Karl Popper once wrote: “A great work of music, like a great scientific theory, is a cosmos imposed upon chaos – in its tensions and harmonies in exhaustible even for its creator”. If this is true (and it needs some unpacking before we can get to work on that question) then might great music be a source of illumination of great physics? Might physics inform and deepen our enjoyment of music? I don’t know – but I mean to find out with the help of scientific and musical colleagues in Durham this November, when we set out on a musical and experimental exploration for the International Year of Light.
Of course, musical themes and analogies surface frequently in Faith and Wisdom in Science. I even imagine a nightmare world, in the introduction, where we have ‘locked away’ music from general human enjoyment and celebration in the same way that we seem to have done with science. Music, of course, has its ‘ladder’ of expertise – with international concert soloists at the top, and most of us somewhere towards the bottom – but nevertheless happily enjoying, and critically engaging with, the production of music in its new writing and performance. The problem with science is that someone seems to have removed most of the lower rungs of its ladder! Can we get them back by enjoying science and music together?
Perhaps it was hearing about the idea of the International Year of Light that alerted me to the amount of music, especially choral music, which seems to be inspired by the idea of light. Of course one reason for this is that light itself becomes a metaphor for so much beyond: understanding, hope, creation itself, which in turn inform and inspire music.
Perhaps the ‘classic’ (in every sense of the word) musical moment that captures light-inspiration is the chorus in Hayden’s ‘Creation’ where order bursts out over the composer’s brilliant musical depiction of chaos: “… and … there … was… LIGHT!” – the chorus tip-toes over the introductory words from the Book of Genesis then explode in a cascade of fortissimo harmonies. Shut your eyes and you hear space filled with coruscating colour and brilliance.
But I think that Popper meant more than this by his musings on music. He is talking about form – that essential constraint on imagination that turns inspiration into art. Here he is surely onto something, for in science too we achieve understanding both through powerful imagination (‘could like be like a wave in some sense?’) and severe constraint (‘what happens if I direct a beam though this tiny hole …?). Could it be in this sense that both art and science fashion the order of form and pattern from the chaos of unfettered wild imagination and ignorance – and is it this that makes both music and science so basically human?
We are inviting all comers to an afternoon of hands-on experimental exploration of light from 2pm at Trevelyan College, Durham on Saturday November 14th. Three themes frame the activities – light as a combination of wavelengths and colour, light
as a carrier of information and light and a conveyer of energy for life. It will come as no surprise that we plan to explore the glaring analogy of colour and musical pitch during the afternoon – but we want to go further. Then for one hour from 4pm the Durham Singers will pick up on these same themes in a programme of music from 400 years of history. Two centrepieces to look forward to will be the Bach chorale Jesus, mein Lebens Licht, from the 17th century and a world Premiere of Light by local composer Janet Graham. Graham’s new piece sets words by another North-East artist – poet Gordon Hodgeon, now totally incapacitated by spinal injury, yet still writing. Light carries ‘words’ of information of chemistry and dynamics to us from distant stars. In this piece, Light literally becomes for us the only carrier of the poet’s words, distanced by the light-years of extreme disability. It looks like being a thoughtful and a moving occasion, and also an inspiring one. Come and join us!