The Human Zodiac

Sternbild: Mensch
Sternbild: Mensch

The image of the cosmos

Since time immemorial, the human image of the cosmos has had a dual perspective, being both vision and projection at one and same time. Our project, which will take place both in the sounding spaces of classical concert halls and in the virtually infinite space of modern digital planetaria, combines these two perspectives on the cosmos into new modes of aural perception.

Changes taking place in the skies have been observed and documented since the days of Pythagoras, and the oldest speculations in the history of human research were dedicated to them. In pre-Socratic times already, the same simple, “harmonious” number relations were used to map the planets and their orbits as were employed to represent musical consonances and intervals. This notion lived on in the idea of “world harmony” espoused by the universal scholars of the Renaissance and the early modern age (Johannes Kepler, Athanasius Kircher etc.). Here κόσμος (Gr.) stood both for “beauty” and “order”.

There is no such thing as a “human zodiac”, but every image of the cosmos is also an image of the world.

The cosmos: a dual inspiration

By virtue of their unattainability, the stars were also held to be the quintessence of the inconceivable and became objects of inspiration for human imagination, spiritual experience and the idea of infinity. As such, they functioned as images of the super-human (cosmology) or the divine (theology). In this way, and in this tradition, the concept of heaven/the heavens has always encompassed both representational and figurative ideas.

It is no coincidence that 20th century music history begins with Schönberg’s setting of Stefan George’s uniquely evocative “air from other planets”, a poetic/imaginative inkling of new worlds and new cosmoses. But soon, scientific theories like relativity, quantum mechanics, wave theory, statistics and finally “big data” began to leave just as incisive a mark on artistic conceptions.

The rational/scientific understanding of progress as centring around material, tools and technology has always had significant philosophical and spritual components. These can be heard in the extension of invented sound spaces in the direction of the constructive/fantastical (Iannis Xenakis, Edgard Varèse) or the cosmic (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gérard Grisey). In the philosophy of John Cage – for example in the famous setting of a star atlas in "Atlas eclipticalis" (1961) – infinity appears to be more of a problem caused by the limits of the human mind rather than the limits of technology. Heinz-Klaus Metzger, one of the most influential musical thinkers of the 20th century, refers to “the idea of the cosmos as a model of anarchy” and even to “irregularity as the subversive law of the work”.


This project is the first instance of collaboration between KlangForum Heidelberg and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science and Heidelberg’s Max Planck Institute of Astronomy (MPIA). As such, it presents an excellent opportunity for combining idea, form and location of the various events in a “harmonious” setting. The House of Astronomy built in 2011 on the slopes of Königstuhl hill and inspired in its architecture by spiral galaxy M51 contains not only research labs but also multi-media projection technology for 3D visualisation of simulations and research findings. Normally used to popularise astronomical research and for exchanges within the scientific community, this unusual space will be drawn upon for interdisciplinary and artistic interaction with New Music in two of the six events in the “Human Zodiac” project.

Six sequences of concerts are planned to take place first in November 2018, then in February and May 2019, and finally in February, June and October 2020.


For this purpose, works have been commissioned from 11 renowned contemporary composers. The special setting this location represents and the context for this series of events will confront them with an unusual concatenation of astronomical, cosmic and cosmological issues. All the different outlines and approaches embodied in their personal resolutions of the dualism between material/rational progress and world-image – in the microcosmos of each work, in the context of each event and also in the overarching form of the six-part event cycle – will play their part in the attempt to achieve a synoptic musical/cosmological entity.

The selections made by the composers and the initial outlines they have proposed display fundamentally different approaches to the putative order not only of the cosmos but also our own world. Examples are an octophonic composition made up of radio waves (original NASA material) in combination with voices and live electronics (Valerio Sannicandro, see below), a work addressing the acoustical graspability of the dimensional structure of cosmology in the composition of the performing space itself (Hanna Eimermacher, see below), and the visualisation and musical transformation of signals (cooperation with the Max Planck Institute) from constellations of stars known as “cosmic clusters” (Caspar Johannes Walter, see below). Other works take the form of reflections on the differential potential and the poetics of cosmology (Johannes Schöllhorn, see below) or the construction of a sound-world on the basis of Gnostic myths of creation (Coptic and Mandaean-inspired) that is at the same time a homage to musicus doctus  Josquin Desprez (Bernhard Lang, see below).

These and all the other works take shape and develop in close conjunction with experts on astrology, the history of science and science pedagogy.

Dramaturgy and historical contextualisation

Within the concert events, these new works will be interspersed with verbal passages (scientific, philosophical and poetic texts) and prominent vocal works of the Renaissance in which composers like Cipriano da Rore, Orlando di Lasso and Guillaume Dufay combine highly recondite and “scholarly” harmonic thinking with a supreme sensuality of sound and acute spatial creativity. We see from this that responses to the “mind-blowing” potential of outer space and its colossal dimensions are by no means an invention of the 20th or 21st century.

Incidentally, the Human Zodiac project also demonstrates that harmonic thinking is by no means doomed to bringing forth ground-tone based, monotonous overtone structures for meditative purposes, although since the 1970s this had very much looked to be the case. The cosmos offers rich artistic potential for challenging and complex “rocket science”.

The concert projects of SCHOLA HEIDELBERG and ensemble aisthesis have always displayed a characteristically close connection between vocal and instrumental sound projection. This new project goes a stage further, explicitly including highly modern spatial projection forms for music and sound in the proceedings. Its musical dramaturgy points up unexpected and “anachronistic” links across the centuries, notably between computer-aided live-electronically generated virtual sound spaces on the one hand and “analogous” musical sound spaces from the Renaissance on the other.

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