Brooks Kolb

Brooks Kolb is a Seattle writer, artist, and landscape architect.

journey to the Planets

The first time I heard ”The Planets,” Gustav Holst’s amazing orchestral suite, I was sitting in a rehearsal room at the University of Washington College of Music.  From my vantage point high on the banked seating, where I served as fourth-chair flutist in the Seattle Youth Symphony, I found myself surrounded by the dramatic swells of the first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War.”  The moment stayed with me, and by the time we performed it for a live audience, I had fallen in love with Holst’s masterpiece.  Recently, I learned that Holst played trombone in a London orchestra, where it is said that he gained his unparalleled compositional skills by listening to the music from a similar spot in the center of the action.

Apart from the thrill of Holst’s lush instrumentation and sophisticated rhythms, including the aggressive five-four beat of “Mars,” it fascinated me that the narrative sequence of the seven planets in the suite appeared to follow the arc of a human life.  Put another way, it can be argued that the order of “The Planets” presents a metaphor for the ages of man.  Instead of presenting them in the order of their orbits outwards from the sun–Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune–Holst eliminated Earth from the sequence, and began the piece with Mars, followed by Venus and Mercury.  Only with the fourth movement, Jupiter, did he begin matching the sequence to the planetary orbits.

He had two reasons for this unscientific sequence.  The first reason, often commented upon by scholars, is that Holst was an avid astrologer.  He saw the planets less as astronomical objects than as astrological influences rooted in their mythological origins as Greek and Roman gods.  Hence, the poetic subtitles for each piece:

  • Mars, the Bringer of War
  • Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  • Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  • Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  • Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  • Uranus, the Magician
  • Neptune, the Mystic

The second reason, I am convinced, is that he intended to match the sequence to the stages of a human life.  As a youth, a man will likely experience war (Mars); peace and love (Venus) and growing intellectual acumen (Mercury.)  Then, as a fully formed adult in the prime of life, he reaches the height of his earthly powers, as represented by Jupiter.  Inevitably, though, adulthood leads to old age (Saturn) and eventually to death (Uranus and Neptune.)  Holst’s music appears to roll out two phases in the process of dying.  When approaching death, one first encounters the vivid imagery of a past-life regression (Uranus, the Magician), then an invitation to go forward into the Light and be reabsorbed in the universe (Neptune, the Mystic.)

Holst left strict instructions for the performance of Neptune.  An invisible heavenly choir of women’s voices was to be massed offstage, behind a door.  Then, as the performance continued, the door was meant to be closed ever so slowly, so that the voices became more and more faint.  Arguably, it was the first fadeout ending in the history of music.

After graduating from high school in 1971, I all but forgot about “The Planets” until one memorable evening six or seven years later, when I was in graduate school at Penn studying landscape architecture.  My sexy housemate, Ingrid, invited me to accompany her downstairs from our hovel of a student apartment in West Philadelphia to visit Marc, a med student who lived two floors below us.  Ingrid quickly installed herself in Marc’s lap and Marc passed a joint around.  Then he lowered the needle onto a record on his stereo.  The record was Isao Tomita’s recently released electronic interpretation of Holst’s “Planets.”

Tomita’s recording began with what sounded like a delicate music-box rendition of the melodic theme from “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.”   Then, only a few seconds in, I was treated to what sounded like the countdown to a rocket ship taking off.  By the time I heard the unmistakable boom of takeoff, I was already high.  From that moment until the end of the piece about fifty minutes later, vivid full-color images came flying at me from the stereo, bombarding me with the drumbeat of war on Mars, seducing me with the silky veils of “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” and so on, right up through the last chorus of “Neptune, the Mystic.”

What Tomita had achieved was to turn Holst’s astrological entities back into real planets.  This he did not only by replacing the orchestral instrumentation with his masterly use of the Moog Synthesizer and other electronic devices, but by adding wildly spacey transitions between each planet – sonic journeys that deftly portrayed space travel from one planet to the next.

As Ingrid and I climbed the stairs back to our apartment, I resolved to paint the dream-like images I had seen in my mind.  Unfortunately, my course load left me no time to do so until after I graduated in 1979 with my master’s degree in landscape architecture.  With my evenings then free, I set about creating 99 paintings intended as the storyboard for an animated film called “Journey to the Planets.”

In that endeavor, I was influenced in equal parts by the unforgettable synesthesia of Disney’s “Fantasia,” where the images were matched perfectly to the music, and by the awe-inspiring mysticism of “2001:  A Space Odyssey.”  The opening scenes of Kubrick’s film, together with the iconic photograph of the Earth seen from the moon, taken by the astronauts of the Apollo moon landing, inspired me to begin my “Planets” with an astronaut taking off from the moon.

But even more influential to my storyboard was the classic children’s book, “The Little Prince.” In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale, the prince visits a series of asteroids, each of which is inhabited by an idiosyncratic persona who teaches the prince something valuable about life.  Like the asteroid people in “The Little Prince,” I envisaged each of my planets as an allegorical personality that teaches an unforgettable lesson to the astronaut.

When I finished my paintings, each of which is one-half the size of a standard piece of paper, I realized that if my goal was to turn the storyboard into a full-blown animated film, I would need to produce something like 10,000 sequential images between every two paintings I had produced.  That endeavor, I realized, would be more than meticulous.  It would be downright exhausting.  As a result, I unpinned the drawings from the wall above my desk and stored them in an Adidas shoebox, all except for twenty images of Venus that I mounted on foam core and framed to hang on the wall.

Four decades went by during which my paintings languished in their box in my office drawer.  Then, one night in 2019, my cousin, David Setford, came over to dinner.  David, who had recently been appointed director of the Tacoma Art Museum, asked me about the Venus paintings that he saw hanging on my dining-room wall.  When I told him their story, he said, “These are great.  You should turn them into a Power-point presentation and we’ll show it at TAM.”

This idea astonished me, because I had completely given up on the idea of turning the images into anything resembling an actual film.  When I thought about it, though, I realized that forty years of software improvements had taken place since I originally did the drawings.  Moreover, Ken Burns’ innovative history documentaries demonstrated that you could create powerful films using only still images that dissolved one into another.

Power-point would be an acceptable way to present the paintings, but surely there was a better type of video software?  I reached out to a techie friend who introduced me to an Adobe sound engineer named Matt Stegner.  The grandson of the famous novelist, Wallace Stegner, Matt had actually studied “The Planets” in a college musicology class.  He assured me that he could produce a video of my images using a professional sound editing program.  The only trick to it, I felt, was that if each image took more than ten seconds to dissolve one to the next, the effect would be too static or boring.  Therefore, we decided to cut Tomita’s “Planets” by approximately ten minutes.

Matt did an outstanding job of sound-editing because I have no idea where he made the cuts.  The effect was seamless – he managed to turn my images into something as close to an animated film as possible without actual animation, and the illustrations move quickly enough to sustain the narrative.  To enhance the look and feel of the film, Matt inserted colored borders on both sides of many images – each color being the signature color for the planet represented:  red for Mars, blue for Venus, brown for Mercury, and so on.

The video that Matt created has been screened only twice – once on September 19, 2019 at the Tacoma Art Museum, and a second time on November 2, 2022 at the Ark Lodge Cinemas in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood.  I hope you find watching this “Journey to the Planets” as absorbing as I found Tomita’s music!