Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Star Gayzing : A Musical Map of Venus

In the first of my “Out Of This World” series about astronomical objects and features on other planets named after people I mentioned that all of the names used for features on Venus are female.

This became the subject of an opera by lesbian composer Sorrel Hays. The ultimate result was called “Mapping Venus”, and it was originally inspired by a NASA space mission called the Magellan Project.

Because Venus is shrouded in a thick cloud of acid vapour it has been impossible to see any surface features with earth-bound telescopes. The only way to see what was on the planet’s surface was to land probes on it, or by obtaining radar data collected by an orbiting spacecraft. In 1978 NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter produced the first map of the surface using radar. Once features could be identified the task of naming them began.

The naming of all astronomical and planetary bodies is the responsibility of the International Astronomical Union. It is they who authorise the names of the asteroids I’ve been listing in my “Out Of This World” mini-series. It is also they who decided to name all the features on Venus after women, both real and mythological.

By 1989 there was a desire to make better maps of Venus, so the Magellan probe was launched. It arrived at Venus in 1990. The resulting radar images created a more detailed map and revealed a lot more features to name.

Among the lgbt women who have had features on Venus named after them are:
Jane Addams (1860-1935), social reformer and Nobel Peace Prize winner,
Josephine Baker (1906-1975), dancer and entertainer,
Aphra Behn (1640-1689), writer,
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), actor,
Karen Blixen (1885-1962), writer,
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), painter,
Karin Boye (1900-1941), writer,
Willa Cather (1873-1947), writer,
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), writer,
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), poet,
Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), dancer,
Eleanora Duse (1859-1924), actor,
Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912), pioneer female physician,
Frida Kahlo (1910-1954), artist,
Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940), novelist, first female Nobel Literature Prize winner,
Wanda Landowska (1877-1959), harpsichordist,
Margaret Mead (1901-1978), anthropologist,
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), poet,
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), painter,
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), writer,
Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967), writer and art patron,
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), writer.

In 1995 Sorrel Hays was commissioned to compose a piece by Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne for their experimental drama department.  This is just one of 8 commissions Sorrel received from them since 1983, and the new commission evolved into what was to be her most ambitious project to date.

The commission resulted in the radio opera “Dream in Her Mind”. Taking NASA’s Magellan project as the starting point Sorrel created an ethereal gathering of a group of famous women from history on the planet itself.

Chief “surveyor” and cartographer of this gathering is Gertrude Stein who encourages the other women to choose which part of the planet they prefer. In the opera Sorrel includes text from Stein and other female writers who gather on Venus – Hildegard of Bingen, Simone de Beauvoir and Emily Dickinson, among others – to explore female consciousness. Not surprisingly, most of the women who gather on Venus is this musical work do now have actual features on the planet named after them.

“Dream in Her Mind” was developed into the larger work called “Mapping Venus”.

One of the main features in Sorrel’s work is the use of electronic techniques including synthesisers and pre-recorded sound. In this she often works closely with her partner Marilyn Reis, who is one of the first female audio engineers to make a mark in a male-dominated industry.

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