Light Speed with Time Canons

for large orchestra

Camden Reeves

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for large orchestra

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Composer Camden Reeves
Year of Composition 2019
Duration ca.15'
Forces picc, 2fl, 2ob, ca,, 2cl, 2bn, cbn, 4hn, 2tpt, tptd/picc-tpt, 2tbn, btbn, tba, timp, 3perc, hp, cel, strings
Categories (all composers)
Catalogue ID ce-cr2lstc1


This music was composed in celebration of the centenary of the experimental proof of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Einstein published his theory in 1915. The experimental proof was made under the leadership of Arthur Eddington in 1919.

Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944) was an astronomer, physicist and mathematician. He studied physics at Owen’s College, later to become the University of Manchester (where I am a Professor of Music). Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which explains gravity, predicts that the mass of heavy objects warps space and deflects light. In May 1919, Eddington led an expedition to the island of Principe to observe a solar eclipse. Eddington and his team made measurements of the positions of stars around the sun, stars that can only be seen during a solar eclipse, to determine if the mass of the sun bends starlight. The measurements confirmed that the starlight had been shifted precisely according to Einstein’s equations, proving that mass does indeed warp space. The confirmation propelled Einstein to world fame.

This piece marks the centenary of this most beautiful of experiments by interpreting the idea of Relativity both rhythmically and harmonically. Rhythmically, it takes the idea of things moving at different speeds relative to a constant. In physics that constant is the speed of light: the fastest thing in the universe. In the musical universe of this composition, the fastest moving thing is a moto perpetuo (beginning in the strings) that forms a metrical constant in the manner of an inverted rhythmic cantus firmus (i.e. inverted in the sense that a cantus firmus is usually the slowest line in the texture, whereas here it is the fastest). Against this metrical constant, a series of increasingly complex mirror canons unfold outwards in register. Each canonic voice is slower than the preceding one, such that initially fast music is gradually bent and deflected
into something static and massive. As the canons get ever slower, the moto perpetuo is gradually subsumed into a texture of harmonic stasis. As one approaches the speed of light, time slows down. When one reaches the speed of light, time stops.

Harmonically, the music interprets Relativity through a series of expanding chords that start about two-thirds of the way through. The same frequencies in the centre of the texture are reinterpreted as different spectral overtones relative to a descending sequence of fundamentals; that is to say, the same notes are heard from changing harmonic perspectives. The last in this sequence of descending fundamentals is a low C. In scientific nomenclature, ‘C’ is the symbol for the speed of light.

Towards the end of the work, a solo trumpeter stands and plays an excerpt of plainchant from the Requiem Mass, et lux perpetua luceat eis: ‘let perpetual light shine upon them’. Much was made in the press at the time of Einstein and Eddington’s collaboration. A German and British scientist working together again, after the Great War, was seen as a symbol of hope that the divisions in Europe might one day heal.

Light Speed With Time Canons was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester. The score is dedicated to my dear friend, the great composer John Casken, who has been a constant and shining light of help and inspiration over so many years.