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Let there Be Light

WE OPEN ON THE COLD EMPTY VOID. Is it space? Is there even any such thing as space yet? This is the beginning, and as the Hebrew scriptures tell it, God has just begun his process of creating everything. Beside God, there is only a vast emptiness, a dark sea of nothingness, and then, motion! God’s spirit — his breath — hovers, or “flutters” over the deep sea of nothingness, and He commands something non-void, but also other than Himself, into existence.


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth— Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

Genesis 1:1-3 (LEB)

Big Idea

The ancients debated what kind of stuff the universe might be made of, at a fundamental level. In the west and the near east, some said water, some earth, others wind, and still others, fire — or light. In the first few bars of the Hebrew scriptures, we find a primordial watery void. Then, a wind from God, in the form of his spirit, his very breath. We will soon learn that underneath the watery void, there is dry land to be revealed when the waters are separated.

So we’ve got water, wind, earth. There’s a missing element: fire, that is, light.

Ripples, waves, pulsations. Source.

Movement Breakdown

Note: This section shows timestamps for the mockup posted on Soundcloud. Click on a timestamp to start listening from that point.

0:00 — Musically, I illustrated the idea of an empty void with light tremolo strings in a very open D-major 7th chord. (The reason for that particular chord will become apparent soon.) These are presently joined by woodwinds pedaling chord tones, like beacons perhaps, but none of them aligned. We are just starting to feel the main musical idea of the movement, that is, waves.

I listened to a number of those “spooky space sounds” tracks that NASA put out a while back. They’re not really the sounds of planets, but sonifications of electromagnetic data. Youtube user Tantacrul has a great video on why that’s problematic. Nevertheless, this idea that empty space is an open chord, with sonorous but not pure intervals is an old idea, and hard to get away from. I did not use Pythagoras’s idea of the “music of the spheres” directly; instead, these chord tones are derived from the main theme.

The idea of light waves appears musically in this movement in several forms:

  • tremolo strings, which are not unlike compression waves;
  • repeated notes or short figures, especially in winds and glockenspiel, evoking the repeating shapes of wave forms;
  • trills — so many trills!

00:14 — Trumpet, horn, and trombone state the theme. The theme is derived from the Hebrew words for “let there be light”. The last note in the movement is a C# instead of an E, because I made a mistake, but I liked the way it sounded. And if you line those pitches up, D A F# C#, you have a D major 7th chord.

Major 7th chords are unstable and the major ninth is a pretty dissonant interval; nevertheless, I personally think of major 7th chords as very peaceful — probably because of that famous Satie Gymnopedie Nr 1. But you can think of them as having the qualities of both major and minor chords. If you spell it C-E-G-B, then CEG is a major triad, and EGB is a minor triad.

00:40 — The perfect fifth at the beginning of the theme is repeated a few times, more urgently, until there is a large brass chord. I originally toyed with the idea of making “And God said,” which repeats in Genesis 1 a number of times, as a combination of brass and timpani. I soon abandoned that idea because I wanted to use brass and timpani for other things. Didn’t want to lock myself into anything.

01:00 — I extended the idea that major 7th chords are major/minor by adding in the tones of B minor to the Dmaj7 to make it sound more minor. So B-D-F# is a minor triad, then D-F#-A is a major, then F#-A-C# is another minor. (Don’t get too excited, it’s just a ninth chord.) I added a G# specifically for dissonance.

I think the big brass chord is light breaking forth. So the movement is over, right? The Big Bang happened, so that’s all she wrote on “let there be light.” But I had this idea that from the initial spark, undulating waves of light — or even the entire electromagnetic spectrum — would sort of unfurl from the initial spark, sort of like a flower opening, except not petals but galaxies and nebulae.

“Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula, as captured by the Hubble telescope. Source.

I thought about the “Pillars of Creation” — specifically the image captured by Hubble that looks like ghostly figures over a cloudy, starry backdrop — often when writing this.

01:05 — The cello solo is in some ways a melodic response to the main theme. The score is marked espressivo, which is my way of saying that the performer should really pour on the schmaltz. The melody itself sounds like reaching, grasping, stretching to me. Imagine a stellar nursery, filled with nebulous clouds coalescing into stars. I added some high flutes and glockenspiel to add twinkle.

The “twinkle” is the first instance of a 2-against-3 recurring rhythmic motif. The time signature of the movement is 6/8, but it could just as easily have been 3/4 — the pulse wavers between 2 beats of 3 subdivisions each (leans toward 6/8) and 3 beats of two subdivisions each (leans toward 3/4), or both simultaneously, as here. I originally notated the movement in 3/4, but found the many dotted quarter rhythms in the melodic lines especially to strongly suggest some multiple of 3/8. I thought about 12/8, but with the slow tempo it seemed more sensible to have smaller measures as a practical matter, and also decided that none of the melodic material really had a strong 4-beat period. So 6/8 seemed like the best compromise.

This three-gainst-two happens in other parts of the piece as a whole. I like how that particular rhythm seems to be moving when it isn’t really going anywhere — like the sparkles of sunlight on a lake which makes it look like the water is flowing when it isn’t. A sort of standing wave. Which incidentally, is perfect for a piece about the fundamental elemental nature of the cosmos.

From a practical standpoint, though, I needed to break up a lot of chords. The harmonic technique of this movement is a series of extended chords, which change at phrase boundaries mostly, but are essentially static. Instead of bolting on too much functional harmony, I opted for breaking the big chords into smaller chords, and the smaller ones into smaller ones, almost like how a Sierpiński triangle or a fractal works — bigger things made out of smaller, self-similar things. You can see how the Oboe line and the second clarinet line above are playing the same notes, an octave apart, but the oboe is undulating betweeen them 2/3 as fast as the 2nd clarinet is.

01:50 — playing on the simultaneous major/minor quality of the opening chord, the music transitions from the major half to the minor. The theme is restated, this time against a more clearly minor backdrop. It’s the same notes, but the character is changed. I think it’s sort of like how light reflects in a mirror. The same, but reversed.

And it was important to me in this work as a whole that it not be only upbeat and positive happy Sunday School music. “Creation” is multifaceted. I don’t really buy into the whole yin-yang concept, or that creation comes out of some kind of Zoroastrian power struggle, but it’s pretty clear that light creates shadows. It bounces around, and the illumination and darkness are how you know that anything exists. So the entire suite sort plays with this idea of a dark side to everything — not evil so much as more primitive. The darkness was before the light, after all.

This post is part of a series. Read them all: Creation • I Light • II Separation • III Sea & Land • IV Plants • V Sun, Moon & Stars • VI Swarms • VII Birds • VIII Whales • IX Animals • X People • XI Sabbath

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