Pleiades Visions

Movement III: Mauna Kea


The Keck telescopes atop Mauna Kea. 

Image Credit: Laurie Hatch; courtesy W.M. Keck Observatory

The finale of Pleiades Visions creates a dramatic musical landscape reflecting the immensity of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  Mauna Kea is the site of a major astronomical observatory, and its summit is the highest point in the Pacific Ocean basin.  Mauna Kea is in fact a larger mountain than Mt. Everest, though much of the mountain is situated underneath the ocean’s surface.  “Mauna Kea” is also a narrative journey through sequence of images depicted by the opening lines of the Kumulipo (see below), a Hawaiian creation chant.  The overall trajectory of “Mauna Kea” reflects the building cosmological drama, evoking the creation of the world, in the chant text. 

The movement opens with a dark, sinister passage, suggesting the opening line of the chant text (“At the time when the earth became hot”).  A large toccata ensues, pointing to the text “At the time when the heavens turned about.”  This toccata grows in intensity, suggesting images of “rising” (“The time of the rise of the Pleiades”).  A lyrical, expansive middle section follows, depicting the expansive view from the summit of Mauna Kea.  This lyrical section leads into a brief transitional passage, in which angular lines and dissonant sonorities suggest the “darkness” and “slime” imagery in the middle lines of the chant.  The drama continues to build in the powerful dance/toccata, whose juxtaposition of the organ’s low and high registers suggest the sheer size of Mauna Kea and the fact that much of the mountain is underwater.  The dance/toccata gives rise to the concluding section of the movement, in which the full power of the organ is employed to suggest a breathtaking sunset view from the summit of Mauna Kea.  The massive repeating chords in this final section point to the volcanic past (and future) of the mountain.  Furthermore, the final stages of the movement create an “explosive” atmosphere, harkening to astronomers’ modern understanding of the Pleiades as containing, hot, young, massive stars.  The conclusion of “Mauna Kea” highlights the final line of the chant text: “The night gave birth.”

At the time when the earth became hot

At the time when the heavens turned about

At the time when the sun was darkened

To cause the moon to shine

The time of the rise of the Pleiades

The slime, this was the source of the earth

The source of the darkness that made darkness

The source of the night that made night

The intense darkness, the deep darkness

Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night

Nothing but night.

The night gave birth…

O ke au i kahuli ka honua

O ke au i kahuli lole ka lani

O ke au i kuka’iaka ka la

E ho’omalamalama i ka malama

O ke au o Makali’i

O ka walewale ho’okumu honua ia

O ke kumu o ka lipo, i lipo ai

O ke kumu o ka Po, i po ai

O ka lipolipo, o ka lipo lipo

O ka lipo o ka la, o ka lipo o ka po

    Po wale ho–’i

Hanau ka po

Martha Warren Beckwith, The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1972), 187 (Hawaiian), 58 (English).

The opening of the Kumulipo in Hawaiian (left) and English (right).

Night view from the summit of Mauna Kea.  The Pleiades are located up and to the right of the Moon (the

bright object near the center of the image).

Image Credit: B. McGrath; NASA/courtesy of