Thursday, October 8, 2015

Icarus Flies Again — Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

My favorite D.C. attorney, Christopher Meldrum, is a student of classical mythological reception. It’s great to see what one can do after graduating with honors in Classics from BYU! He shares the following observations on an interesting usage of the Icarus myth. Thanks, Chris!
Goltzius' Icarus is one of his
etchings of the Four Disgracers (Icarus,
Phaethon, Ixion, and Tantalus), 1588.
A performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a symphonic work entitled “Icarus At The Edge of Time” [OGCMA0593NOTIcarus_GreeneGlass]  ( The piece was originally commissioned and produced by World Science Festival (New York) with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Southbank Centre (London) with the Royal Society. The Festival has the following blurb on the piece "What if Icarus traveled not to the sun but to a black hole? This 40-minute full orchestral work is a mesmerizing adaptation of Icarus at the Edge of Time, Brian Greene’s book for children. A re-imagining of the Greek myth, which brings Einstein’s concepts of relativity to visceral, emotional life, it features an original score by Philip Glass, script adapted by Greene and David Henry Hwang, and film created and directed by AL + AL."

The performance intermeshes music by Philip Glass, narration by astrophysicist Mario Livio, and a film into a STEAM-activated concert. STEAM activation equates to highly participatory opportunities for audiences of all ages, creative brainchildren of Annemarie Guzy of the BSO (cf. blog, Americans for the Arts.)

As the BSO blurb states
cover of B. Greene's
Icarus at the Edge of Time
, the multimedia piece itself is an adaptation of Icarus at the Edge of Time, a children’s book by Cambridge physicist Brian Greene (a proponent of Sting Theory who you might remember from the NOVA special An Elegant Universe).  Wikipedia says that it is "a science fiction retelling of Icarus' tale. It is about a young man who runs away from his traveling, deep-space home to explore a black hole." You can read additional information about the book, as well as an interview with Green about the book, on (

In the Q& A, two of the following are of particular relevance to the myth

"Q: Where did the idea to re-imagine the Icarus legend (set in outer space and involving black holes!) come from?

A: I recently told my two and a half year old son a bedtime story that involved space travelers moving near the speed of light. Within days he was telling his own animated stories of dinosaurs and monsters outrunning a new and wonderful concept--"the speed of dark." Which got me thinking. Storytelling is our most basic and powerful means of communication. We listen with a different kind of intensity--and open ourselves most fully--to a gripping tale. So why not allow some of science’s greatest wonders to be experienced not through pedagogy but through the force of narrative? Science in fiction, as opposed to science fiction. Scientific insights that are absorbed rather than studied. Icarus At The Edge Of Time is my first attempt to explore this terrain. Instead of a journey near the sun--a "light" star--Icarus heads to a black hole--a "dark" star. And then the wonders of Einstein's relativity kick in, warping the more familiar ending into a painful conclusion, to be sure, but perhaps one that's more hopeful than the original.

Q: The story of Icarus is a cautionary tale, what do you think it has to say when applied (as it is here) to the nature of scientific exploration of the universe?

A: Great scientists are great adventurers, boldly exploring unknown terrain--"anxiously searching" as Einstein once put it "for a truth one feels but cannot find, until final emergence into the light." Icarus's fearlessness fits this profile to a "T". But there's another side to scientific exploration. Scientific research has the capacity to reveal realms that turn the status quo on its head. And when this happens, we're often not prepared--as a society we're often not sufficiently mature--to take on the responsibility that such new realms can require.

From nuclear knowledge to stem cells, from global climate change to cloning, science not only opens up new vistas but confronts us with profound challenges. In this new version of the Icarus tale, Icarus's unrestrained explorations take him, literally, to a startling new realm--one in which the universe as he knew it becomes forever beyond his reach. We can imagine him maturing into his new life and experience, but we also feel the wrenching pain of his being torn from his familiar reality--and from his family--and entering a completely new world--the very process of maturation we collectively navigate as science rewrites the rules of what's possible."

— submitted by Christopher Meldrum