Epitaph for a Collapsing Star
Tyler Welton-Stewart (2021)
Tyler Welton-Stewart's new work for clarinettist Laoise Kavanagh, scored for clarinet and strings.
Epitaph for a Collapsing Star
I am absolutely thrilled to announce my new work for Clarinet and Strings, written for dear friend and colleague Laoise Kavanagh. I have wanted to write an intimate piece for the clarinet for so long and this provided the perfect opportunity. The clarinet is famous for it's rich, lush tone, and an expert player can tap into so many wonderful colours.
Epitaph for a Collapsing Star is written as an elegy for the great lights in the sky. Billions of years old, stars are born and die slowly, some fading gently into the the caliginous void of space while others burning up and exploding in a stunning display of light.
Having always been interested in space - I often wondered what happens to these stars: do they live forever?
Due to this stretched out life span of these stars so much is still theoretical, but what is certain is that there is a continual reliance on energy, a balance between this energy and gravity, and - in the case of massive stars - the eventual collapse and explosion, giving birth to supernova remnants and allowing the process to begin again.
Stars are born from clouds of interstellar matter which inevitably collapse and the enormous heat from this compression causes atoms to fuse together. The core of these stars is a swirl of pressure treated gasses which are constantly battling to remain balanced. These newly born stars have a fuel supply of hydrogen which exerts radiation pressure to keep gravity at bay. Eventually this hydrogen fuel burns off and - in the case of giant stars - can explode dramatically in a supernova.
When we see a star - including our sun - we are watching it as it burns hydrogen in it's core. This creates heat which is sent out into the universe. This is why we feel warmth during the day - we are feeling the star's radiating energy.
These stars ultimately begin to swell, and shed their outer layers. When a star is starved of energy, it collapses in on itself and tries to use up it's remaining resources to create different heavier materials. These dying stars grow larger, and the light pulses due to the star's growing instability. From here the star is doing everything it can to keep itself "alive." The star will continue to create these materials until it reaches one point - the creation of iron. Once the stellar core turns to iron, it lacks the ability to burn anymore, resulting in a true collapse. Due to the intense gravitational pull, these stars can shrink from the size of our Earth, to just a few miles wide! The core continues to heat to billions of degrees, before ultimately exploding in a supernova. This explosion blasts out all the material into space. Eventually - this matter will fuse to create new stars - new suns, new planets. An awe inspiring example of recycling, and rebirth.
This is a mosaic image, one of the largest ever taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, of the Crab Nebula, a six-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star's supernova explosion. Japanese and Chinese astronomers recorded this violent event in 1054 CE, as did, almost certainly, Native Americans. The orange filaments are the tattered remains of the star and consist mostly of hydrogen. The rapidly spinning neutron star embedded in the centre of the nebula is the dynamo powering the nebula's eerie interior bluish glow. The blue light comes from electrons whirling at nearly the speed of light around magnetic field lines from the neutron star. The Crab Nebula derived its name from its appearance in a drawing made by Irish astronomer Lord Rosse in 1844, using a 36-inch telescope. (NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
Writing this piece was a true marriage of my two passions - composition and research. So much of my research is spent specialising in historical musicology, particularly that of vocal music. Branching out into something new was really exciting, and proved a substantial challenge. I don't think I'll be getting into astrophysics anytime soon though! I hope you as the listener - and performers too - can look at this piece now as more than just dots on a page, and see an overarching story. Stars are born and die over periods of time that are simply intangible to us humans. With this piece I hoped to bring the process a bit more "down to Earth" as it were, and condense it.
If you made it this far, I truly thank you.
- Tyler Welton-Stewart
If you would like a deep dive into the music, please see my blog post HERE!
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