A Musical Zodiac: Interview with the Composer
Since music and astrology are in some senses soul-sisters, it’s surprising (perhaps) that so little music based on our cosmic art has been written in the classical tradition. So it’s hugely satisfying that award-winning composer, visiting professor at the Royal College of Music, conductor and all round music maven Debbie Wiseman has filled this lacuna with a luscious, imaginative Musical Zodiac. This is a sequence of sound portraits in the classical tradition — like Elgar’s Enigma Variations — with one song for each sign from Aries to Pisces.
Wiseman talked to The Oxford Astrologer last week and gave a little insight into the evolution of the work.
OA I wondered what your process was for discovering the character of each sign.
DW Well, I started with Greek mythology behind the signs. I went back and did quite a lot of research. … Because I’m so used to working with pictures, I felt I needed a story to develop each star sign.
[Wiseman is a well-regarded composer for film and television. You may have heard her work recently on Wolf Hall, Dickensian or Emmy-winner Lost Christmas, for example.]
I felt I needed to know quite a lot about the stories … and then I talked to various different people about their experiences of their own sign.
Each sign has been thought about, and carefully explored… My hope is that each person will find a little bit of themselves in the piece about their own star signs.
OA It’s clear to me that they’ve been carefully explored . … It worked.
DW That’s a fantastic thing to hear. I’m thrilled, because I didn’t want to do this just without knowing the background. Obviously, I’ve had an interest in the star signs, in astrology, but this really helped me focus it. …To me it seemed like a perfect marriage…
OA I think astrologers would argue that there’s an affinity between astrology and music. It’s about numbers and psychology and patterns at the same time.
The Musical Zodiac
(Debbie Wiseman and the National Symphony Orchestra)
is released on iTunes and CD today.
Click those links if you’d like to hear the whole cycle.
DW Yes, for example, with Virgo I wanted to create the methodical, sometimes over-critical perfectionist which I thought was particularly Virgo. You know, they have this reputation. I wrote this story about a woman — this was just in my mind — determined to finish her task. She’s making a dress, and I had these images in my mind, and hopefully that means that somewhere in there, there’s a little bit of a Virgo character.
OA Oh I think that’s the case.
DW What’s your star sign by the way?
OA I’m a Pisces. Leo Rising though, which helps me a lot — otherwise I would just be under a rock.
DW Oh I know. My husband’s a Pisces.
[Dare I say a match made in heaven with the Sun-Neptune opposition… ed.]
OA Did you find it hard to get under the skin of any particular sign?
DW Funnily enough Gemini. It’s quite elusive. It’s very complex and contradictory. On the one hand I found the versatility of Gemini, and on the other the flightiness. That I found quite difficult. I came up with a story for Gemini of these identical twins. One is represented by a violin and one is a cello. That took a while to come up with.
But they all had their own challenges. Each one took a while. I’m Taurus, so I found that one not too difficult.
OA Yes, I find Taurus especially convincing as well. You’ve found the earthiness in Taurus and the solidity.
DW Funnily enough — one of my [Taurus] friends,who is a gardener, said exactly the same thing — “it sounds earthy”.
OA Sounds brown and round to me. … I got your chart up. I don’t know what time you were born so I don’t know your rising sign. But it’s interesting that you found Gemini difficult, because you actually have Mercury in Gemini [your communications planet] but it is retrograde. So it’s an introverted Mercury. I wonder what your Rising Sign is, because you are a confident person. You have a Jupiter and Venus conjunction in Aries which must give you a lot of fiery force and the ability to stand up in front of an orchestra and tell them what to do.
DW You’re right. Confidence is extremely important for anybody working in music, especially for a conductor. And people often ask, because I’m a female composer, how difficult is it standing up in front of an orchestra, because you don’t see many female conductors on the podium. And I always say that it’s a question of confidence. You have to develop that. It’s not something that comes immediately… the ability to take charge of the music. Somebody has to do that… to deliver the performance.
OA [Slightly distracted by the chart.] You have got Neptune, which is the planet we associate with composers, directly opposite your Sun, which is what we might expect for a musician. So speaking metaphorically, you’re grounding the music for people. It comes through you. [Taurus Sun, Neptune in Scorpio]
OK. Back to Musical Zodiac. … Do you remember when the idea came to you? Maybe even what date that was?
DW It would have been last year… it would have been around this time last year…because I was discussing it with Classic FM. They wanted something in 12 — a suite. They thought it would be great to have a new track every month. So I was thinking what would be good in 12. Then, as I said, I thought someone would have done the Zodiac….
