Alex James: The Great Escape

A symphony that's out of this world
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The Independent Online

Each year, the Whitechapel Gallery in east London invites a musician to do something in its hallowed hall. This year it's me. I thoughtarranging a choir might be nice, for an art gallery. I must have been dreaming. I got there to find a brilliant Paul McCarthy exhibition featuring dismembered genitalia and gore. It made a choir seem a bit namby-pamby. Instead, I think I've ended up making the most expensive piece of art ever.

It's a 10-minute film of a billion-mile journey around the solar system following the path of the Rosetta spacecraft to a comet between Jupiter and Saturn in 2014. The craft, which I have come to care about a lot, flies past most of what we have good pictures of; Earth, the Moon, the Sun, Mars, the asteroid belt. I've spent hours gazing at photos of these strange landscapes, from various missions over the past 30 years, and have put them together with ESA and Nasa's permission into a film for which I've written the Rosetta Symphony.

The single most powerful image is still the "Earthrise", taken from moon orbit by the Apollo astronaut William Anders in the 1960s. It's because you know it was captured in person a long, long way from home that it's so affecting.

I got Bill, who lives round the corner, to twiddle his Stratocaster over the voidiness of near space. When I'd passed Mars, I thought it would be safe to let rip. I've reclaimed space beyond there as an arena for hard rock.

Bill had a couple of touring Australian guitarist brothers staying with him. They came round for lunch. I did the carrot soup. Bill said they're the best classical guitarists in the world. There's no stick for measuring music with, but these boys seemed to have specially designed fingers -long and spidery,not like my bangers.

I was adding distortion to a nasty sound to accompany a meteor impact. The "hyper-fuzz" pedal intrigued them. Everybody likes it. They agreed it was tasteful, outside Mars's orbit. Then they plugged in a couple of guitars. One of them said they didn't play electric, really.

Well, that was a lie. Rain was falling, but their playing somehow made the rain immaculate. They were the best guitarists I've heard. The music was so beguiling that the years fell away and I was floating in timeless space again. If one word describes their sound it would be clean. Everything about it was pure.

Dirty is also good. Bernard Sumner came down with filthy Phil and Jake, guitarists one and all. They made the rain look good, too. The classical guitarists were astonishing, but different. They didn't play their own music. Really good pop musicianshave a kind of unstoppable spastic creativity that blows away technical expertise. Drums are also important. We bashed down seven surprisingly good songs in two days. It's the only part of being a musician that never gets boring. You can keep all the TV shows and awards ceremonies - that rush of spontaneity where you make something new is the good bit. Art, science, music, it's all the same. Putting form on the indeterminate, that's why we do it.

For tickets to Alex James's Art Music Plus 2006 tomorrow night, visit www.whitechapel.org

alexjames@independent.co.uk

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