EXCLUSIVE: Christopher Theofanidis on ‘The Legend of the Northern Lights' Music and Stunning Video Imagery

By Louise Burton on Aug 01, 2014 12:26 AM EDT

The Legend of the Northern Lights, an unusual work by Christopher Theofanidis that combines music with stunning imagery of the aurora borealis, will be presented at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago on August 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Carlos Kalmar will lead the Grant Park Orchestra in the world premiere of this work, which uses music and video imagery to retell a Canadian legend about the northern lights. The film was shot on location in northern Canada by visual artist José Francisco Salgado.

Salgado, who is an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, filmed much of the movie in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. I recently spoke with him about the experience of filming the northern lights in such a remote area.

"It was quite cold, even though it was late March," he recalled. "At night it would routinely drop to -24° F. And of course you have to film at night, so that means long hours standing on frozen lakes. Most of the photography was done close to ice roads on frozen lakes in the Yellowknife area. It was very surreal.

 "But the show is so spectacular that you withstand those temperatures, because you're so excited about what you're seeing in the sky," he said. "The auroras are translucent, so you see all these stars in the sky, even through the northern lights... it's very ethereal."

Here is one of the videos he filmed there for The Legend of the Northern Lights:

In recent years Salgado has created poetic films on scientific subjects for other concerts. Ravinia fans may remember his film incorporating planetary imagery, shown during the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's performance of Holst's The Planets in 2012.

Artistic endeavors like these are the focus of KV 265, an organization Salgado founded with colleague Anne Barlow for the purpose of communicating science through works of art. But this is the first time Salgado has created a film for a musical work that has a specific story to tell.

The Legend of the Northern Lights is based on a children's story by Canadian author Walt Terry. When composer Christopher Theofanidis first met with the creative team of KV 265, he says the first thing the group had to decide on was what the focus of the new work should be.

"Although it could have taken a decidedly scientific bent, with details about the northern lights that were didactic, we all agreed that this was first and foremost going to be a story from which images and music could flow and dominate as was necessary," Theofanidis said. "In that sense, the music, narration, and images are synchronized to the story first, though there are long stretches where each predominates individually."

The work includes actors: a young boy and an adult narrator, who tells the legend of how the northern lights came to be.

Salgado also shot some footage of the Canadian landscape, including "Winter scenes, scenes inside a cabin where most of the story takes place, all of this in support of the story," he said.

The multimedia work that Theofanidis and Salgado created weaves together science fact and fantasy in the retelling of the Canadian legend.

Theofanidis said "Dr. Salgado was terrific to work with--he is someone who has very good ideas and intuition. It helped a great deal that he had worked on several classical pieces before and understood the timing needs of concert music. The process unfolded organically, from the development of a 'libretto' to the eventual collection of images and ultimate synching of all the elements around the larger story."

I'm a huge music fan," Salgado explained. "I have a deep respect for the music, and it's not that the music needs the visuals... I think what Chris has created is beautiful music. But on that particular night, to enhance the concert experience and have another player, instead of it being another musical instrument, what I'm adding is a visual component. And hopefully that will be the hook to get more people in the orchestra hall, and then interested in the music per se."

Theofanidis said he enjoyed collaborating with a visual artist like Salgado to bring The Legend of the Northern Lights to life.

"I am naturally drawn to projects that are collaborative and also multi-dimensional," he said. "I think when things are at their best in these environments, you can go much farther artistically than where you could by yourself."

Theofanidis is a Grammy-nominated composer who is currently on the faculty of Yale University and the Aspen Music Festival.

Salgado will present a lecture at 6:15 p.m. before the Saturday, August 8 performance of The Legend of the Northern Lights at Millennium Park. This free program will also include Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. More information is available at

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TagsChristopher Theofanidis, The Legend of the Northern Lights, aurora borealis, Northern Lights, Grant Park Music Festival, José Francisco Salgado, Chicago, Carlos Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra, Millennium Park

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