Yellow Barn's Big Bang

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jonathan Potter writes for the Brattleboro Reformer:

Tom Geballe has been an astronomer for 40 years.

Now he’s become a star.

Geballe flew in earlier this week from Hilo, Hawaii, where he works at the Gemini Observatory, to take part in a unique collaboration with a percussion ensemble as part of Yellow Barn’s Artist Residency program. Geballe has been cast as the narrator in a rare performance of Gerard Grisey’s "Le Noir de l’Etoile."

Inspired by the 1967 discovery of pulsars and the strange signals these remnants of supernova explosions were emitting, "Le Noir de l’Etoile," composed in 1989-90 features six percussionists, recordings of those pulsar signals and a narrator who introduces the piece.

Enter Geballe, who met Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp three years when Knopp’s group, The Peabody Trio, performed in Hilo for a concert society Geballe heads in his spare time.

The two hit it off, and Knopp was so eager to see the equipment at the observatory, Geballe agreed to take him up at 4 a.m. for a spectacular view of the sunrise over Hilo. Knopp called it "one of the greatest experiences of my life."

When Yellow Barn decided to team with percussionists Eduardo Leandro and Doug Perkins on "Le Noir de l’Etoile" for his residency program, Knopp thought of involving Geballe, both because his sonorous bass voice would be good for the narrator part and because, well, who else was he going to call when he needed an astronomer?

Geballe presented a talk Tuesday night at the Putney Public Library titled "Why is it dark at night?" He is also spending time this week working with students at The Greenwood School, which partners with Yellow Barn on the residency program.

On Tuesday afternoon, Geballe gave a talk on galaxies to all the students there, generating a lively discussion and many thoughtful and engaging questions from the students. One student asked Geballe about the likelihood of life existing somewhere else in the universe.

"My opinion is yes, there must be life elsewhere," Geballe answered. "It’s just a question of chemistry and time."

Which brings us back to "Le Noir de l’Etoile," and the work going elsewhere at the Greenwood School campus, where the gymnasium has been taken over by six percussionists and a whole warehouse full of drums, cymbals, gongs, bells, sticks, mallets, brushes and other noisy devices.

Putting together a piece this big, with each percussionist playing so many instruments with such precision required is, indeed, an exercise in chemistry and time for a group assembled by Perkins and Greg Beyer (filling in for Leandro, who had to withdraw for personal reasons) and four auditioned musicians.

Grisey’s "Le Noir de l’Etoile" is a big undertaking, an hour-long, expressive piece for six percussionists grouped around an audience.

The week-long residence will culminate in a free performance on Friday, outside on the Greenwood School soccer field beginning at 8:16 p.m. (sunset). The audience will sit in the middle of the field (bring blankets or folding chairs) and the percussionists will surround them. The effect should be spectacular.

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