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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Total Solar Eclipse 2012 - Cairns, Australia

My wife, astrophysicist Tui Britton, and I were fortunate enough to be with friends in Cairns during the total solar eclipse on 14 November 2012.  It was a great week, in which we visited several rainforest reserves, beaches, and waterfalls.  I gave a talk on Aboriginal views of eclipses while Prof Brian Schmidt (Nobel Prize in Physics, 2011) talked about the mechanics of eclipses and cosmology for Small World Journeys, which was well received.

On the morning of the eclipse, clouds in Cairns threatened our view, but Tui and I decided to jump in the car to find a better spot, just minutes before totality (we had nothing to lose!).  We stopped by a row of shops near the airport and managed to film part of the ingress.  But just before totality, the clouds rolled in.  While we were frustrated that we were missing totality, it was still an amazing experience.  The 120 km wide shadow, travelling at 1,000 km per hour, rushed over.  The sky went dark, dogs started barking, the birds went silent, the temperature dropped, and Venus (which was the only planet that wasn't obscured by clouds) shone brightly overhead.  It was my first total eclipse and an emotional experience.

Fortunately, the clouds cleared just enough for us to see the black disc of the moon surrounded by the corona of the sun (below) for about 15 seconds before the sun popped out again, forming the diamond ring.  The sky (still largely obscured by clouds) shone a brilliant orange as the sun peeked out from behind the disc of the moon - we just managed to see it!

The total solar eclipse as seen from Cairns - just before moving out of totality.
Image by Duane Hamacher.

In the Aboriginal traditions of Arnhem Land, we just witnessed the moon man making love to the sun woman.  It was a nail-biting experience, but one I will always remember.  As an astronomer, it was a real tear-jerker moment - one I plan on experiencing again and again!  Later in the week, I was grateful to have a lovely chat with Paul Curnow and Gail Glasper.  Gail is an artist and Paul (BEd) is school teacher and amateur astronomer who has been lecturing at the Adelaide Planetarium for nearly 20 years.  Paul has researched the astronomy of several local Aboriginal groups, such as the Kaurna of Adelaide anAdnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges.

With a few media interviews to get the word of Aboriginal astronomy out to the public, it was a fun, exciting, and productive week.  I made a short video of our experience, which I share below.  Read more about solar and lunar eclipses in Aboriginal traditions or Torres Strait traditions).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wurdi Youang - the latest research

Recently, our paper on the alignments of the stones at Wurdi Youang was published in the journal Rock Art Research.  You can read the paper here.

Ray P. Norris,  Priscilla M. Norris, Duane W. Hamacher, and Reg Abrahams
Wurdi Youang - an Australian Aboriginal stone arrangement with possible solar indications
Rock Art Research, 2013, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp. 55-65.

In this paper, we present a detailed survey of the arrangement, testing the hypothesis that the stones have two sets of orientations tot he setting position of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes.  We have published a previous post describing Wurdi Youang, but this paper presents the details of the survey and statistical analysis.

Wurdi Youang has featured prominently in many media programs about Aboriginal astronomy, but some of the reported facts are in error. I would like to clarify these errors here for our readers.

1) We do not know the age of the stone arrangement. The family that owns the property on which the arrangement sits are the same family that settled the area upon colonisation. They claim the stones have always been there, rejecting a European-origin. Sites in the area have been dated to 20,000 years BP, but that does not mean Wurdi Youang is that old. Quotes in the media about this arrangement being 10,000 years old have no basis in fact. That was merely a hypothetical date used to give context to the oldest astronomically related sites we know about.

2) We do not know the purpose or use of this site. It seems to be some sort of ceremonial site, but the astronomical alignments may be peripheral to its main purpose. For this reason, we are careful not to label it an "observatory".

3) Some have suggested that the arrangement is not Aboriginal in origin, pointing out that no ethnographic data supports this claim. They also suggest that we not speculate about the origin of this arrangement until we learn more from our "Aboriginal brothers and sisters." We are still searching for Aboriginal elders who can tell us about the site, but the local Aboriginal land councils have informed us that almost nothing is known about it. But since the family that owns the land say it has been there since their ancestors colonised Australia, we can say that it is not European in origin. And we should be clear that we are testing a particular hypothesis, which does not include speculation.

4) Some people also claim that the stones could have been moved into these positions by humans and we cannot rule out that these alignments are the result of this action. We completely support this notion - that is the whole crux of our argument!  It is obvious someone moved these stones into their current positions for this purpose (it is not a natural feature). However, I believe the comment indicates that this was done by non-Aboriginal people after colonisation. While some of the outlier stones are relatively small and easily moveable, most of the basalt stones forming the main arrangement are quite large and heavy (some exceed 500 kg). Without an archaeological survey, there is no way to be certain who built it. But, again, the owners of the site have claimed the stones were there when the first colonists came to Australia. No other European arrangement resembles Wurdi Youang and it would have made a relatively poor "goat paddock".

The only facts we have are from the archaeological record. We are working closely with the traditional owners and submitting the appropriate permission forms in hopes to date the site and help restore some of the fallen and damaged stones (in some places, large bushes are growing between the stones, dislodging them). Dating the site will conclusively show whether the arrangement was built pre- or post-colonisation. Hopefully, we will be able to determine how old the site is and help the local community piece back together knowledge that has been lost or damaged by colonisation.