In 6th grade, my entire class participated in a “wax museum” history project — a “night at the museum” at Crismon Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona. We all stood along the perimeter in the library, in front of bookcases, with a small construction paper circle on the floor in front of us. This was the “button” that, when stepped on, activated the speeches we had memorized, narrated in the voices of the historic figures we had chosen to embody. One of us dressed as Sacajawea, another as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. My costume was a simple turtleneck sweater. Long before Steve Jobs made turtlenecks trendy, there was Carl Sagan, and for one night, I became him.
Before I discovered my love for music, I loved space. In my bedroom, in the many craters of my popcorn ceiling, I stuck what must have been hundreds of tiny glow-in-the-dark stars. On hot, summer nights, a swirling galaxy would appear as I also peppered these stickers on the blades of my ceiling fan. On my desk next was a large plastic globe of the moon and, for a short-lived time in our living room, I had even constructed a homemade planetarium taped together from triangular pieces of heavy, black garbage bags and inflated by a table fan. Inside, equipped with a flashlight and a laser pointer, I talked to an imaginary audience about my favorite constellations and the planets of our solar system as they, too, glowed on the inside ceiling of this giant, dark plastic bubble. In the evenings, I spent hours looking at the surface of the moon, at Mars, at the rings of Saturn, at the moons orbiting Jupiter, at the Andromeda galaxy, at that fuzzy little nebula near Orion’s belt, all through an 8” diameter telescope in my backyard. I even remember trying to read a couple of Carl Sagan’s books, although in retrospect I was probably too young to really understand them. But after finding a few episodes of his show Cosmos, a TV program that made the wonders of the universe easily digestible, I was hooked. For a 7th grade English project, I even made a short film called Their First Encounter — my first attempt at writing and directing science-fiction, complete with fog, strobe lights, and tin foil costumes.
As my obsession grew, I eventually asked my mom to drive me two hours north to Flagstaff, Arizona where Lowell Observatory has stood at the top of Mars Hill Road for the last 100 years. Percival Lowell was born into a rich family in the mid 1800s, studied math at Harvard, travelled the world, but soon realized that the universe was calling to him. Out of his own pocket, he funded his own observatory.
Lowell was obsessed with the planet Mars. His colleague in Italy, a guy by the name of Giovanni Schiaparellli, had discovered strange lines all across the planet — lines that, in Italian, he called ‘canali’ (not to be confused with cannoli). In Italian, canali roughly translates to ‘channel-like landscapes’— like a riverbed — something naturally made — no big deal. But when Lowell translated the word, he called them ‘canals,’ which have a very different connotation. When we think of canals, as Lowell did, we probably think of something man-made, something that has been constructed with purpose and intention.
Lowell wanted to study these canals for himself, so night after night, he would look through his telescope up at Mars, then down at a piece of paper and draw the surface of the planet as he saw it. He did this for months and eventually developed a theory: he believed that Mars was a dying planet — that it was drying up — and in order to save their civilization, some kind of intelligent beings had constructed this incredible system of canals — some 30 miles wide — in an attempt to siphon melting water from the polar ice caps and funnel them down to the major metropolitan areas, the darker areas on the planet which he called oases.
The crazy thing about all this is that people believed him! Actually, there was really no reason to doubt him. He was well-educated, he had the best technology available for the times and one of the biggest telescopes in the world. He wrote three really convincing books arguing this theory, and in 1905, even The New York Times ran a full page article under the headline “THERE IS LIFE ON THE PLANET MARS: Prof. Percival Lowell, recognized as the greatest authority on the subject, declares there can be no doubt that living beings inhabit our neighbor world.” In fact, it would take another 50 years for scientists to get close enough to Mars to see in better detail that oh… there aren’t actually any Martian-made canals after all. Although we now know that the canals that Lowell saw were largely psychological tricks, his observations captured the imagination of the world and even inspired early 20th century science-fiction like H.G. Welles’s War of the Worlds and Edgar Rice Bourroughs’s many Mars-inspired books.
I don’t think the music in Drawing Mars tells a story about aliens invading Earth or of “first contact” or anything like that, but I do think it tries to get inside Lowell’s head as he looks through his telescope, night after night, in the dark, all alone, as his mind maybe starts to wander… and wonder… woah, what if I’m right? What if there is life on Mars?
Of course, we now know that Lowell’s imagination maybe got the best of him, but as Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Patrick Marsh Middle School 7th Grade Band
Chris Gleason, Music Educator
Drawing Mars premiered on May 7, 2019 at Sun Prairie High School (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin) performed by the Patrick Marsh Middle School Seventh Grade Band conducted by Chris Gleason.
View program here.
Markowski Creative (ASCAP)
Flute 1 & 2
B-flat Clarinet 1 & 2
B-flat Bass Clarinet
B-flat Contrabass Clarinet
Alto Saxophone 1 & 2
B-flat Trumpet 1 & 2
Horn 1 & 2
Trombone 1 & 2
Percussion 1: Timpani
Percussion 2: Glockenspiel, Chimes
Percussion 3: Vibraphone, Tam-Tam (shared)
Percussion 4: Marimba, Suspended Cymbal
Percussion 5: Hi-Hat, Suspended Trash Cymbal, Tam-Tam (shared)
Percussion 6: Temple Blocks, Tambourine, Crash Cymbals, Vibraslap
Percussion 7: Snare Drum, Triangle
Percussion 8: Bass Drum
No known errata.