April 04, 2007

Where "Artificial Moonlight" comes from

While it kind of just sounds like two random words next to each other, “Artificial Moonlight” is actually a phrase that carries a lot of meaning for me, and has for some time.

I first came across it in college. The music library at the University of Illinois has stacks and stacks of recordings that you can listen to in cubbies and private rooms. One of my new favorite composers at the time was Philip Glass. Yeah, I know what the general impression is of his work; a lot of people have seen the Christmas Pageant episode of South Park and think that’s representative of his stuff. Well… it is. But it’s not all like that.

In 1982, Glass wrote an opera called The Photographer. It’s based on the murder trial of Eadweard Muybridge. You know of Muybridge’s work even if you don’t know who Muybridge is. He was the person who came up with a way to use multiple cameras to capture motion in an object. He was an acquaintance of Leland Stanford the founder of Stanford University and eventual governor of California, and in 1872 Stanford, who also owned race horses, asked him to determine whether all four feet of a galloping horse were ever off the ground at the same time. He set up a series of cameras along the side of a race track, and rigged them so that they would take a picture when the horse was directly in front of them. In this way he proved that yes, all four feet were up off the ground at the same time at some point during a horse’s galloping stride.

I mentioned a murder trial. In 1874, Muybridge discovered that his wife had a lover, a man by the name of Major Harry Larkyns. Muybridge believed that his wife’s son was fathered by Larkyns, and on October 17 of 1874 he sought out Larkyns and said to him “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife"… and shot and killed him. Muybridge was put on trial, but acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”. (Remember this was in 1874, in the San Francisco Bay area of California… still very much a part of the Old West.) Stanford paid for Muybridge’s defense.

The transcript of the murder trial is of course public record, and Glass took snippets of the transcript for Act 1 of The Photographer:

All that white hair
A gentleman's honor
And a long white beard
Burns up with fever

And this artificial moonlight
An artificial sky

Horses in the air
Feet on the ground
Never seen
This picture before

And this artificial moonlight
An artificial sky

Horses in the air
"Whose baby is this"
Never seen
This picture before

(It’s prettier when sung.)

This was one of the first Philip Glass songs that I really, really liked. The phrase “And this is artificial moonlight… an artificial sky” just has a really cool ring to it, at least to me. After spending so much time on computers as I have, it has a certain philosophical ring to it too; very little on computers, from images to thoughts to impressions of other people, is real. It’s all vaguely artificial moonlight, and if one isn’t careful, one might mistake it for the real thing.

Posted by: djmccart at 10:14 AM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
Post contains 560 words, total size 4 kb.

Comments are disabled. Post is locked.
12kb generated in CPU 0.03, elapsed 0.0276 seconds.
40 queries taking 0.0135 seconds, 67 records returned.
Powered by Minx 1.1.6c-pink.