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Music as weirdly beautiful as the universe itself

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Kitchener Waterloo Symphony’s performance of “Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science” began with a warning from conductor Edwin Outwater:

Some of the music we’re about to play may drive you nuts. You may not like it.

But that’s OK.

Part of the Intersections series, this concert was meant to explore how the work being done in theoretical physics influenced classical music. It was a collaboration with KW’s Institute for Quantum Computing. It featured a narrative and some visuals giving a brief history of physics, particularly the quantum part, with additions from Outwater explaining how these had influenced the piece we were about to hear. Raymond Laflamme, Director of the Institute for Quantum Computing, also participated.

Quantum Mechanics scoreWe were eased into the whole thing with Newtonian physics, solid and elegant, as represented by the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A major. Then, it was explained, delving into the realm of quantum mechanics seemed to put all that in doubt. We had particles that could be both here, and there. Elements that didn’t behave in a mathematically cohesive way. Physics theories that no longer aligned.

This uncertainty affected the artists of the times. As an example, we heard an early piece by Anton Webern, excerpt from Langsamer Satz, which was very grand and beautiful in a Wagerian way. Then a later one, in which he starts to explore dissonance—Ruhig schreitend. You wouldn’t guess it was the same composer.

More directly exploring this opposition was Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, in which most of the orchestra plays a beautiful melody, but it is interrupted by a trumpe, moved to the back balcony, asking questions that the woodwinds, from the side balcony, then try, but fail, to answer. It was a great piece to listen to, really; I’d like to get a recorded version of that one.

After the break we were introduced to a piece by Henry Brant, On the Nature of Things (after Lucretius). The theme at this point was composers coming to terms with, and indeed embracing, the weirdness of quantum physics. Brant’s contribution was to add another dimension to orchestral interpretation: geographic space. He was very concerned with where the musicians were located in the room. So the piece had some of the symphony in their usual locations on the stage, others were placed above, beside, and behind us.

And it does make a difference, hearing the music in “surround sound”.

Up next was a John Cage piece called the Atlas eclipticalis, which was inspired by the cosmos itself. He created the score by superimposing musical staves over the star-charts in an atlas. Brightness of the stars was translated into the size of the notes in the composition.

Finally, we came to Iannis Xenakis, who was both a scientist and a musician. He would start with mathematical equations, and convert these into stanzas. And he would assemble his pieces with the aid of a Fortran computer, lending the final result a little randomness. The resulting piece, called ST/48-1,240162—did have repeating musical themes, but they didn’t move around the symphony in the expected, “classical” way. It did have sort of computer, sci-fi feel to it. Though it went on for 11 minutes, it was not unpleasant to listen to.

So despite the warnings, it was actually a very enjoyable evening at the symphony, one that worked the brain cells in a new way.

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