EPISODE 2: A Waltz in a Ditch


M.G. Lord: This week I’m ONE-TEN’s designated pedant—a role that unfortunately comes naturally to me. In 2005, I published Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, a cultural history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. And when I learned that construction on the 110 began in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, I couldn’t wait to tell Shannon and Laura what else had happened there.


On Halloween night in 1936, at the Devil’s Gate Dam, the American space program began. More specifically, a bunch of ragtag Caltech grad students led by space visionary Frank Malina static-tested their first rocket motor, which is to say they fired it while it was tethered in place. The test was not an unequivocal success. A hose caught fire and sent them scrambling.

But the motor burned well enough for Theodore von Karman, Caltech’s most distinguished aerodynamicist, to agree to be Malina’s adviser on a thesis about rocket propulsion. In the 1930s, the word “rocket” was a joke—a wacky sci-fi concept—and the reason why JPL used “jet” instead of “rocket” in its name.

Although Malina was the brains of the group, he is less well known than his fellow experimenter, Jack Parsons. Parsons was a flamboyant, frequently booze-addled rich boy who preferred to spend his downtime engaging in group masturbation rituals as a priest in the Pasadena chapter of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a cult founded by Diary of a Drug Fiend author Alistair Crowley. Parsons was also an intuitive rocketeer—too undisciplined to finish his undergraduate degree and irritated by Malina’s insistence that rocket science involved math.

Occultists have saved Parsons from obscurity, where many historians feel he belongs. But the erasure of Malina is tragic. Because Malina flirted with Communism in the 1930s, his accomplishments were essentially wiped from the historical record during the McCarthy period. This was the same time that the government hyped the achievements of such ex-Nazi rocketeers as Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, even as it conspired to hide their war crimes.


Laura Karpman: Ahhh… “The Velocity of Escape” —this was a vigorous challenge. Shannon and M.G. wanted a waltz. I mean, they really wanted a waltz – Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier meets Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with some supertechnical science language as pillow talk. A tough task, indeed! For me, that challenge was, How could I keep my own 21st-century voice while serving a text that calls for music so traditionally based, so romantic, so 19th century? How do funky rhythms, complex jazz harmonies, samplings and soundscapes fit into three-quarter time?

Shannon Halwes: Velocity of Escape was the first aria M.G. and I wrote together, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Something along the lines of leaping through giant rings of fire while roller skating backwards and spinning plates. It’s much, much easier to write to existing music, because the phrasing and cadences in the music evoke not only phrasing and cadences in words but also ideas and images. But, well, that’s not how Laura works. And she was busy doing the score for a zillion movies and writing 40 other operas and 200 symphonies—you know, a normal month’s work—so we had to leap into the void without so much as a bar of music to grab onto. Then for some insane reason I allowed M.G. to talk me into having Lew Zellman, our tenor, woo Susan Tanaka, our soprano, in the language of science. And we wanted it to rhyme. And be a waltz. And not be too on the nose. And be interesting. And be romantic. And develop the characters.

M.G. Lord: I was thrilled to have a chance in ONE-TEN to show Malina’s experiments—viewed through the eyes of an admiring undergraduate. Conservative students called Malina and his team the “suicide squad,” and they were banished to the Arroyo to avoid blowing up Caltech.

I wanted Lew to be like my father or Frank Malina—a man who feels deeply but can only express himself in the detached language of engineering. So I argued for a love duet that included Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the concept of escape velocity.

Shannon Halwes: Interesting in theory, but you try rhyming “Heisenberg.”

M.G. Lord: Shannon and I wanted Lew’s love interest, Susan, to have an equally strong and contrasting identity, so we made her an artist. Frank Malina’s first wife, Liljan Wunderman, studied at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) when he was at Caltech. And I felt an affinity with Susan: Before becoming a writer, I had been a professional artist for 12 years—a syndicated political cartoonist based at Newsday.

Shannon and I investigated important Japanese-American women artists of that generation. We had heard of sculptor Ruth Asawa, but at first knew little about her work. Because her life and art captivated us, we decided Susan’s story would be loosely based on Asawa’s.

And, like Asawa, Susan would learn to draw in the art classes held by Japanese-American Disney animators who were also interned in camps during World War II. Learn more about the work of Ruth Asawa here.

Shannon Halwes: Part of what M.G. and I loved about including the science was mining it for the metaphor that would appeal to an artist like Susan. We also didn’t want Susan to be won over too quickly, so Lew would have to scale a wall of wit before he could win the girl. M.G. had a field day with the snappy retorts.

When it came time for Lew to get serious, we began with M.G.’s achingly romantic line “Am I where you’d go, if you followed your heart?” I had to nudge her a bit to convince her that it was time for Susan to give the guy a break and stop with the wit. We let the romance have its own life and we felt the song finally jumped through all of our flaming hoops. When we nervously handed it over to Laura, it was about the length of War and Peace. Laura delicately suggested the first aria really shouldn’t last an hour. So off we went to kill our darlings.

Laura Karpman: Eventually, after the heated discussions with my collaborators and a few ruffled feathers, I too surrendered to the romance of it all. I let myself slide into the promise of young love, accepted the flowers and chocolate, and maybe, left behind a bit of my usual edge. It’s all heart…and, after all, a rocket does take off at the end of the duet. The most visceral pleasure for me in this selection is in the wonderful, sweet, sexy and very American performances of Karen Vuong and Michael Slattery.

This performance is from our workshop at the California African American Museum, scored only for piano and two voices for the workshop purposes. My fantasy is to have a small chamber orchestra consisting of piano, percussion, string quartet and jazz quartet, plus my usual battery of samples and sound design. As we continue to create this work, you’ll start to hear some of these instruments float into the musical textures.

Listen here:  The Velocity of Escape

Michael Slattery as Lew Zellman and Karen Vuong as Susan Tanaka


In 1958, when NASA was chartered, JPL became part of it. The lab didn’t focus on human missions (back then they called them “manned”) but rather on robotic spacecraft that actually explored new worlds. Once a year it holds an open house, when regular people are allowed behind the wizard’s curtain. Find out more here.

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