Filmmaker Duncan Copp on The Cosmos—An HD Odyssey

Filmmaker Duncan Copp on The Cosmos—An HD Odyssey

Duncan Copp, filmmaker
Duncan Copp, filmmaker

The Houston Symphony caps off its season May 26-29 with The Cosmos, the final journey in its HD Odyssey series. Producer Duncan Copp tells us how he dovetailed high-definition video of the heavens with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World.

Houston Symphony: So far in the HD Odyssey trilogy, The Planets has taken us around our solar system, and The Earth has given us new views of our own home. What will we see in The Cosmos?

Duncan Copp: I think astronomy is experiencing a golden age. We’re seeing the cosmos in a detail never witnessed before. I’ve mined some extraordinary images from the Hubble Space Telescope, revealing star birth and star death in our galaxy, and of course jaw-dropping images of galaxies beyond our own. The video for the symphony’s first movement centers on wonderful time-lapse movies created mainly by astrophotographer Alex Cherney. Alex’s exquisite work captures the stars, planets and our moon as they cartwheel across the heavens. In the third movement, I draw on a satellite called the Solar Dynamics Observatory. It observes the sun in wavelengths invisible to our eyes. This way, the sun reveals itself in its true colors, so to speak—a seething ball of superheated plasma.

HS: Do you have any favorite images?

NCG 4921 - Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive / ESA / NASA
“And there are one or two Hubble images where, apart from the main galaxy that’s featured, it’s possible to see countless other galaxies in the far distance. ” Galaxy NCG 4921 – Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive / ESA / NASA

DC: That’s like asking if I have a favorite Beatles track or movie! I like some for their dynamism, like the giant eruptions on the surface of the sun. The time-lapse astrophotography always draws me in. It’s like a great painting—every time you look, you see something different. And there are one or two Hubble images where, apart from the main galaxy that’s featured, it’s possible to see countless other galaxies in the far distance. You start to feel the incredible enormity of what you’re seeing—galaxies everywhere, each containing hundreds of millions of stars.

HS: When you combined video with Gustav Holst’s The Planets, the titles of the movements tipped you off about linking images to music. How did you go about it with Dvořák?

DC: While Dvořák’s New World doesn’t have the same obvious connection regarding cosmic images, it’s a wonderful and evocative symphony that lends itself to a visual companion. I don’t feel there needs to be a very strong narrative pictorially. The symphony has great tonal and tempo variation within and between movements. That always helps distinguish and delineate my visual vignettes.

HS: Does The Cosmos have spots in which you’re especially proud of how you’ve matched music and video?

Photo credit: Anthony Rathbun
The World Premiere of The Cosmos will be conducted by Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

DC: I particularly like the second movement. The tempo, which mostly is slower, is more emotive to me. It lends itself to really absorbing the beauty of the imagery. With the Hubble imagery I used here, I really slowed down the tracking movements. I think that heightens a synergy between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing.

HS: Video technology must have advanced since you created The Planets in 2009. Can you do anything in The Cosmos that you couldn’t back then?

DC: We have worked very hard to create a production that enables conductors to interpret the symphony in whatever manner they want. This of course can be tricky. How can we keep the music and pictures in sync during every performance, and with different conductors’ interpretations? With refinement, and with the advent of better software and hardware, we think we’ve found a solution. It allows us to edit the production in real time during a performance, without compromising my original edit. Conductors have the freedom to express themselves without being slaves to the video.

Don’t miss the World Premiere of The Cosmos—An HD Odyssey, May 26, 27, 28 & 29 at Jones Hall! Click here for tickets and more information.

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