Come Listen To Music At The Observatory That Discovered The Universe

Orchestra
A Sunday afternoon concert at Mount Wilson. (Photo by Dan Kohne)

By Tim Greiving

Space plus music? Yes please. Art and concerts built around specific places can feel like a gimmick, albeit a cool one — a chamber orchestra in a warehouse or an abandoned mental institution, anyone? — but the summer concert series at the Mount Wilson Observatory is worth the trek.

It took about 45 minutes to get from Pasadena to the observatory for the kickoff of the Sunday Afternoon Concerts in the Dome in May, but the views going up the winding Angeles Crest Highway are gorgeous. I walked from the dirt parking lot up to the 100-inch Telescope Dome, which looks like a big white steel silo.

It was the biggest telescope ever built when it was installed 100 years ago, and some of the most revelatory insights about the universe were discovered here.

Mount Wilson Observatory dome
Mount Wilson Observatory dome. (Photo courtesy of UCLA)

Inside, walking up the narrow metal stairs, it's cool to see the century-old guts of a space-age relic. There are multiple levels, but we headed all the way to the top, where a cluster of folding chairs were set out to create a makeshift concert hall. Dan Kohne, who sits on the Mount Wilson Institute's board of trustees, greeted us.

"This place..." Kohne said, looking around, "I'm going to use words like 'amazing' and 'astounding' over and over, because that's kind of what it is. The universe was basically discovered here. In 1908, there were stars out there, there was a Milky Way, but it wasn't even known that it was a spiral galaxy. And then, within 15, 20 years, other galaxies were discovered, or it was realized that the universe was expanding, which is the Big Bang. Most of cosmology comes from here. You're in for a big treat tonight, and it's going to start with this."

On cue, the roof of the dome opened — slowly yawning like a big mechanical mouth, revealing the afternoon sky. Then the sky started to rotate... no, wait, we rotated. As we did, three musicians — harpist Marcia Dickstein, violinist Roger Wilkie, and cellist Cécilia Tsan — took the stage. A piece by French composer Jacques Ibert sounds much bigger than three instruments when it swells and bounces around inside the giant dome.

"Dan Kohne asked me — since he knew I was a musician — he said, 'We want to somewhat revive that place, and would you like to come with your cello and test the acoustics?'" Tsan said.

She went there and found that the acoustics were, as she put it, "absolutely glorious." Tsan's also the artistic director of the series, now in its second year.

"It's very unique. Especially when they open the dome. You see the sky while you play. You feel like you're in sync with the universe," Tsan said.

Tsan has programmed different genres of music this summer, including jazz and a brass quintet, and she's featuring several new works by living composers — many of them friends of hers from the film music world (she regularly performs on soundtrack recordings, including the concert suite of John Williams' new main theme for Solo). She said the environment definitely affects her selections.

"Bruce Babcock, who is writing the string quartet that we are going to play in July — his father and grandfather were some of the founders of the Mount Wilson Observatory," she said. "They were scientists also. We are playing 'Verklärte Nacht,' which means 'the transfigured night.' So we try to have a connection with planets, the sky, astronomy, and the night."

After the recent concert, I spoke to a woman named Janet from Glendale, who was at the dome for the first time with her husband and daughter.

"I thought it was a great tie-in to the history of the telescope," Janet said. "I love science — I love space science — and so for me, it was just two of my favorite things that came together."

She said her love of science and the surroundings affected the way she experienced the music.

"And I think their song choices... they're pieces [from] around the time that the telescope was, I guess, built. So it got me back to the feeling of what it must have been like when the telescope first came to L.A., and the excitement of it," Janet said.

I made her get contemplative on the spot, asking how music and science relate to each other for her personally.

"This is really deep," she laughed. "But I think there are a lot of similarities. I think on a deep, philosophical level, I guess both science and music [are] searching for meaning in life, and both complement each other."

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC.