“Atlas Coelestis”: music and stars


by Giovanni Renzo





Why the mind wonders, if universe is infinite,

as far as where it would arrive with its eye, as far as

where the thought would fly freely,

far from the walls of this sky what there is.

Lucrezio – The Nature




“Atlas Coelestis”  is a collection of pieces written between 1997 and 2004, conceived as an exploration of the universe, a musical journey in space and time that starts on the night of the 7th of January 1610, the date in which Galileo Galilei points the new-born telescope at the sky and discovers the four satellites that gravitate around Jupiter, upsetting forever the geocentric conception of the Aristotelian universe. The journey, starting from this concept and flying through the notes,  leads to the deepest borders of space. After the prelude, Incanto, describing the sense of astonishment felt by Galileo in front of the heavenly vault;  after  Noctis Splendentia Signa, whose score is a metamorphosis of the astral plan reproducing the appearance of the sky observed by Galileo that historical night; with Lacteus Circulus our eye is captured by the intense twinkling of the myriads of stars of our galaxy; and than we explore, in Orionis Nebula, the amazing gas spirals and powders that hidden the young stars of  Trapezium. Pleiades is dedicated to the thick but delicate net of the Pleiades, jewels of the winter nights; while with Pulsar we enter more and more in the depth of archetype sounds, in the cosmos wonders, led by the exact rhythmical beat of the first pulsar discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell. Finally we are irremediably attracted by the black hole of Cygnus X-1, source of X rays in the Cygnus constellation, seized in one of the greatest mysteries of universe: what could we find on the other side of the black hole? The absence of space and time in a unique and multiple dimension? A way to a parallel universes? A space - temporal tunnel? The big bang of a new-born universe in a stratified “multi-verse”? Astrorum nexus closes the circle of compositions with a melody that ploughs the spaces between the stars fading in the depth of cosmos, in the infinity and even  beyond…






Atlas Coelestis



·          Incanto



·          Noctis splendentia signa

·          Lacteus Circulus

·          Orionis Nebula

·          Pleiades

·          Pulsar

·          Cygnus X-1

·          Astrorum nexus





In order to complete my report I add some notes on the genesis of the two first compositions included in “Atlas Coelestis”.




Noctis splendentia signa


The 7th of January 1610 seemed a date as any other, but on the contrary it has been the night in which our concept of universe changed forever: the immutable sky of Aristotle was swept away and left its place to a new, mutable cosmos that modern astronomers constantly study with ever- changing results.

For about a month Galileo was spending that cold winter nights on the open air, renouncing to the warmth of his room.

He has just improved a new telescope, able to enlarge objects even thirty times, much more powerful than the Dutch one, built in 1608, a plain toy to bring near the far-away objects. With telescope, pen and drawing-instruments, the scholar has moved in the garden of his house in Padua and has begun watching the sky, noting down and drawing all that he could see through the telescope night after night: the valleys, the mountains, the oceans of the Moon, the myriads of stars composing the Milky Way,  the nebulas, the planets… Sometimes the astonishment was too much, and he had to stop to breath and clean the misted glass of his telescope. He could not believe in his eyes: the Moon wasn’t that smooth sphere as everybody had taught till then, “but, on the contrary, uneven, rough, rich in hollows and protrusions, not different from the very face of the Earth…”  And then the fixed stars in “unimaginable frequency”, much more numerous than the ones visible to the naked eye;        the Orion constellation, composed by five hundred stars never seen before; the Pleiades, no more seven but forty, spread in a very little share of sky. And the Milky Way, whose nature was at last cleared: not a whitish spot crossing the sky but “a conglomeration of countless stars spread in heaps”. And moreover the nebulae of Orion and Praesepe…

The cosmos was now deepest and more unknown  than how anybody had thought till that moment.

But the most incredible and unexpected discovery has still to arrive.

“Therefore, the 7th of January  1610,  in the first hour of the following night, while I was watching the heavenly stars with my telescope, I met Jupiter…” But there was something odd around the planet: three little stars perfectly ranged, two of them on one side, the third on the other. An extraordinary coincidence, thought Galileo at first: three fixed stars in the background of the sky, crossed in that moment by Jupiter. But the following night the disposition was different: the three little stars were on the west side of Jupiter;  perhaps the planet has got over them, and that was an usual move of the heavenly bodies…or perhaps no. In order to have a decisive proof the best thing to do was to wait for another night. “Therefore, with my greatest desire, I waited for the following night, but I have been disappointed in my hope, for the sky was entirely covered by clouds.” Galileo’s perseverance and love for knowledge have been rewarded on the 10th of January by a wonderful discovery: the little stars were two and all of them on the east side of the planet. They had thus to be heavenly bodies following Jupiter… Some nights after the little stars would have been in number of three, and later even four! The phenomenon had to be studied with more attention, thought Galileo, and so he began marking their number and their position in the different hours of the night till when he understood the reason of this unusual heavenly dance: the four little stars were simple moons rotating around Jupiter, as the Moon around the Earth, and during their revolution they changed their position from one side to the other, sometimes placed in front of the planet, sometimes on his back, thus invisible to our sight.

            Galileo finally found what he were looking for: the proof that would invalidate forever the geocentric theory attacked by Tycho Brahe at first, and later by Niccolò Copernico. If the existence of another planet with even four satellites had been confirmed, the Earth would have lost ever more its privileged position  at the centre of cosmos.

Aristotle had proposed a theory of universe in which the Earth were in the centre of a system of spheres rotating around it, but, in order to explain the apparently irregular orbit of the planets, he had applied to a complex and involved system of spheres in other spheres. Tycho Brahe on the contrary had theorized a cosmos in which the planets rotate around the Sun and altogether around the Earth. Copernico, in the end, had formulated his heliocentric theory that now, with Galileo, found its demonstration..

            The 13th of March 1610, just ten days after his last observation, Galileo publishes his Sidereus Nuncius, in which announces to the world his extraordinary discoveries.  

The universe, after that night, will have nevermore been the same.


            I had the idea of composing Noctis Splendentia Signa while I was reading the Sidereus Nuncius. I imagined Galileo, his eye on the telescope, plunged in the sidereal night, taking notes on his copybook from time to time (many years later, very moved, I could see that copybook exposed in an art exhibition). The precision in his notes caused in me the desire of seeing, on an astral plan, what he describes little by little, with enthusiasm and wonder. So I re-create on my computer the appearance of the sky seen from Padua the 7th of January 1610 at one o’clock a.m., the hour and the place in which Galileo sees for the first time the satellites of Jupiter. As I could see that planet was perfectly visible, that evening, near to the Moon, between the constellations of Orion and Taurus not far from the Pleiades; in that map were presents all the heavenly bodies described in the book, and that helped me in reading and in finding them in the sky with my little telescope. The map seemed interesting even from a graphic point of view and so, just for fun, I printed on it some musical staves, changing the stars in sounds. Then I defined a tonality, linking the hours of the night to the circle of the fifths, that has the shape of a clock-face. Estimating the difference between the sunset time and the hour in which Galileo watch the sky in that far night, I obtained the tonality of E flat. An important characteristic of the score in front of me was the presence of the Moon, of Jupiter and Uranus very near one another: on the stave they create a perfect fifth interval that,   transposed in bass clef, composed a bourdon to play on the piano with the left hand. The score began having sense, now I had to find some performance criteria for the sounds that represented the stars. Above all it seemed logic to  relate the size of stars with the dynamics of sounds, that is: to the bigger star corresponds the more  intense note.

For which concerns the length of sounds, I preferred not to establish rigorous rules, and to leave complete freedom to pass from one note to the other as when, watching the sky, we are free to look to a star, enjoying its sheen and then pass to another. In this sense the performance too has not to be perfectly linear, stave after stave, as a common score; it was possible to follow the profile of a constellation, for instance, or to play the most important stars, or simply to wander freely with the eye. The composition was ready, at last: now it was the moment to put my hands on the piano and listen if all that had a sense or if it was a mere joke, a funny graphic experiment.

