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6 space-themed musical works that are out of this world

To mark Prom 27: The Sound of Space: Sci-Fi Film Music this week (airing on Radio 3 on Wednesday 7 August from 10.15pm and broadcast on BBC Four on Friday 9 August from 10.30pm), let's take a look at the ways that space has inspired some of the composers featured in the 2019 Proms season.

It's been 50 years since the Apollo 11 Moon landing, but the impact of the seismic event can still be felt today. BBC World Service's new podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon tells the dramatic tale of the spacecraft's final descent and highlights our continued fascination with space exploration, backed by a score from legendary film composer Hans Zimmer.

Zimmer himself is no stranger to drawing inspiration from space for his work. The 2019 Proms will not only feature an excerpt from his soundtrack for the space epic Interstellar (as part of Prom 27: The Sound of Space: Sci-Fi Film Music), but BBC Ten Pieces have also commissioned a brand-new piece, Earth (to be performed during Prom 3 & 5: CBeebies: A Musical Trip to the Moon), which imagines how our planet appears as seen from the surface of the Moon.

Space has long inspired some of our most beloved music too, from composers such as Vangelis and Stockhausen to popular songs like Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon and David Bowie's Space Oddity. Celebrating the 'giant leap' of the Apollo 11 mission, the 2019 Proms will feature a number of other celestial-inspired pieces and space-themed Proms.

Here are six pieces from the 2019 Proms season that each take inspiration from space in fascinating and different ways.

1. Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space

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We Were Young: The story of the Moon Landing and Summer of '69

Public Service Broadcasting soundtrack this journey back to the Summer of 1969.

One of the most prominent ways that space has infiltrated modern music has been through 'found sound', and this piece from London band Public Service Broadcasting digs into the archives to turn history into art. The Race For Space, their 2015 second album, uses audio footage from the archives of NASA, the Russian space agency and the BFI to tell the story of the Space Race between America and the Soviet Union, with the band providing a suitably dramatic and often frantic soundtrack to the action.

The record examines the idea of space as the final frontier, and how it was seen as the ultimate goal for the competing superpowers. "The album's about what, as a human species, pushes us to our greatest technological and, in the end, spiritual achievements: leaving our own world and looking back on it," frontman J. Willgoose, Esq. says. "And, sadly, what pushes us to that point is two superpowers competing to have the technology to blow each other up more efficiently. It's horrible that that's underneath it all. Progress – it's at least a double-edged sword."

2. Gustav Holst - The Planets

Holst’s The Planets, inspired by our Solar System, abounds in well-loved tunes, familiar to many not least because of the music’s wide influence on popular culture, from 1970s prog-rock bands (Manfred Mann's Joybringer was inspired by Holst, while King Crimson covered the composer) to countless film and TV scores, including those by Hans Zimmer himself. In fact, the opening movement from The Planets ('Mars, the Bringer of War') inspired one of cinema's most iconic musical moments: John Williams' The Imperial March, better known as Darth Vader's Theme from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

When Holst’s The Planets was completed in 1917, little was known about [space]... and [the composer] didn’t care
Brian Cox

As Professor Brian Cox points out, Holst's piece is more concerned with astrology than astronomy. "When Holst’s The Planets was completed in 1917, little was known about the physical nature of the worlds represented musically by the composer, and he didn’t care," Prof. Cox writes. "[Holst's] focus was on the planets as metaphors for different facets of the psyche and what it means to be human." Each of suite's seven movements reflect the different and distinct characteristic of a given planet - from the foreboding horns and marching drums of Mars, “the Bringer of War”, to the sublime and mystical Neptune with its ethereal wordless chorus.

The Planets illustrates how we can employ myth and analogues with nature as a way of exploring our common humanity. Cox: "Holst’s suite catalyses new ideas and generates powerful intellectual challenges that enrich and inform important debates in progress today."