[So Wiseman conceived, composed and recorded this suite while Jupiter was traversing Virgo, the sign of perfection — and indeed the first song to be broadcast in full will be Virgo on Classic FM. You can watch her conducting the recording here.]
…and a cellist friend of mine, who actually plays the cello solos on the album. (He’s a Gemini, and plays the solo cello on Gemini — I sort of wrote it for him actually.) He then mentioned — it had been going round in my head about doing the 12 star signs — and then he mentioned it, and then someone else mentioned it — and then I thought this must be the right thing to do…
OA Did it come to you easily in the end, aside from Gemini?
DW The music flowed quite naturally. Once I had the story in my head…. For me music has to mean something; it has to tell a story. I don’t like writing anything terribly abstract; I like it to have a purpose. And I think that’s because of my background in writing film scores. The music is there to help a story. And I wanted to do the same even with a standalone album. Even though it’s music to be listened to on its own. I wanted to tell a story. So once I had a story in my head and I knew the character of each of the star signs and where I wanted it to go, then the music flowed.
OA Were there any time you felt yourself going somewhere really quite strange?
DW Cancer, funnily enough, because that was maybe one of the least clear-cut. I know a lot of Cancers actually and they can vary from being quite timid and shy to being quite tenacious and powerful, sort of prone to fantasy perhaps. So I wrote a story. It’s actually one of my favourite stories… It’s a story about a crab who loves the moon. An oboe you hear in the piece plays the part of my rather wise and sensitive crab… He waits for the moon to come down at the end of the day, sings to it at night, watches it disappear. He wants to live there more than anything else, and that idea allowed the music to flow. And maybe certain people I know try to shape their life into this sort of romantic ideal… that was prominent in my mind as I was writing.
OA That’s very beautiful.
DW I should tell you the whole story then. In the end — you’ll hear it in the music — there’s a storm at sea and the crab tries to escape. But he’s engulfed by one of the huge waves that crashes down on the shore, and the force of the wave knocks him out. When he wakes up, he’s looking down at the earth from his new home on the moon — and we’re not sure if he is or he isn’t there. So the music ends with that slight question mark.
I talk about the stories on Classic FM — the 18th September. Charlotte Green’s show at around 3 o’clock. That day I’m talking about Virgo and the story behind Virgo.
OA Which instrument did you choose for each sign? Like the cello and violin for Gemini, or the oboe for Cancer.
DW Sometimes it wasn’t a specific instrument: it wasn’t as rigid as that. But if one made itself known to me or I felt that, yes, this instrument is right for this star sign, I used it.
Taurus: you’ll hear the angry Bull on the strings and oboe. Yes, Gemini is violin and cello for our twins. Leo was played by the french horn: a story about a brave and bold lion. The french horn features quite strongly in that.
OA Leo must have been fairly straightforward…
DW You’re right. It was one of the most straightforward ones. I wrote a story in my head about a lion who stands at the head of a great river. And the french horn seemed right for this indestructible lion. It made the right sound.
I felt the piano was right for Scorpio, so the piano plays the part of the scorpion in the piece.
Sagittarius is kind of adventurous and energetic, and doesn’t have a particular lead instrument.
Aquarius features the clarinet solo, which kind of depicts Zeus. Again, these are sort of subconscious things really — from just thinking about that story. I took my inspiration from an original myth: the Greek version of the Noah’s ark story.
Flute and harp are featured in Pisces. It’s a simple story about the journey of a fish. It was one of the easiest, I felt, to write.
OA I think that you have the Moon in Sagittarius. Did you feel any affinity with Sagittarius when you wrote that?
DW Yes, I did feel an affinity with Sagittarius. Again it was one of the ones that flowed incredibly naturally.
I wanted Sagittarius to feel energetic and adventurous. I made up a story about a famous hunter, who had a legendary aim with a bow and arrow, and that helped me write the story. I wanted it to be full of enterprise.
Jonathan Cainer did my chart for me, and wrote the sleeve notes for the album. He responded to the music and wrote his take on each sign. He is a Sagittarius. [Sun and Ascendant.] When we were recording the album at the studio, he came along to have a listen. As he walked into the studio, we happened to be playing Sagittarius — and he loved it. It was absolutely brilliant — a perfect moment.
PS I am looking forward to hearing what readers of this post think of the music.