            I still remember the emotion felt when I played Noctis Splendentia Signa, for the first time alone, in the twilight of my studio. I can’t describe it: it’s impossible for me to write suggestions created by this wonderful language without words that music is. I created a score in which stars became sounds, an enchantment, a magic, a flight of fancy, a personal variation on the theme of Music of Heavenly Spheres gazed by Pitagora and Platone and theorized by Keplero. But my job has no scientific pretence:  astronomy is only a creative starting point. Pitagora had found relations between the length of the chords, the music intervals and the orbits of heavenly bodies; Keplero had even defined the notes each planet play during the orbit. Now we know that the sound-waves are vibrations through solid, liquid or gaseous bodies as water or air, and then, as a consequence, no heavenly music can be heard in the boundless, empty spaces around the stars. We only can look to the sky and imagine to listen at that quiet and far sounds, crossing space and time to enchant us with their stories never heard before …





            The Pleiades are a mass of very young, shining stars surrounded by a cloud of bright gas. They are visible in the north-east of the winter nights, in the constellation of Taurus, a small group of stars remembering in its shape the Ursa Major. The naked eye can count only six or seven stars, (Alcione, Atlante, Elettra, Maia, Merope, Pleione, Taigete), but when Galileo pointed his telescope on them he was astonished in finding other forty stars or so. Nowadays we know that the Pleiades are about 500, far from us 400 light years.

            In the Greek mythology the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlante and Pleione: the hunter Orion, meeting them, fell in love and chased the sisters for seven years, till the pity of Zeus  changed them in stars and put the Taurus in their defence. Orion still seems to pursue them every night to the dawn.


For the composition of Pleiades I enlarged the astral map of the Pleiades,  superposing on it, as in Noctis Splendentia Signa, a series of staves that let me to attribute different heights to the various stars. This was however not enough to emphasize the characteristic of this mass of star, the cloud of gas around them.  So I let the finger run on the

string of my piano during all the composition, keeping the pedal pressed: this effect reminded me the impression of a subtle veil of gas.

In order to give the idea of light points holing this veil, I thought to use a technique largely employed by John Cage, the “prepared piano”: this artifice consists in inserting among the chords of the piano some pieces of metal, wood or gum  so as to give more evidence to harmonic sounds. So, after a long preparation of my instrument, I obtained a result that completely satisfied my desire of changing into sounds the emotion given by this extraordinary mass of stars.



Pianist, composer


Born in Messina in 1962, he got his diploma in piano at the “Corelli” Conservatoire of his town in 1986, later perfecting himself in Rome with Martin Joseph, at the  Seminari Nazionali di Musica Jazz of Siena with Enrico Pieranunzi and Bruno Tommaso, at the Berklee Summer School of Perugia with Bud Fredman in composition and orchestration and at the Accademia  Musicale Chigiana of Siena with Ennio Morricone in music for film.

He made his debut in 1979 as a jazz pianist.

In 1986 he creates, with the bass player Pippo Mafali and the drummer Angelo Tripodo, a trio that collaborate, among others artists, with Paolo Fresu, Gianluigi Trovesi, Giulio Capiozzo, Bradley Wheeler, Faisal Taher.

In 1994 he founds and directs the Messina Jazz Orchestra.

He regularly performs in concerts and festivals in all Italy, alternating exhibitions, teaching and composition.

He writes music for piano, for various cameristics and orchestral instruments, addressing with particular attention to theatre.

His first record, "Eclisse", in 1989, collects compositions for piano solo.

In 1996 he takes part to the 50th Edimburgh Fringe Festival, performing for three evenings at the Demarco European Art Foundation with the show “Partitura per sangue e anima”.

In '96 he also ultimated the composition of the opera "La distanza della Luna", performed in January '97 at the Theatre V. Emanuele of Messina, a production of  “Ente Autonomo Regionale Teatro di Messina", which edited the record on CD.

With the composition “Le tempeste” he won in 1999 the third edition of the National Piano Composition Contest by the “Associazione Culturale De Musica” of Savona.

In 2001 he publishes the Cd “Il mare” played with Paolo Fresu and the Quintet “Suono e Ritmo”.

In January of 2002 he performed "Il gabinetto del dottor Caligari", inspired by the  homonymous  film of Robert Wiene, with the Compagnia Virgilio Sieni Danza.

In 2003 he composed the soundtrack of the film “L’amore di Màrja” by the italo-finnish director Anne Riitta Ciccone, whose edition is previewed in 2004.

The balance between improvisation and composition is the peculiarity of Giovanni Renzo’s style. The element of improvisation is derived from his profound jazz experience, however supported by solid classic studies. But the very original style of his compositions, in which we found a melodic, often melancholic vein,  prevents any univocal definition.


E-mail: giovannirenzo@tiscalinet.it 

Web Site: http://digilander.iol.it/giovannirenzo/

Report: M° Giovanni Renzo

Contributions and translation: Dr. Francesca Bonici



Enter the forum and ask your questions to the author!

Back to the Meeting index