creation of the world.

Infrared view of the Pleiades from the Spitzer Space Telescope. 
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Movement 1: Uluru (Pitjantjatjara) 

The opening movement of Pleiades Visions situates the listener in the landscape surrounding Uluru (Ayers Rock), a large sandstone rock formation located in the central desert of Australia. It can be understood as a reflection on the experience of observing the Pleiades – and the spectacular Southern Hemisphere night sky - from the vast and remote landscape of the Australian Outback. The musical materials comprising “Uluru” arise indirectly from a melody associated with the Pleiades from the Pitjantjatjara people, an Aboriginal group native to the area surrounding Uluru. Like other Aboriginal peoples, the Pitjantjatjara believe that the world was created in the Dreamtime: a time-before-time in which totemic ancestors wandered the landscape, creating animals, natural features, and all aspects of human society. In the Pitjantjatjara culture, the Seven Sisters are considered to be Dreamtime heroes. 

Click here to hear the performance on Whitehouse's Website.

Uluru” opens with a passage reflecting the vastness of the Australian central desert and the mystical nature of the Dreamtime.  Following this expansive opening passage is a colorful section calling to mind images of the Pleiades themselves and the brilliant Southern Hemisphere night sky. This section leads into a large toccata comprising the bulk of the movement; this toccata evokes the majestic rise of Uluru over the surrounding landscape.  The conclusion of “Uluru” reprises the opening material, now using full organ, reinforcing the movement’s depiction of the endless Outback landscape and brilliant desert night sky.


Dr. Matthew Whitehouse is available for concerts, lectures, composition commissions, and education/outreach events.   



            whitehouse.matthew -at- gmail.com 

            731 W. Bougainvillea Dr.
            Oro Valley, AZ, 85755
            United States

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