Maintaining public interest and support of a space mission that’s expected to take years to complete is something of an arms race in the age of constant internet distraction. There’s social media outreach, classroom outreach, a constant battle to get the mission to even register as a blip in an increasingly polarized 24-hour news cycle, and of late, there are the citizen-scientist angles and engagement in the arts to consider.
It’s that latter category where the European Space Agency has excelled in recent years. The landmark Rosetta mission to Comet 67/P Churyumov–Gerasimenko was one of those missions for the ages, right up there with the Voyagers, Veneras, and Vikings – it was a robotic space probe that would chase a comet, maintain a close distance for further observations, and finally drop a lander onto the comet itself. That was quite a laundry list of goals for a single mission to achieve, and Rosetta checked off all the boxes. It was a mission any nation or group of nations could’ve called an achievement, and it was one of ESA’s finest moments.
To celebrate this, even as the mission was only just leaving the ground, ESA commissioned musical works, short films, and yeah, there were even plushies of Rosetta and its Philae lander. Vangelis was originally commissioned to create three pieces of music depicting three key events in the mission, including the comet landing; those three pieces are joined on the Rosetta album, by others, adding up to a musical narrative of the mission from beginning to end. And Vangelis – he of Chariots Of Fire and Blade Runner fame – is an inspired choice, though there’s much more in common with his non-soundtrack works (and lesser-known soundtrack works) here. (It’s worth noting that Vangelis had been tapped by NASA to create a musical experience for the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission as well.)
The icy synthesizers running throughout the album – utterly appropriate for the vacuum of space – bring Vangelis’ soundtrack from Antarctica to mind (and, yes, there’s a bit of Blade Runner to be found there too). But Vangelis, even when working with electronics, tends to arrange his music as if an orchestra’s going to be playing it, so it still manages to sound organic in its own way. “Sunlight”, in particular, is appropriately warm and shimmering. “Rosetta” also falls into that uncanny musical valley of human and synthetic, reminding me of the delicate “La Petite Fille de la Mer” from L’Apocalypse des Animaux, as well as bringing some recognizably Greek elements to its arrangement.
“Philae’s Descent” and “Perihelion” are the closest the album really gets to some of the pulse-pounding excitement one might expect if this were a soundtrack, pointing up the precision (and the hazards) of the descent to the comet’s surface. “Mission Accomplie (Rosetta’s Waltz)” releases some of that tension in a much more relaxing musical victory lap. (These were the pieces originally commissioned by ESA.) “Elegy” and “Return To The Void” give the mission a bittersweet sendoff since, as is often the case with deep space missions, none of the hardware was ever going to return to Earth.
I can’t think of anyone better than Vangelis to provide the musical chronicle of Rosetta’s flight. The album may, if taken in in a single sitting, be a little too ethereal for some, but it does conjure up that sense of wonder that the mission itself brought us as well.
- Origins (Arrival) (4:21)
- Starstuff (5:14)
- Infinitude (4:30)
- Exo Genesis (3:33)
- Celestial Whispers (2:31)
- Albedo 0.06 (4:45)
- Sunlight (4:22)
- Rosetta (5:02)
- Philae’s Descent (3:05)
- Mission Accomplie (Rosetta’s Waltz) (2:12)
- Perihelion (6:35)
- Elegy (3:06)
- Return To The Void (4:19)
Released by: Decca Records
Release date: September 30, 2016
Total running time: 53:36