Move over, planetariums — “Origins,” a multimedia spectacle at Benaroya Hall, fuses dazzling images from deep space, cutting-edge research by UW astrobiologists, and new orchestral music.

Share story

“Origins,” a world-premiere audio­visual spectacle at Benaroya Hall this Saturday, Nov. 7, has set its sights big — cosmically big. Using magnificent images from NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope, new symphonic music, computer simulations and the latest in scientific research and theory, “Origins: Life and the Universe” promises to be an entertaining and awe-inspiring exploration of the cosmos.

Scientist, composer and entrepreneur Glenna Burmer envisioned “Origins” as a way to develop what she calls “an awesome feeling for science.” She contacted Woody Sullivan, a professor in the Astrobiology Program at the University of Washington, and enlisted eight composers, including herself, to put together films about the beginnings of life and the universe as we currently understand them. (Astrobiology, according to the program’s website, is the study of life — its origins, evolution and future ­— on this planet and beyond.)

Sullivan believes NASA videos can be as evocative as a string quartet. “I want people to be inspired to explore the universe — as much as they might be to learn more about music after hearing a Beethoven symphony,” Sullivan says.

Concert Preview

‘Origins: Life and the Universe’

2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $22-$32 (206-215-4747 or

The eight segments, performed by conductor David Sabee and the Northwest Sinfonia, open with Burmer’s “The Big Bang,” which follows the 13.8 billion-year history of our universe from before its inception to the present — a tall order for a piece that’s less than 11 minutes long.

After an atmospheric opening, “The Big Bang” segues into percussive explosions, courtesy of musicians from the UW Percussion Studio. With original animation and occasional captions, it attempts to depict a five-dimensional universe that is leaking gravity and expanding and, at one point, elaborates on Hubble images with syncopated rhythms that nod to jazz.

Nan Avant’s “Bijoux” explores interstellar clouds of swirling gasses as they mass together and form stars. Its opening phrases beautifully communicate a sense of marvel.

“I wanted an interpretation that would depict how I feel when I look at nebulae,” Avant says, “and imagine traveling out to them and then back to Earth.” After spending time with her family’s 10-inch telescope and enjoying private lectures with scientists from the UW Department of Astronomy, Avant felt inspired to “present my emotional response to the overwhelming brilliance and jewel-like colors I was seeing.”

The afternoon concludes with Stan LePard’s highly experimental “Images of Emergence.” Rather than handing the musicians a through-composed score, LePard gave them a set of rules and musical phrases that they could choose to perform however they wished. LePard says his goal was to explore how “amazingly complex structures and patterns,” both musical and cosmic, could emerge from relatively simple elements.

“The reason we become scientists is because we’re explorers,” explains Burmer, who is also a former extreme downhill skier. “It’s as simple as that. Science is the only discipline in the world that wants to disprove itself. We’re constantly searching for truth. If the truth contradicts what we believe, it’s a ‘eureka’ moment and truly thrilling.”

But, she adds, “at a time when science is under attack, looking at equations is just not going to inspire wonder … I want to inspire people to become scientists, love science and support it.”