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Review: Anne Guthrie, “Codiaeum Variegatum” (Students of Decay)

Since about the time musical theory was first written down, musicians, scientists, mystics and philosophers have sought to discover and explain the presence of harmony in the natural world. One of the most famous products of that endeavor is Pythagoras’ music of the spheres, a theory that ascribes a constant tone to each of the planets based on the period of their transit through the sky.

For Pythagoras, the harmony wasn’t merely mathematical. It had an audible component even if humans couldn’t hear it. Johannes Kepler devised a more sophisticated picture of that heavenly music more than 2,000 years later when he calculated the differences in planetary motion at perihelion and aphelion. The ratios yielded by their combination produced musical intervals that he notated in hisHarmonices Mundi. Jupiter and Mars didn’t just hum as they plowed through the ether; they sang in major thirds and octaves.

Four hundred years later, we’re less interested in the metaphysical connotations of astronomical symphonies, but we’re still fascinated by the sounds of the universe. Interest in the sub-surface growl of geological events and in the sound of Saturn’s magnetic activity betrays a continued love affair with the idea that harmony persists in the cosmos despite all the terrestrial evidence to the contrary. Anne Guthrie knows that it persists, albeit in a form different than anything Kepler might have dreamed, and she gives us a strong example in Codiaeum Variegatum.

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