Welsh artists visit ALICE

Panos Charitos

Composer Mark Bowden and writer Owen Sheers spent a couple of days at CERN, working on their fundamental research for the “Creation Project”. They were invited by Arts@CERN Artists Visits programme which runs all year round and which specially curates their two day research visit according to the research they need to do for an artistic project. Mark Bowden is one of a new wave of composers to have emerged in the 21st century. South Wales-born, he has made a deep impression on the orchestral life of Britain and has recently become Resident Composer with BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Owen Sheers is a well-known Welsh poet, author, playwright, actor and TV presenter and one of the leading writers of his generation.

Own Sheers (right) and Mark Bowden (left) visited ALICE as part of their "Creation Project"

They are now departing on “The Creation Project” that was commissioned to Mark by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation. As part of his 5-years residency with the BBC Orchestra, Mark had to write a piece for the chorus and he was drawn to the subject of creation as an overarching theme. He is mainly inspired by Haydn's oratorio “The Creation” that Haydn wrote between 1796 and 1798 and for many is considered as his masterpiece.

As Mark notes: “Haydn was in England, touring in Europe and listening to his work performed by different musicians. He didn't have the chance to travel much and spent most of his life as a composer in the Royal Palace”. Haydn was inspired to write his oratorio during trips to England when he heard Handel's oratoria “Messiah” and “Israel in Egypt”. Moreover, during his stay in England he had a second profound experience that he described in his diaries; his meeting with Herschel who at that time had developed one of the largest telescopes in the world. “Haydn was invited to visit Herschel in Sleuth and he was one of the very few non-scientists who looked through this telescope and saw as far as the mankind has ever seen in the sky” adds Mark.

Mark Bowden and Owen Sheers discussing about their new musical and poetic collaborative project at the library.

Motivated by these experiences and despite the fact that he had never worked on an oratorio before, Haydn started working on “The Genesis”. He was given a text by an English poet that was translated in German so that Haydn could use it to compose his music and then it was again translated to English. The libretto has many references to Milton's Paradise Lost, to the book of Genesis as well as to the book of Psalms. Haydn's Creation also has some orchestral movements representing his experience with Herschel's telescope. “The very opening part refers to the representation of chaos and this is an idea that he got from Herschel who explained to him how the stars are formed”.

Taking Haydn's oratorio as a starting point, Mark Bowden decided that he would like to write a piece about creation in the 21st century. Mark hadn't met Owen before but he was aware of his work. So he asked him whether he would be interested to work in an oratorio referring to Creation and the origins of our Universe.

Owen recalls: “In the very first conversations, when Mark mentioned that this would be to some extent related to Haydn's creation, I was aware that he was responding to the Biblical narrative of the Creation. Moreover, we discussed about “The Planets” by Holst and the way in which his work reflects on how the planets are represented in Roman myths”. They both thought that in order to write a piece of music and text in the 21st century about the creation one has to get a clear sense of the character of scientific narrative and obviously CERN was the right place.

With the support of the Arts@CERN programme they arranged to spend a couple of days for research. Owen says: “What is fascinating for us is that despite that amount of reading that we did before getting here, at the end we both agreed that it is important not to pin down ourselves but instead keep an eye for new descriptions of things that we might already have heard about. It is always different being on site and interacting with so many different minds and perspectives, an incredible way to kick out our thoughts”.

Being at CERN loomed in their imagination for a long time since news from CERN often appear in the British press and spark a lot of interest. Owen says “My mind was constantly stretched between the extremes of scale; talking about the Universe and then about the Quark Gluon Plasma. But also to see the size and complexity of the machinery that we as human species are building just to get back to this point of understanding. It is incredibly inspiring. I wasn't expecting so much: it is like being in the United Nations of Thought!”. For Mark, being at CERN was also a humanizing experience “meeting people, looking at people sitting in the canteen, observing scientists in their daily routine”. As Owen remarks: “There has recently been so much focus on the Higgs boson but being here is encouraging as you understand that there are many more questions waiting for an answer and different lines of inquiring”.

Mark and Owen, felt that during the first 24 hours of their stay their thoughts were accelerated as they kept moving from one model to another and then to another. Every step of their journey triggered different thoughts. Owen explains: “Last night, during our visit to ALICE we become very fascinated by the quark gluon plasma (although I wish they had picked up a different name for the QGP). Later this morning we were listening to a talk about how elementary particles are liberated in a way they have never been before since the beginning of the Universe”. As a writer, Owen experienced a few disappointments, particularly when he found out that “people have stopped calling two of the quarks as beauty and truth. Obviously from a writer's point of view the point of liberating truth and beauty is a powerful idea”.

Of course one of the biggest challenges for Owen is to describe all these huge ideas and big questions in two pages of text that would fill a 35 minute oratorio. His trip was not only about research but also about harvesting phrases. For him it is important seeing how people are using the idiolect of high energy physics and how some of the most extraordinary phrases seem for them quite ordinary or even having a different echo: “I am personally fascinated by getting a clear understanding of this narrative and grasping the nature of the questions that are now provoked but the research done here at CERN“.

Their trip to CERN marks the beginning of this project. Once Owen finishes the libretto, Mark will start working on the music theme. Once the text and the music is completed there will be a six-months rehearsal period. The premier of the “Genesis” will take place in 2015; just in time for the next round of the LHC. The piece will be performed in May at St Davids Concert Hall, Cardiff.

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