Thursday, February 23, 2006 | One genius didn’t talk until he was four years old, yet he became a brilliant physicist who changed science forever. The other genius was a church musician who fathered 20 children and found the time to compose hundreds of works still played widely today.
What made these two men – the twentieth century’s Albert Einstein and the eighteenth century’s Johann Sebastian Bach – geniuses? Answering this weighty question hardly seems like an evening’s entertainment, but that’s exactly what the chamber group Camarada have in mind with “Genius” on Saturday evening.
It might be useful to think of “Genius” as a floor show with music, food and wine for a few close friends (about 100 tickets will be available) in a classy venue.
The “hall” is Little Italy’s elegant Botanica, which is usually filled with corporate partygoers and wedding guests. Camarada flutist Beth Ross-Buckley and guitarist Fred Benedetti will perform music by J.S. Bach, along with one work from his son C.P.E Bach with narrations by music lecturer and writer Eric Bromberger. The concert will last just about an hour and the rest will be pure socializing for audience and performers.
“Genius” is the third and final concert of the season in Camarada’s Candlelight Series at Botanica. The series exemplifies Camarada’s mission to return music to its origins by presenting smaller groups performing in smaller venues for a total and not just an auditory experience.
“The smaller venue has potential to touch people more. That’s what the audience tells us; the smaller is more powerful,” said Ross-Buckley, Camarada’s Artistic Director.
For sheer enjoyment, when you think about Bach, think dancing, says Bromberger. Much of Bach’s music comes right out of dancing. Square dancers know the “Allemande” call. It survives from the quick-tempo Allemande, just one of the dances that Bach drew from as for his eighteenth-century compositions. It was one of the folk and national dances that early European settlers relaxed with, after a day clearing land across the American continent.
As for Einstein, think of joy.
When Einstein arrived in the United States after fleeing Nazi Germany, he brought something besides his brain – his violin. He made no secret of how much music meant to him. A talented amateur, Einstein once said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. … I get most joy in life out of music.”
Although Einstein and Bach drew on pleasurable earth-bound sources of inspiration, their accomplishments soared, because they were both “so creatively open that they ended up so far ahead,” said Ross-Buckley. Benedetti added another ingredient – passion. Both men shared an intensity that went beyond merely producing great works.
“No one we call genius is devoid of humanistic value. That’s what makes them what they are,” Benedetti said.
Musicians and scientists alike see another link between these two geniuses – mathematics. As Bromberger pointed out, all music is pure mathematics, numerical values and combinations. What matters is getting beyond the numbers to the larger order and beauty.
“Both are looking for order and it’s a different order for both men. It’s a search for truth, each looking for truth in his own way. The math for Einstein is like the notes for Bach – Platonic manifestations of a much larger system of order that they are both striving toward,” Bromberger said.
Einstein and Bach lived during times of intellectual ferment. When Einstein was doing his most important work in the early 1900s, scientists around him were discovering X-rays, radioactivity and the structure of the atom. The young Einstein’s day job was as a clerk in the Swiss patent office, but after his theories circulated among scientists, he won appointments to universities in Zurich and Berlin. When he arrived in the United States, Princeton snapped him up.
Modern science emerged during Bach’s time. The microscope, barometer and thermometer were invented, and Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz had independently developed calculus. Liebniz located music in the center of mathematics.
“Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting,” Liebniz said.
Benedetti said that Bach and Einstein applied mathematical concepts in their work, although in very different ways. Bach “takes complex musical ideas, incorporates them mathematically and can make them expressive.” Bach also knew the rules that governed music and that were grounded in mathematics. But Bach bent and broke those rules regularly and so skillfully that his compositions are full of shifts and surprises that delight the listener.
Bach’s compositions became so complicated, that by the end of his life his music was considered to be overly intellectual. As Bromberger pointed out, the reaction to Bach’s music in the second half of the eighteenth century produced a more streamlined, simpler approach to “the divine order,” from composers like Mozart and Beethoven.
Bach’s music went out of print and nearly disappeared. So although musicians like Beethoven privately played Bach’s music, they had to use hand-copied manuscripts.
Then in 1829, after a friend complained to 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn that Bach’s music was “a dry arithmetical sum,” the composer resurrected and conducted a performance of Bach’s monumental “St. Matthew Passion” that stunned audiences. Bach emerged from the shadows, and today, his work is played regularly. Bach became an inspiration for the most avant garde composers of the twentieth century, including many jazz musicians.
“Jazz musicians like Bach, because what he does melodically and harmonically is similar to what the jazz improvisers do,” said Benedetti.
The greatest jazz improvisers know what they can do over a particular chord or melody because it represents a particular relationship in the music. They know what they can substitute and how they can alter the original harmony.
“Bach does this all the time,” Benedetti said.
Bromberger cautions that in actuality, no connection exists between Einstein and Bach, except that both men are seekers, and there’s a form of intellectual pleasure involved in the search. Bundling light waves or writing a five-part fugue are very different, yet at a more immediate level, both satisfy the same search for order.
“The metaphor for the concert has to do with two promethean figures and the relation between music and larger meaning,” said Bromberger, who gives the pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, writes program notes for La Jolla Music Society, San Francisco Performances and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
Bromberger recognizes Bach’s complexity and he offers a simple piece of advice: “Listen to Bach the way you listen to any other music. Come to it without preconceptions. You also have to be honest with yourself. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you,” he said.
Cathy Robbins is a freelance journalist whose articles about Indians have appeared in High Country News and The New York Times. She is writing a book, “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos).”