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Astering

Nearly ten years after I wrote “An Astronaut,” I was (and am!) still fascinated by space. Our bodies are essentially made of stardust; we’re all very much connected to the luminous beauty radiating throughout the cosmos.

In the late 1970s, Father Lucian Kemble, a Franciscan friar and amateur astronomer, was scanning the sky with his high-powered binoculars when he stumbled on a cluster of about 20 unrelated stars that formed a singular visual pattern. The astronomical term for that is an asterism; it’s also the basis of a typographical character (⁂) with the same name.

Kemble was so struck by his discovery that he wrote a letter to a fellow star gazer Walter Scott Houston describing it as “a beautiful cascade of faint stars tumbling from the northwest down to the open cluster NGC 1502.” Houston was so moved by Kemble’s letter that he went on to name the asterism “Kemble’s Cascade” in his column for Sky & Telescope magazine.

Kemble’s Cascade by Greg Parker

In mid-2017, before I knew anything about asterisms, I started working on a sort of musical exercise. I wanted to combine two different concepts that I really like: gradual iteration and Euclidean rhythms. That sounds dry and intellectual, and frankly, I assumed it would be a pretty cerebral piece of music; I wasn’t trying to write a pop song.

Creating Euclidean rhythms is not hard. It just takes a couple different rhythms that don’t line up evenly. A few very simple patterns can create complex results if those patterns are each slightly different lengths.

Here’s a great, interactive example. It’s just four little percussive loops. Each looping pattern has two adjustable sliders. The right slider determines how many total notes are in the pattern, and the left slider determines how many of those notes actually make a sound. It’s pretty fun to toy with.

I came up with a drum part, a bass part, and a keyboard part that were all slightly different lengths, but sounded nice together. I decided to take it further and introduce very gradual changes.

Here’s a very early version of the song idea.

There’s a group called The Dawn of MIDI that does gradual progressions really well. Their music changes continually, but only a tiny bit at a time. If the bassist plays two notes for a while, he might subtly add a third note a few measures later, and then a few measures after that, he might drop one of the original two notes.

That’s what I started to do with my song. I came up with a bunch of very gradual changes for each instrument’s pattern. By gradually working through these incremental changes, the song was continually interesting and complex, even if none of the individual parts were very difficult.

Here’s a second early version of the song.

I wanted to sing over top of the piece, but I wasn’t sure what to write about. When I found out about Fr. Lucian Kemble, the lyrics quickly grew out of that story. I started layering vocals over top of the music, and a funny thing happened. I started to hear a pop melody. I started to hear a song, instead of an experiment. I had to let go of the initial concept in order to make the song structure work, but those ideas are still deeply embedded in the song’s DNA.

Here’s a third early version of the song.

As I was making Astering, I was exclusively using sample-based instruments inside of my laptop. No real instruments. Eventually, I was able to program a Juno 106 to play the bassline of the song, but before I could record additional instruments, my health took a turn for the worse, and I stopped being able to use computers at all.

In terms of the arrangement, the song is basically done, but I would like to record a few other real instruments, and then get it properly mixed & mastered. If the stars align, maybe that’ll happen this year.

Here’s a playlist of all the different versions of the song.

[EDIT: The song has now been officially finished and released!
Hear it & buy it here. Watch the video below!]

LYRICS

“Astering”

After the storm, your sudden fever flickered out,
you found a way out of the blankets and the house,
onto the patio, oh in just a towel,
with eyes adjusting to the glow, you see it now.

At home, the gift you sent beside an open card,
with ink you smeared, it said to find you at the mark,
streaming and stumbling the flames will form an arc,
a cluster patterning the heart
of Father Lucian who saw it and rejoiced,
a patient practice he enjoyed.

I want to sweep the sky until I figure out
a way to watch it all unburdened by the doubt,
I want to leave behind the questions I have known,
go with you astering and fall among the stars,
cascading, endless in the night.

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