America Returns to Space

There’s a lot of unpleasant breaking news from the last few days that I’ll need to cover soon, but in the meantime, I’m going to devote this issue to two positive stories about the power of good in the world.

America Returns to Space

If all goes well, tomorrow afternoon America will return to space.

We’ve had astronauts going to the International Space Station all along, but since the end of the Space Shuttle program, we haven’t been able to send them there ourselves. We’ve had to rely on the goddamned Russians to do it for us, and we’ve had to pay them pretty lavishly. Tomorrow, SpaceX will attempt the first American launch of a manned rocket in years, with its Dragon capsule taking a two-man crew to the ISS.

Here’s how it all happened.

On the afternoon of May 30th, SpaceX is slated to launch its very first passengers to space, potentially heralding a new era of human spaceflight for the United States. It’ll be the first time in nearly a decade that people have launched to orbit from American soil, and it’ll be the first time that a private vehicle takes them there.

This historic flight is really a test. It’s the last big milestone for SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The experimental initiative tasked private companies with creating new spacecraft for NASA that are capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Before you get all excited about this being privatized space exploration, this is really private companies working as government contractors.

July 8th, 2011, marked the final flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle and the last time astronauts launched to orbit from the United States. Ever since, NASA has flown all of its astronauts and international partners to the space station on Russia’s Soyuz capsule. The arrangement costs NASA about $80 million per seat—and it has been the agency’s only option for getting people to the station.

To end its reliance on another country, NASA worked with private industry to bring human spaceflight back to the United States. With the Commercial Crew Program, NASA awarded two companies—SpaceX and Boeing—contracts to develop their own vehicles that could ferry NASA’s astronauts to the space station and back. NASA paid SpaceX $3.14 billion to develop and fly the Crew Dragon, while Boeing received $4.8 billion to develop and fly the CST-100 Starliner.

An intense rivalry formed between the two companies over the years. Both experienced numerous technical delays and setbacks along the way, but ultimately, SpaceX pulled ahead. When it flies, SpaceX will become the first private company ever to fly humans to orbit.

But there are definite benefits to having operations run by a private company. The Crew Dragon capsule will test out innovative new systems.

[T]his is a time for the Crew Dragon’s autonomous docking system to shine. It’s a feature that the previous cargo version of SpaceX’s Dragon lacked when carrying supplies to the ISS. During those cargo missions, an astronaut on board the space station used a robotic arm to grab hold of an approaching Dragon capsule and draw it close to the ISS. Now, with the upgraded Crew Dragon, the capsule shouldn’t need any help from humans. Once Hurley is done flying manually near the station, the Crew Dragon’s automatic system will kick in. Using a series of sensors and cameras, the capsule will fly itself toward the ISS and hook itself onto an open docking port.

A good profile of the two astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, also describes the difference between working for a bureaucracy and working for a private company.

“The thing that I have seen that’s different is that when we did Shuttle things, we would say, ‘Hey, I keep screwing up this procedure. Can we change the procedure so no one screws it up ever again?'” Hurley told The Verge last year. “That would be really hard. ‘We’ve got to talk to 100 people and figure all that out.’ Here, when we need to change something, they can turn on a dime and get it [done] for the next mission or the next simulation that we go off and do. That’s really been appreciated, just how quickly they were able to turn around differences for what we’d like to see from simulation to simulation.”

This profile also emphasizes the friendship between the two men: “An invaluable part of their training is the fact that Behnken and Hurley have been good friends since they were first selected to be astronauts in 2000. In fact, they became so close that they were in each other’s weddings when they each married fellow astronauts from that same class. They claim that their friendship provides a certain level of trust that only comes from years of knowing one another.”

Speaking of which, my favorite detail from this story was a post from one of their wives showing their child looking out an airplane window at “dad’s spaceship.”

This is something we really needed: a big achievement like spaceflight becoming a normal part of American life again.

