“We shall therefore borrow all our Rules for the Finishing our Proportions, from the Musicians, who are the greatest Masters of this Sort of Numbers, and from those Things wherein Nature shows herself most excellent and compleat.”
—Leon Battista Alberti (1407-1472)
Musicians and scientists have long had synergistic thinking. Pythagoras and his protégés, the mathematikoi (who were vegetarians with few worldly possessions, much like many composers of today), saw and heard the beauty of proportional equations and developed their theory of musica mundane or “music of the spheres.” There is much contemporary music which translates formula to form with ravishing results, from Bill Duckworth’s Mysterious Numbers to works by James Tenney, Iannis Xenakis, La Monte Young, and many others. In such work, I’m not sure where the science ends and the music begins—they are truly entwined.
In the modern world, we have seen scientific knowledge assume a status as the most valuable or authoritative kind of knowledge, while artistic knowledge and intelligence is relegated to a secondary status. Science usually struggles when that which is unquantifiable can’t be squeezed into an equation, while music and the arts often stretch perception away from the steady state. Yet equations are metaphors for reality and perhaps have more similarity to art than we might usually accord them. R. Buckminster Fuller was one scientist who saw this and played with it—he even equated Einstein‘s famous equation, E = MC2, with a proof of God.
Because scientists today are specialists
Rather than generalists,
They have tended to avoid consideration
Of the total significance of their interrelated work.
The recent evolution of science
Finds its specialists continually surprised
To discover their respective specializations
Bringing them into unexpected proximity
To other specializations theretofore considered
Almost infinitely remote.
—Fuller, Postscript to No More Secondhand God
I believe music is one of those specializations alluded to by Fuller, that can be worked on a kind of alchemical level in interrelated ways to the work being done today in areas like the physics of phenomenology and acoustic biology. Music is a unique art that can be thought of as a fair science, a discipline in which the quantifiable and known intersects with the mysterious. We can measure tones and waves, but we don’t know why they move a person to cry.
It has now been 100 years since Albert Einstein proffered his famous equation and prompted ongoing striving towards a “unified theory.” Groundbreaking work and synergies abound—Charles Townes, inventor of the laser and maser, was just last month awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. I’m waiting for the day a composer gets that award and I’m serious, because I believe we work in a realm we have just begun to scratch the surface of, and from which we have much more to learn.
Einstein saw that music was a window into the unknown. In 1930 he wrote about deep scientific and artistic perception and the difficulty of communicating it, describing it as “cosmic religious feeling” with “no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it”:
How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.
What equations do you make out of all that is known and unknown? And how do you express it in your music?