Return from the Stars: Prof. Palej's ground-breaking collaboration with the International Space Station

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article by Roanna Kitchen, master’s student in Voice Performance

Norbert Palej is an Associate Professor of Composition at the Faculty of Music and artistic director of the annual New Music Festival at the University of Toronto. Last fall, on September 15, Palej saw the release of a ground-breaking video featuring his work Return from the Stars. The video showcases never before seen footage of Earth, filmed by the European Space Agency. Astronaut Thomas Pesquet introduces the video from the International Space Station.

Last year would have marked the 100th anniversary of the science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. The title of the composition, Return from the Stars, is inspired by one of Lem’s dystopian novels and pays homage to him. The work was commissioned by the director and founder of Ars Activa, Mariusz Monczak, and his daughter Nadian who are both violinists. This inspired the instrumentation to be for two violins (performed by Mariusz Monczak), along with narration of text by Lem (performed by Jay Smack), as well as piano and synthesizer (performed by Robert Adamczak). Palej stated that he “decided to make this piece for...a small chamber ensemble with synthesizer well with the science fiction...theme of it.” Palej was able to contact the astronaut Thomas Pesquet through the Polish Science Fiction Foundation, which had connections with the European Space Agency. From there, they were able to reach out to the International Space Station. The recorded work was showcased at the 2020 Dubai expo and has subsequent screenings to come. It was also performed live for the first time on October 26, 2021, by the father daughter duo Nadia and Mariusz Monczak.

This project carries with it a personal significance for Palej. He explained that “[It’s] a very unusual type of project to happen...for [both] a composer…[and] for classical music...because...I don't know if there is a precedent of collaborating with the space station.” He continued to explain that as a “teenager, I wanted to be an astronomer and then I discovered music and I became a composer. But I've always had that kind of fascination with space.” Palej acknowledged that this process was new territory for him, regarding the composition itself, the way it developed and how it was presented. Palej, who considers himself to be predominantly an acoustic composer, explained that “throughout the pandemic we were kind of stuck at home. I really got into synthesizers and working with…electronic music, which is something I haven't done much before.” Palej stated that “It was important for me to create something that's both sophisticated in the way that I like music to be sophisticated, but [that is] also very anybody...and that can resonate with people anywhere in the world.” He aspired to create a work that could connect and impact people on an international level.

Palej observed that due to the tragedies associated with the pandemic much of the circulating art, “addresses the things that divide us and...the problems that we have here on Earth.” This is what inspired him to focus on a subject that unites people such as the universe and earth. He went on to say that “dreaming about space, about space [travel] ...discovering distant horizons...It's something that people were fascinated with since ancient times...And always will be...I just find it a beautiful topic that both allows us to kind of escape from this...kind of grim reality, but also find the hope for...a better life in the future.”

Moving forward, Return from the Stars has inspired a new project, commissioned again by Ars Activa. The aim is for this to be an hour-long multimedia production, involving music, light, and film. Palej wants to create a work, similar to Return of the Stars, which is immersive and allows for “the audience…[to feel] like they're [being] carried away into another world.” Palej acknowledged that the 21st century is a visual era and so he wants to embrace this, believing that it will make the work more approachable and immersive. The title is Artemis Arise, derived from the recently launched NASA program called Artemis.

Return from the Stars is breaking barriers regarding the subject matter and the collaboration between space stations, film and music; allowing audiences to be enveloped and challenged by the art itself. By focusing on innovative ways that music can be utilized, Palej has successfully created a work that challenges audiences to look up to the stars and question what unites the world.