It’s also a very rare unifying event. I noticed on Thursday, before the first attempt was scrubbed because of bad weather, how chatter on other topics noticeably dropped off in the hours leading to the planned launch, while people forgot their differences so we could all cheer on the launch.

Tune in on Saturday to watch with us.

“An Immense Joy That I Wanted to Share with Everyone”

When I write about classical music, I usually link to YouTube for reasons I’ve already explained: It’s available to everyone, and I don’t have to worry about what media or streaming platform my readers are using. But I should remind you again that if you like any of the pieces I recommend, please follow up by buying a version of it, through whatever platform you prefer, so the musicians can get paid.

The other reason I link to YouTube is that I find the comments sections on these pieces to be very interesting. You get an outpouring of different emotional reactions, stories about when people first heard the piece, about how they’ve used it for weddings and funerals, and so on. But what really fascinates me are the people who talk about how they heard a piece of classical music once, fleetingly, and had it echo through their heads for years until they finally tracked it down on YouTube and found out where it was from.

I don’t know if I’ve ever found more of those than I saw for the Flower Duet.

You see a lot of comments like this: “None of you will ever understand how long I’ve been looking for this. The pain and struggle of knowing how the song goes, hearing it in your head, and not knowing WHAT TO TYPE IN THE DAMN SEARCH ENGINE.” Or: “It took me 4 years to find this song.” One user describes how we solved this sort of problem back in the old days. He heard this song in a movie when he was a teenager and had the tune haunt him for years, until one day he walked into a music shop, hummed it for the cashier, and begged to know what it was.

That’s partly because this particular piece has been widely used. People have heard it for a minute or less here and there, in a television show, a movie, even a video game. For many people, though, this is known simply as the British Airways song, for its prominent use in an airline ad in 1989, even though the piece is chopped up a little and filtered through the bland electronic music of Yanni. It seems very unpromising—but we’ll return to that ad again later.

It is certainly a very distinctive piece of music, something that sticks in the memory. Let’s look at why that is.

The Flower Duet is from an opera called Lakmé, composed by Léo Delibes, that debuted in Paris in 1883. Its style and sense of life is the product of a cultural milieu that one musicologist describes as being “within ten years and ten miles of the Eiffel Tower.” Musically, this is a very good neighborhood.

Lakmé is the French transliteration of the Indian name Lakshmi. The title character is a Brahmin priest’s daughter who falls in love with a British soldier. This is, naturally, a forbidden love, and it all ends in tragedy. I’ve already taught my boys that the basic plot structure of just about every opera is: People fall in love, and then they die. (Unless it’s a comic opera, in which case people fall in love and start lying to each other.)

This duet is from early in the opera, when the composer is just establishing the characters. Lakmé and the servant girl Mallika have been sent to gather flowers for the temple, and the flowers are very beautiful, and—well, that’s what the song is about. Did you need it to be about anything else? The purpose of the duet is to establish the beauty and sensitivity of spirit of this young woman, showing us why the male lead would fall for her, making us care about her, too, and setting us up to appreciate the tragedy of her eventual downfall.

The main duet starts at 1:05 in this clip, which seems to be from a studio recording of the opera. The most striking characteristic right off the bat is the close harmony, with the two ladies’ voices set off of each other by a third.

If you were to make a basic major chord, you would start with the base note and add intervals called a third and a fifth. (What is a “third”? In the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do scale, it’s the interval between the first and third notes, between the “do” and the “mi.” A fifth is the interval between “do” and “so.”) These are the notes in the scale that are most consonant with the base note, but the third is closer in pitch, so it is experienced as a particularly close harmony, almost a blending of the two voices.

Interestingly, and I think this adds to the effect, the Flower Duet is written in the key of B, meaning that B is the pitch that sets the tone, the “home base” against which your ear measures everything else. But it’s the mezzo-soprano supporting role, Mallika, who starts on B, while the soprano, Lakmé, is the one who starts a third higher. Making the accompaniment the home base, from which the star player departs, adds to the blending of the voices.

