On the first night of the World Science Festival, I took a train to the gorgeous Union Palace Theater in Washington Heights to see a truly unique performance. I squeezed myself into the balcony among many children and their parents just as Columbia University physics professor Brian Greene was excitedly giving an introduction to the evening’s program. He explained that in his story, Icarus at the Edge of Time, instead of flying toward the sun as in the classic Greek myth, Icarus flies toward a black hole. Greene wanted to write an updated tale of Icarus that incorporated physics and highlighted the fact that science often requires people to do things that no one has done before.
The structure of the evening was a great example of such uncharted territory. The event included the Orchestra of St. Luke’s performing a score composed by Philip Glass, an adaptation of Green’s book created by filmmakers Al and Al, and live narration by LeVar Burton. Tracy Day, the co-founder of the festival, told me the goal of the evening was to present enough options to bring in people who hold different interests. Perhaps someone wouldn’t go to see a science fiction film, but they would love to hear a live orchestral performance, or they wouldn’t be interested in a story about a boy who flies to a black hole, but they would be excited about the narration from LeVar Burton. The different aspects of the performance drew me to attend, as I was curious about the kind of science fiction to which Philip Glass would feel driven to compose a score. The multifaceted approach proven to be completely successful, as the theater was sold out and the audience seemed to be enjoying every aspect of the performance.
LeVar Burton later told me that he came to this project because, as a storyteller and educator, he couldn’t turn it down. He relished “the opportunity to tell a story this good, with an orchestra that great, with music that’s that phenomenal.” Burton comes from a family of teachers which has given him a passion for efforts to “close the gap” in math and science education. “The kicker is that it’s part of an educational outreach to get kids interested in science and math. It’s a win all around. I can’t afford to sit on the sidelines given an opportunity to lend my voice to an event like this.”
Filmmakers Al and Al said similar things about their reasons for getting involved in the project. Al and Al, Brian Greene, and Philip Glass formed a transatlantic team, sending ideas back and forth to each other over the internet. Al and Al got the script from Greene, started to make parts of the film, which they would then send to Glass. Glass would then compose the score to the film pieces, and would send it to Greene for editing and tweaking. Al and Al spoke highly of working with both parties to create the final project. “It was just a beautiful process between the three of us.”
Some of the visuals in Icarus at the Edge of Time were generated via a program that creates images from fractals and mathematical equations, lending an extra dimension to the film. When envisioning the space vehicle that Icarus used to approach the black hole, the British duo Al and Al decided to lend an American touch to the film by fashioning the ship with eagle’s wings. “Because we were doing this Icarus myth, which is really about man trying to fly, we really wanted to make a spaceship that looks a little bit like an eagle. Because we’re English, we could be a bit more patriotic about it for you Americans.”
All of the nights’ performances melded together in a very complementary way, and were a great way to kick of the World Science Festival with its attempts to blend science, art, and general excitement together. Perhaps seeing Icarus in his tiny, eagle-winged spaceship hurtling towards a black hole will indeed inspire the next generation of scientific adventurers and innovators.
Images courtesy of World Science Festival