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Einstein’s Violin (Pt. 1)

While I was down in Albany, I did a lot of reading, and a bit of journaling. One of the books I read was “Einstein’s Violin” by Joseph Eger. It was a really interesting book, combining both his musical memories, but also his interest in Physics, detailing his theory that the Universe is made of Music. While I was reading this book, my journal entries contained my thoughts about issues he raised, and I’d like to share them with you.

January 5, 2008
Once again, holidays. So fantastic. An early morning walk became some unexpected “rock climbing” – literally climbing on large rocks. I started a 500-piece puzzle, and we went wine tasting, bringing back 17 bottles of the Porongorups finest. Uncertain as to how many of these will make it home.
I also started reading Joseph Eger’s book “Einstein’s Violin” – which are his notes on Music, Physics and Social Change. I’m still quite early in the book, but a couple of points have got me thinking.
In Chapter 6, he starts talking about “What is Music?” – an age old question that barely fits in a book, let alone a chapter (or a journal entry for that matter). After a couple of sections looking at the origins of music, he starts to look at what music is used for and has been used for. He calls up a few stories from different cultures where music has been used to heal – David and Saul from the Hebrew tradition, music being used to treat outbursts of the mentally ill and so-on. He then turns to China, where the ancient Chinese “believed that music was the basis of everything.” The Chinese philosopher Confucius said that if the music changed, then society would accordingly change. Confucius attached the same importance to music as nations attach to military and economic issues today.
Eger relates a storey of Emperor Shun, who would travel through his kingdom once a year to ensure all was in order. He did not check health, or diplomatic issues, but the five notes of the scale to ensure they were in perfect correspondence with those then in use. Eger goes on to say that society reflected the music – if the music was wistful or romantic, the people would be wistful or romantic. If the music was strong or military then the people would be militaristic. Stable musical style promoted a stable society, but a changing style saw change in peoples lives.
I can think of a couple of examples of this in modern times where society seems to follow music. In the early twentieth century, music saw incredible change. Thanks to technology, people were able to hear music from all over the world. This inspired “Western” composers and brought about massive musical change – from the French Impressionists such as Debussy and ravel to the Serialist composers of Schoenberg and Webern. As a result of these massive changes in music, society also experienced massive change. Two world wars within thirty years, with the results of those wars still being felt today (The division of land in the Middle East, for example).
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Korean and Vietnamese Wars occurred <>. While this is an area of history that I’m not too familiar with, I doubt anyone would be able to dismiss the importance of the protest songs by artists such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon, in changing public opinion of their governments action. Was it then any surprise that musicians have been some of the most vocal opponents against the war in Iraq, and also the most vocal encourager’s of getting people to vote – both in Australia and the USA?
When I started thinking about this, I started wondering if this was limited to folk music, or whether classical music was a part of this as well. In history classes, we are often taught the opposite – that music follows – it follows literature, follows art, follows society. There are obviously reasons for this, but I think investigation into the opposite is warranted. I also got thinking about what is “classical” music.
Could classical music be defined? Is it based on the instruments? Unlikely, as we now have many instruments that play both pop and classical. Then how about music making a point? You then run into the deeply meaningful songs of someone like Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkle. And couldn’t today’s pop love songs be compared to the love songs of Schubert and Schumann, or the meaningless songs such as Tubthumping or the Macarena compared to the often meaningless yet bawdy rounds of Purcell? Form is also not a consideration, neither is the commercial aspect (how many arrangements of his own music did Mozart himself make to earn more money?)
The more I think about it, the less I can distinguish between Pop/Commercial and Classical. Should I therefore refer to myself not as a classical musician, but as a musician?

Ben: I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, please comment! I’ll post more tomorrow.

0 thoughts on “Einstein’s Violin (Pt. 1)

  1. Music, composed by humans (and any other human expression) can be the result of several causes, depending on the type of mental/emotional/spiritual disposition of the individual. I like the idea that an individual has the freedom to compose music in whatever fashion they feel inclined. However, here is the point: Probably all composers follow their feelings to a large extent, but the big question is: What are the feelings related to? Are the feelings related to the composer’s innate sense of harmony, peace and wholeness (holiness), or are the feelings related to circumstances, both private circumstances, local or global circumstances? If the latter is the case, such music is only reinforcing current conditions in society, if the music is an outpouring of inner freedom, love and harmony, then this would certainly change the circumstances to the better (according to quantum physics and other sciences, such as metaphysics). As long as the music translates this innate sense of wholeness, any compatible genre of music is uplifting, be it classical or otherwise.

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