BSO explores 'Icarus at the Edge of Time'

Multimedia work based on children's book has Philip Glass score

January 09, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Children have defied their parents since children first appeared on the planet. Sometimes, kids do what they're told not to do just because … well, because they were told not to do it. Other times, curiosity and a little touch of hubris simply get the better of them.

So it was for Icarus. You remember Icarus — his father was Daedalus, who, in Greek myth, fashioned wings out of feathers glued down with wax. Daedalus tells Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus can't resist the temptation and, as the wax melts, crashes to his death in the sea.

Brian Greene, the Columbia University physicist whose popular books have helped take the intimidation out of science for many readers, never felt entirely comfortable with that story. So he wrote his own tale in a children's book called "Icarus at the Edge of Time."

That 2008 book, in turn, became a multimedia concert work with a score by celebrated composer Philip Glass. And that work, which had its debut last June in New York, will receive its local premiere next weekend by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"As many kids do, I found the Icarus myth at a young age," Greene said. "I found it deeply disturbing. The message seemed to be that when you go against authority, you will pay with your life. But as a scientist, you have to go against authority to make discoveries."

Greene, whose books include "The Elegant Universe," which was turned into an Emmy-winning PBS program, decided to write a fresh take on the ancient myth.

The new version finds Icarus on a spaceship with his family taking an interstellar voyage that will, because of the distance involved, last longer than the boy's life span. In a case of galactic cabin fever, Icarus decides to go off on a little excursion of his own toward a black hole — ignoring, of course, his father's warning.

"I wanted to create a version of Icarus where he wouldn't die," the author said. "Instead, he would create a new reality he would have to acclimate to. That's what scientists often do. The black hole seems so perfect for the story. In the myth, young Icarus flies to a bright star. In my book, he goes to another star, a dark star, which was the original name for black holes in the 1920s."

Greene's story isn't so much science fiction as fictionalized science.

"It's not fantasy," he said. "It is science as we understand it from Einstein's theory of relativity. You don't need to know anything about relativity to follow it, but you can have a visceral sense of what Einstein's theory described, the way time slows down at the edge of a black hole."

Icarus does not realize that while he is near the black hole for only an hour, centuries have passed in the environment he left behind. When he comes back from the future, his family is long gone.

Although still not the cheeriest of endings, Greene's transformation of the Greek original delivers its messages with considerable power.

"This book is one small part of trying to show that science is something you can really care about, not just on a cognitive but also an emotional level," he said.

Greene, whose latest book for adults, "The Hidden Reality," about the possibility of parallel universes, is due out shortly, saw in his home the effect that "Icarus at the Edge of Time" can have on the young.

"I found, not surprisingly, that a lot of kids are more captivated by a dark story, a frightening story," the author said. "My 5-year-old really ruminated over it when my wife first read it to him. At the end, he was crying, but for weeks he was asking me if the boy couldn't have gone to a smaller black hole. It hit him in an emotional way."

BSO music director Marin Alsop discovered that Greene's book also connected with her own young son. And she liked it, too.

"Yes, the book is written for children, but like all good children's books, it's enjoyable for adults," she said. "It's extremely accessible."

Alsop has been a fan of Greene's work for several years.

"I e-mailed Brian after reading articles he had written for The New York Times," she said. "I was impressed by the way he could demystify the field of science."

The conductor invited the scientist to the BSO's performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at Carnegie Hall in 2008, and the two subsequently met in a New York coffee shop. Among the topics they discussed was "Icarus at the Edge."

"To tell the truth," Greene said, "I initially wrote this to be done as a concert piece. But when I sent it to my publisher, he said, 'Why not a book?' I said sure. But I still thought it would be good for the stage. When Marin and I were chatting, I mentioned this idea and she said, 'Whoa, this sounds great.'"

Greene felt that Glass would be an ideal choice to write the music to go with a narration taken from the new Icarus story. Alsop seconded that notion. "We hit Philip from both sides," Greene said.

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