Archimedes: A Space Odyssey

“With chaos we begin,” intones the voice of the Prime Mover at the start of James Dashow’s masterpiece-in-progress “Archimedes: A Planetarium Opera.” “Chaos” may be the right word for the piece itself, which starts out with a visual and sonic description of the creation of the universe that draws from Greco-Roman myth, Gnostic beliefs, and modern science. After this prologue begins the first act of the “opera,” digitally rendered on a projector screen, which traces the life and discoveries of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes through an entirely computer-generated soundtrack and a succession of geometric abstractions that look like they were taken from the best screensaver ever. In Act I, Scene 1, Archimedes’ childhood is represented by giggles and children’s smiles flying across the screen on a background of more spellbinding geometry. The next scene, about the young Archimedes’ first discoveries, is filled with math equations and the sounds of spaceships rocketing through the night.

Sections from four of the opera’s seven unfinished scenes were shown in the Fulton Recital Hall last Wednesday night to a packed house. The planetarium opera made up the second half of a night of futuristic music that began with a work by Polish electronic composer Marek Choloniewski. Choloniewski provided a good appetizer with “dark&lightZone,” the name of both the piece and the instrument. It consists of a set of lamps that produce crescendos and decrescendos of ADD bloops, skitters, crackles and demented violins when Choloniewksi moves his hands around and under them. At its best, it sounded intriguing, like bombs falling on an ethereal Japanese orchestra, but at other times it dragged. After that, Dashow played his first piece of the night, “…at other times, the distances,” which, except for a single cello note, was composed entirely of computer-generated sounds. At times this was easy to believe, but at others I could swear I heard real violins and bells. It was the kind of music you might hear after falling into a black hole. Though interesting, it paled in comparison to the opera itself in terms of both quality and experimentation.

Dashow has been working on “Archimedes” for the past ten years, and there are signs that it is nearing completion. On Wednesday the University of Chicago had the honor of seeing the world premiere of “Mathematics III,” the opera’s finale in which Archimedes imagines the mathematics and physics of the future, stretching as far forward as the 20th and 21st centuries, with Feynmann diagrams, cloud chamber images, and “cosmological contemplations of brane theory.” The piece ends with hints of disharmony, the only reference in the opera to Archimedes’ legendary death at the hands of a Roman soldier during the sack of Syracuse.

For the past four years, Dashow, a Chicago native, has been touring the world with unfinished scenes from “Archimedes,” playing it on projector screens in theaters and concert halls at universities from Madrid to Seattle. Only once, in Albuquerque, has he succeeded in convincing a planetarium to display the piece as it was meant to be seen, but Dashow remains hopeful. Apparently, someone from the Adler Planetarium was in the audience on Wednesday night, and Dashow says he seemed very interested.