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Drake Observatory hosts “Guitars on Equinox” this past weekend

Photo by Lily Wasserman | Staff Writer

This past weekend, the Heart of Iowa Guitar Society, a musical organization with the goal of promoting classical guitar in central Iowa, and the Drake Observatory partnered for “Guitars on Equinox,” a guitar concert at the observatory. 

Members of the society have played concerts at the observatory every December for over a decade now. The concert followed a similar schedule to those in the past, where members of the public could come to the observatory, listen to music and look through the telescopes at the stars above them.

Soloist Alex Aldridge, a classical guitar teacher and performer in Des Moines, began the concert with a set including an homage to Frederic Chopin. He was followed by the Kennedy-Reynolds duo featuring Steven Kennedy, the president of the Heart of Iowa Guitar Society, and Dave Reynolds, a founding member of the organization. The duo played a number of Brazilian pieces,  along with some French pieces.  

“There’s this pairing of the high heights of humanity coming together in this unique place that most people in Central Iowa are unaware of,” Kennedy said.

Athanasios Petridis, a professor of physics at Drake University, helped create the yearly concerts, beginning a year before the society formed. To Petridis, the connection between astronomy and music was natural. 

“There is a connection in terms of the harmonies that you see in the cosmos, which are often reflected in the harmonies of the music, sometimes even directly,” Petridis said. “There are people who have investigated transforming various astronomical phenomena into sounds and creating music out of those.” 

Although this event was entitled “Guitars on Equinox,” the actual spring equinox occurred five days before. 

The equinoxes occur when the Earth rotates around the sun and the sun passes over the equator. During these two days, there are equal amounts of day and night, meaning from the spring equinox onward, the days grow longer and the nights grow shorter. 

Herb Folsom, head lecturer at the Drake Observatory, described a phenomenon that occurs each equinox due to city planning. In Des Moines, street grids are laid out by the cardinal directions, including Forest Avenue.  

“If you go out, [the sun] is going to be setting right over Forest Avenue,” Folsom said. “And it rose right over Forest Avenue in the East, because the sun is going to be rising directly East and directly West.” 

The event opened with a speech from Petridis about the history of the observatory and the guitar society, which then led to discussing the combination of music and astronomy. After the concert, observatory staff encouraged the audience to explore the building’s museum and dome – to go outside to the telescopes, set up and watch the stars. 

That night, the Orion nebula, the closest star-forming region to Earth, was visible, along with Venus and the moon’s craters.
“It’s exactly that, to bring people together, to enjoy music which at its very basis is also physics, to look at the observatory and its historical artifacts that are still there and also look at the stars,” Petridis said. 

One of Folsom’s main goals is spreading the word about the observatory, part of which is through hosting more events such as “Guitars on Equinox.”

“I think the observatory could be the best outreach facility Drake has,” Folsom said. “It’s over a hundred years old and was the first observatory set up as a partnership between the city and a university for the education of the public. That’s what our public nights do, and we want to do more.” 

Folsom said that he’d like to reach out to school groups in the future for tours or events. 

During the opening speech, Petridis expressed hope that “Guitars on Equinox” would become a yearly series. It is also possible that Heart of Iowa Guitar and the observatory will partner for future concerts. 

“It’s a great venue; we enjoy playing there. It’s small, which works really well for the guitar,” Kennedy said. “So really, anything that they would like us to play for, we’re happy to participate with.” 

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