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Cultural Fellow’s tribute to Professor Stephen Hawking

 May 27, 2017 | Simon Jenkins

Former University of Leeds Cultural Fellow Cheryl Frances-Hoad has composed a special space-themed piece of music to mark the 75th birthday of Professor Stephen Hawking.

The ethereal choral work, Beyond the Night Sky was commissioned by Cambridge college Gonville and Caius, where Prof Hawking has been a fellow for more than 50 years, and where Cheryl studied music. It was performed by the College’s choir, to mark his 75th birthday.

Prof Hawking welcomed the gift, saying the piece – inspired partly by NASA space recordings – “captured the vastness of space”.

After being commissioned by the college to create the piece, Cheryl – who had not even taken a science GCSE – threw herself into research, reading Prof Hawking’s famous book A Brief History of Time and recruiting a theoretical cosmologist to help her understand some of the complex ideas underlying the text. She also spoke to Prof Hawking’s daughter, the writer Lucy Hawking, to learn more about his preferred style of music.

In search of lyrical inspiration, Cheryl found a short yet beautiful children’s poem, Universe, by the American poet Stephen Schnur. She interposed lines of the poem, which describes how “indigo darkness like velvet embraces the farthest reaches of the mind”, with questions from A Brief History about the nature of the universe.

The resulting four-minute composition is an ethereal work full of evocative harmonies and textures (including whistling and ‘shh’ sounds inspired by listening to NASA’s recordings of space) that seeks to convey a musical sense of wonder in the face of a seemingly infinite universe.

Scientific thought both ancient and cutting-edge influences the music, with harmonies altering as if affected by gravitational waves one minute, and the rapid-fire singing of ‘Everything’ (at many different speeds by the members of the choir) being inspired by Newton’s theory of corpuscular light.

Cultural Fellow’s tribute to Professor Stephen Hawking