3. Mica Levi - Under The Skin

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Unlike Holst's work, this piece is more about what separates us from the rest of the universe – it explores the idea of how an alien might fit in on Earth. Jonathan Glazer's 2013 sci-fi horror Under The Skin follows an extraterrestrial predator in human form as it preys upon –and seduces – unassuming men roaming the streets of Glasgow, with Scarlett Johansson brilliantly portraying the uncanny but alluring humanoid. It seemed only fitting, then, for Glazer to recruit another outsider to provide the soundtrack, stating that it took him just 10 seconds of hearing Chopped & Screwed, the 2011 collaboration between Mica Levi's Micachu and the Shapes project and the London Sinfonietta, to want to work with the experimental musician, who, at the time, had never scored a movie.

"I think he wanted a novice – someone who didn’t know how to write film scores," Levi says of Glazer. Her unnerving soundtrack received major acclaim, managing to evoke feelings simultaneously of dread, doom and warped beauty – much like Johansson's character. "Sounds are distorted and perverted," the composer notes, explaining that she used a combination of traditional and virtual instruments to symbolise the "synthetic and real" and to "represent the cosmos and nature", reflecting the film's lead character: "this impossible, alien, complex life form."

4. Olivier Messiaen - Des Canyons Aux Étoiles

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In contrast to Levi's Under The Skin soundtrack, Des Canyons Aux Étoiles (From The Canyons To The Stars) by French composer Olivier Messiaen is, as well as geological marvels, inspired by a different kind of beauty of space – specifically the awe felt from gazing at a starry sky. As Andrew McGregor wrote for the BBC in 2003: "Messiaen's music links the land itself, the canyons of Utah... with the stars sparkling in the clear-blue desert sky, their light emanating from long ago and far away. A sense of colour then, natural majesty, a palette of every shade of red and rich orange-brown; a timeless quality that reaches far back in time and human history."

At the centre of the piece is the Appel Interstellaire (Interstellar Call), a breathtaking movement that opens with a lone horn that sounds like a distant, searching call stretching across space, before bringing in the sound of bird song. Des Canyons… was written to mark the bicentenary of U.S. independence, but it's a piece that strikes a universal chord and creates a feeling of our planet being connected to the rest of the cosmos.

5. Clint Mansell - Moon

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Space is often portrayed as a lonely void, and this is something that filmmaker Duncan Jones (son of the late David Bowie) tapped into for his 2009 debut film Moon, which is set on a solo-manned outpost on the far side of the moon. The film was scored by one of Hollywood's most in-demand composers Clint Mansell, formerly of the band Pop Will Eat Itself and who has scored films such as Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream and Pi.

"I really connected with it, especially on its themes of isolation and what it means to be human," Mansell says of first reading the film's script. One of the songs from the score, Are You Receiving?, conjures this sense of solitude with its gradual and ponderous arrangement. Mansell has joked that creating such a score came naturally to him because, in his own words, "I live alone in Los Angeles [and] I'm not exactly the world's most social butterfly, so the character's isolation in the film and the theme of feeling alone was pretty easy."

6. Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Metacosmos

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On the flip side to the isolation felt in Mansell's score for Moon, Metacosmos, a new work from Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, is full of energy. The 2019 Proms marks the UK premiere of the piece, which is inspired by one of space's most intriguing and astounding phenomena: black holes.

Metacosmos is [about] the natural balance between beauty and chaos... [like] falling into a black hole
Anna Thorvaldsdottir

"The title refers to this thought of falling into a black hole," Thorvaldsdottir says, adding that within black holes there is a "natural balance between beauty and chaos – how elements can come together in (seemingly) utter chaos to create a unified, structured whole." Metacosmos evinces a black hole with music that is full of tension between competing instruments.

While Public Service Broadcasting use space to examine our past, Thorvaldsdottir's work explores our present. She explains how the piece is a metaphor for human issues, how there's "just so much going on" in this increasingly divisive world, something her work aims to reflect.