Initially, the mezzo-soprano supports the soprano by adding a kind of fluttering or shimmering texture in which the soprano then joins. The fluttering movement of the music evokes the image of flower petals moving in a gentle breeze and gives the song a sense of rich sensuality, which also helps set us up for the romance that drives the story. These initial melodies are also subtly syncopated, beginning just half a beat off the beginning of the measure, which provides a kind of languid peacefulness to the rhythm.

The main melody is fairly simple, and it is these shimmering adornments that add most of the interest. That is, until we get to the climax of the melody at 1:40, where both voices soar upwards in long drawn-out notes separated by a third. It is the perfection of that close harmony that lends the melody an ethereal, angelic quality. The operative word here is “perfection.” The timbre of the two voices must match, and they must be singing with flawless coordination. If it goes just a tiny bit wrong, the piece doesn’t quite take off. Surprisingly, I found a version that illustrates this with Renee Fleming and Susan Graham—two great singers who somehow don’t quite gel together, so that the piece sounds like two women singing separately, not two voices blending together. I mean, it’s a fine performance, but it’s not transcendent, and the Flower Duet is supposed to be transcendent.

There’s a very good version out there sung by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca, but I’m referring in this article to a performance by Sabine Devieilhe and Marianne Crebassa because it achieves such a spectacular blending of voices. You can really hear this at the ending. After the first run-through of the melody, there is a middle interlude that is more conversational, then a reprise of the main melody at 3:08, and this time it ends with both voices trailing off into a soft high chord, at 4:25, that seems to float away into the ether.

It’s no surprise that when people hear this, it stays in their minds and they want to find out more about it. The fact that it often takes them so long to do so is kind of tragic, because the Flower Duet is hardly obscure to those who have even a passing familiarity with the world of classical music, but in our lowbrow age, many people just don’t even know where to start looking.

Yet don’t underestimate what can be accomplished. Take that weird snippet of the Flower Duet in the British Airways ad. Here’s where it led.

I was home with my family in South Africa in 2001. We were watching TV at home with my family, and this one evening, there’s this ad on TV. And behind the ad, there’s this music. It’s the British Airways advertisement—you know, they use the Lakmé duet.

And so I hear these sounds, just those 10 seconds. I knew that it’s something that I should know, but I didn’t know what it was. And so I went to my high school teacher the following day and I asked him what it was, and he told me it’s called opera. And I said to him, “Is it humanly possible?” Because at 16, growing up in a very small town, in Piet Retief, I had no idea that human beings were capable of such a gift. And so he told me that of course it is humanly possible. If you have the talent, you can do it. I said to him, “Well, you need to teach me that.”

And so he advised me to join the choir, and I joined the school choir. And he told me that, “Pretty, I don’t think you’re an opera singer. I don’t think you’re a singer at all. You shouldn’t be singing, you should just continue with your quest of being an accountant,” because that’s what I wanted to do before I heard the music. I wanted to be an accountant. But something had changed, something that I couldn’t touch or see, but something that I could feel, that I needed to know if somebody could feel the same way. It was an immense joy that I wanted to share with everyone

She has since shared it with very many people. This is from an interview with Pretty Yende, a South African soprano and young star in the opera world. (And yes, of course she has sung the Flower Duet.)

I mentioned before that the Metropolitan Opera has been providing a free daily streaming of its old opera recordings during the pandemic. This Saturday night, through the following day, you can tune in to Yende in L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”). It’s a terrific opera for a beginner or for someone who is not a die-hard opera fan, because it’s relatively short, it’s quite funny, and it’s got a lot of great songs. Plus, it’s a comic opera, so people fall in love, there is some deception involved, and then everything ends well. I really recommend it.

You can see Pretty Yende in this because just ten seconds of this kind of amazing and powerful music changed someone’s life.

So there’s your Saturday planned: Watch a rocket take off in the afternoon and an opera in the evening, and remind yourself that achievement is the real essence of human life.

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