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Top Five Flying Machines in Classical Music

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Both the ancient Greek Pythagoras and the 16th-century German thinker Johannes Kepler thought that heavenly bodies radiated music. Though modern science has debunked this theory, man has used his ingenuity and advances in aeronautics to bring his music into the clouds and the cosmos. And although airlines are making it harder these days, some remarkable combinations have resulted.

In light of this and the Mars rover landing, here are five far-out examples of airplanes and aerospace technologies in classical music:

1. Stockhausen’s "helicopter string quartet"

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s didn’t constrain his ideas for opera monumental seven-day opera Licht to Earth, Wednesday’s portion, Mittwoch, requires a floating orchestra of 13 musicians, followed by a helicopter string quartet in which two violinists, a violist and a cellist play in four separate choppers and their music is electronically mingled with the aircrafts’ percussion. The Birmingham Opera Company staged the entire six-hour work for the first time during this summer’s Britain’s Cultural Olympiad, and crazily, pulled it off.

2. Astronaut Flutists

NASA has noted that an unusually high percentage of its astronauts are musical (there’s even a astronaut rock and roll band). But for space flight, the tiny flute seems to be the choice instrument for out-of-this-world travelers. Astronaut Ellen Ochoa played her instrument for school children in 1993 aboard the Discovery. More recently, Catherine Coleman showed of her flute while on the International Space Station. 

3. The Planets, Set to NASA Imagery

Gustav Holst’s tone poem The Planets may have been more influence by Greek mythology than modern science, but you wouldn’t have known it from the Houston Symphony Orchestra and filmmaker Duncan Copp’s project, The Planets, an HD Odyssey. The group used images from collected by fellow Houston institution NASA. The result provided imagery as awe inducing as the Holst’s music.

4. Antheil's Ballet Méchanique

Perhaps the first intersection of aeronautics and concert music came with the groundbreaking Ballet Méchanique by George Antheil, the self-described “bad boy of music,” (the title of his autobiography). The score calls for airplane propellers among 16 player pianos, a siren, and a bell. (Ironically, the Airplane Sonata was written for solo piano). The 1927 Carnegie Hall premiere of Ballet Méchanique ignited a furor. One audience member literally surrendered to the music, tying a white handkerchief to his cane and waving it.

5. Handel's Il Mondo Della Luna

Handel’s opera about a fake trip to the moon, Il Mondo Della Luna, got an extra-planetary boost when Gotham Chamber Opera staged the work in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. At the time, Gotham’s artistic director, Neal Goren, told The New York Times, “Doing this opera at the planetarium is a perfect way to marry arts and science.”