Matthews: Pluto, The Renewer


Lakeview Orchestra will perform Matthews’ Pluto, The Renewer on Tuesday, November 13th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

I first saw Holst’s The Planets in London in 2001. It was a superb performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, with Sir Colin Davis conducting. The fact that Pluto wasn’t among The Planets didn’t bother Sir Colin Davis (I actually asked him after the performance), but it did bother my mother and maybe me a little. We were so accustomed to the tradition of Pluto as our ninth planet. It was everything we knew to be true. Although I might have had a passing annoyance for Pluto’s unjust omission, it seemed to really irk Kent Nagano, who commissioned Colin Matthews to write a movement to append to The Planets. Matthews recalls of the commission, “When Kent Nagano asked me to add Pluto to The Planets I had mixed feelings. To begin with, The Planets is a very satisfying whole, and one which makes perfect musical sense. Neptune ends the work in a way wholly appropriate for Holst - an enigmatic composer, always likely to avoid the grand gesture if he could do something unpredictable instead. How could I begin again, after the music has completely faded away as if into outer space? And, even though Pluto was discovered four years before Holst's death in 1934, I am certain that he never once thought to write an additional movement.” Matthews continues, “Yet the challenge of trying to write a new movement for The Planets without attempting to impersonate Holst eventually proved irresistible. It quickly became clear that it would be pointless to write a movement that was even more remote than Neptune unless the whole orchestra were to join the chorus off-stage… The only possible way to carry on from where Neptune leaves off is not to make a break at all, and so Pluto begins before Neptune has quite faded. And it is very fast - faster even than Mercury: solar winds were my starting point. The movement soon took on an identity of its own, following a path which I seemed to be simply allowing to proceed as it would: in the process I came perhaps closer to Holst than I had expected, although at no point did I think to write pastiche. At the end the music disappears, almost as if Neptune had been quietly continuing in the background.”

It is with some authority that I feel I can write on Pluto. The topic of my first published, peer reviewed paper was on Pluto: “Pluto’s Light Curve in 1933-1934” B. E. Schaefer, M. W. Buie, and L. T. Smith, Icarus 197, 590 (2008). In this paper, we demonstrated that Pluto’s thin atmosphere is in fact dynamic, and that it changes throughout the Pluto year due to sublimation and condensation of ices. When Pluto was “downgraded” to a dwarf planet, I never felt affronted – a feeling that likely would have been different years earlier when I first heard The Planets in London, but that changed during my education in science. It was still an interesting system to study, I don’t really feel Pluto took it personally, and I could never quite figure out the passion and conviction the Pluto planet people had when they didn’t know much about Pluto other than it was very, very far away. After all, Pluto was not formed in the original accretion of our solar system, but condensed leftover crap into the loveable ice ball it is today – as did the other 100,000 or so objects that live in that region of the solar system, the Kuiper Belt. The psychology of Pluto in many ways speaks to human tradition. There are just certain things we feel are right and just based on our experience, when in fact our understanding of the nuance is perhaps limited. Pluto was discovered on pure luck from a miscalculation (and misunderstanding) of Neptune orbital perturbations. The fact that Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet is simply the natural progression of human knowledge in better understanding what things really are, what truth really is – a lesson I learned well in my study of Physics and Astronomy. Take comfort: Pluto and its five moons still exist and will be contributing members of our solar system for the foreseeable future.

Pluto, the dwarf planet: Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, are double-tidally locked, meaning that the same side of Pluto and Charon will always face each other. Further, the two objects rotate about a fixed point a distance outside of Pluto. In other words, Pluto and Charon rotate around each other like a lopsided dumbbell. Pluto’s orbit is so eccentric that for ~8% of its 248-year orbit, Neptune is actually further from the Sun than Pluto. And, planet or not, Pluto is still my favorite rock – albeit 1/3 of it is ice – in the solar system. Well, my favorite aside from Earth.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Matthews’ Pluto, The Renewer on November 13th, 2018: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith