orchestral | 1990

A Thin Halo of Blue


Year: 1990

Duration: 17'

Instrumentation: satb chorus/2(2picc)222/4330/3 perc/cel/hp/pf/str/ speaker/tape

Program Notes

A central facet of human experience is an exigency for journeying and voyaging towards discovery. Our greatest achievements in the arts and sciences spring from this inner necessity to explore the realms of our mental and physical worlds. One of the brightest manifestations of this desire has been the exploration of space. A vivid recollection of the first lunar landing in July 1969 was one of the starting points for A Thin Halo of Blue. A thin halo of blue is the first visible sigh of the Earth as it rises over the moon’s horizon.

The exploration of space has opened new horizons to our understanding of and feeling for our own planet. Space photography has shown beauty and order hitherto unknown. Astronauts’ comments constantly refer to the mystery, beauty, fragility and wholeness of our planet.

A Thin Halo of Blue is a musical and poetic response to our desire for journeying. The spoken texts compiled by the composer are drawn from comments made by astronauts, and towards the end, a litany-like list of features on the Earth, visible from space. The choral text, in Latin derives from place-names on the moon and is imbued with an evocative sense of poetic imagery. In addition to singing, the choir is called upon to whisper, speak and shout these names. The texts of the speaker and choir have constant points of reference eg. when the speaker talks of “a strange dreamlike sensation of freedom” the choir sings “Palus somni, Lacus somniorum” (Marsh of sleep, lake of dreams).

A Thin Halo of Blue was RTÉ’s entry for the 1990 Prix Italia. The live performance version was first performed in the National Concert Hall, Dublin in 1991 at the opening ceremony of the United Nations Conference on Water and the Environment. It is dedicated to my wife, Philomena.



Before leaving the house we sat at the kitchen table. By tradition there was bread, salt and water. When we drove away I looked to the balcony and saw mother wiping away the tears. I waved to her; she did not see me.

A fine morning, a clear sky, sunny, bright. Only in my soul is there something unquiet.

Then they closed the hatch; it went clang like a dungeon door.

I could hear the sound of pipes whining below me as the liquid oxygen flowed into the tanks and a vibrant hissing noise as they were supercooled by the Lox.

Through a mirror mounted near the window I could see the blockhouse and across the Cape. Through the periscope I looked east at the Atlantic along the track I would follow.

It seems I am leaving the planet forever and there is no power can bring me back.

Weightlessness comes on abruptly. I soared as if I were inside a soap bubble. Like an infant in the womb of my spacecraft, still a child of my Mother Earth.

You experience a strange dreamlike sensation of freedom. You can spread out your arms and legs as if soaring in the clouds.

What struck me most was the silence. It was a great silence, unlike any I have encountered on Earth; so vast and deep that I began to hear my own body. My heart beating, my blood-vessels pulsing; even the rustle of my muscles moving over each other seemed audible.

At 0600 hours we went into the shade. The station shone like an open door in a house in the countryside.

From behind the rim of the moon there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery.

It takes more than a moment to fully realise this is Earth … Home.

I shuddered when I saw a crimson flame through the porthole. Vast pillars of light were bursting into the sky, melting into it, and flooding over with all the colours of the rainbow.

A greenish radiance poured from Earth directly up to the station, a radiance resembling gigantic phosphorescent organ pipes, whose ends were glowing crimson and overlapped by waves of swirling green mist.

The intense and dynamic changes in the colours and forms of the pillars and garlands made me think of visual music. Finally we saw that we were entering directly into the Aurora Borealis.

The first day or so we all pointed to our own countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth – indescribably beautiful with all the scars of national boundaries gone.

You see clouds towering up. You see the shadows on the sunlit plains. A ship’s wake in the Indian ocean. Brush fires in Africa. Reds and pinks of the Australian desert. Plankton blooms of the coast of Chile. Transverse sandbars in the Mozambique Channel. Madagascar, green with tropical forest. Glacial lakes in the Canadian Shield of Quebec. Dasht-i-Kavir salt desert in Iran with the great swirls of browns and reds and whites. Orange dust cloud over Western Sahara.

You see parallel sand dunes in the Algerian desert. The mouths of the Ganges in Bangladesh. Cumulonimbus clouds over the Atlantic Ocean, east of Ascension Island. Linear sand dunes in the Namibian desert southeast of Walvis Bay. Tidal estuaries, islands, mangrove swamps in the Bay of Bengal. Snow cover in Desolation Canyon along the Green River of Utah. Sunset over the coastal ranges of Yukon and British Columbia. Spring thaw along the Hudson Bay.


Mare serenitatis                  Sea of serenity

Mare tranquillitatis             Sea of tranquility

Mare imbrium                      Sea of rain

Mare vaporum                     Sea of vapours

Mare spumans                     Sea of foam

Mare crisum                         Sea of crisis

Mare frigoris                        Sea of cold

Mare nectaris                       Sea of honey

Mare nubium                        Sea of clouds

Palus somni                          Marsh of sleep

Lacus somniorum                Lake of dreams

Sinus iridum                         Bay of rainbows

Sinus roris                             Bay of dew

Mare felicitatis                    Sea of happiness

Oceanus procellarum          Ocean of storms

Aurora Borealis                   Aurora Borealis

Mare humorum                    Sea of moisture

Mare fecunditatis                Sea of fertility


Barry McGovern (speaker)
Anthony Byrne (piano)
Cantique (choir)
RTÉ Concert Orchestra
Colman Pearce (conductor)