Science And Art


Baltimore composer tells how she grew up with music and turned a physicist's novel about Einstein into a multimedia musical production

Q&a -- Lorraine L. Whittlesey

April 15, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

How many musically precocious toddlers have ever gotten a baby grand piano for a present on their third birthday? And of those lucky few, how many can say that more than half a century later they're still picking out melodies on the same instrument they received as a child?

The mahogany-colored Knabe grand piano that sits in Baltimore composer Lorraine L. Whittlesey's light-filled studio in Canton has given her a lifetime of musical pleasure as well as sturdy, dependable service.

It's the same instrument she learned to play as a child, and it was also the instrument on which she composed her most recent musical work, a soon-to-be-published multimedia choral composition based on physicist Alan Lightman's best-selling 1993 novel, Einstein's Dream.

"I read the book the year it came out and was so entranced I knew immediately I wanted to do a musical treatment of it," Whittlesey recalls. "The writing was so lyrical I thought it could be an amazing vehicle for some kind of multimedia presentation."

The 30 short chapters of Lightman's novel take the reader on a vivid journey through one of the 20th century's most celebrated scientific minds as the author imagines how Einstein might have come up with his revolutionary ideas about time and space. Whittlesey was instantly captivated.

Her first attempt to translate the text into music, in 1994, was derailed, however, after she learned that someone else had an option on the book. Another five years went by before she revisited the project. And it wasn't until 2005 that the composer, who is now 59, got down to putting it all down on paper after having reread the book several more times over the years.

The piece had its debut last September at Carroll Community College in Westminster in a performance led by Margaret Boudreaux, the former chair of the music department at nearby McDaniel College.

Seeking Lightman's permission to publish her work based on his book, Whittlesey sent a recording of the concert to the writer's agent in New York, who passed it on to the author. Lightman was delighted by the piece.

"I've always been flattered and encouraging when another artist is inspired to create their own production based on my book," Lightman said recently from his home in Massachusetts.

"In this case, I think it was a wonderful result," the author added. "Ms. Whittlesey has an independent vision and her music is beautiful, haunting and it captures a lot about the book, especially the spirit of sadness in many of the characters."

Lightman said one of his intentions in writing the book was to explore the isolation and loneliness that truly original creative minds often must endure.

"The loneliness of the characters in the book are extensions of Einstein's own loneliness," Lightman said. "A lot of the characters are trapped by time in the sense that that they lived lives they regretted, or hadn't seized their opportunities or weren't able to live in the moment.

"It's our sense of mortality plus the failure to appreciate the preciousness of each moment that leads to such sadness, and Whittlesly's music conveyed that very well," Lightman continued. "But her music also has humor, because life is not just sadness. It's punctuated by moments of lightness."

Last week we caught up with Whittlesey as she was preparing the final score for publication to talk about her life in music and the work that's come out of it: How did you come to do this project?

I've always been interested in Einstein, because he was not just an amazing scientist but an amazing musician and humanitarian and individual as well.

The premise of the book is that the young Einstein fell asleep and had a series of dreams, each which illustrates a different way of experiencing time, or a different theory about the way we experience time. In the book, the dreams are divided up over 30 chapters. So I selected the ones that appealed to me most and basically sketched out my ideas. I kind of knew what I wanted to do, and the musical ideas and the characters just sort of unfolded as I wrote. Which chapters from Lightman's book did you pick to write music for and why?

[One] chapter I loved was May 8, 1905, whose theme is the end of time. Lightman is positing what would happen if we knew exactly when the world would end - like it's just a fact of life that tomorrow is Thursday and the world is going to end. So how would people treat one another, how would they behave, what would they do?

I'll read you a bit of the text I based on that chapter: It says "all the schools and business[es] have shut down, because in this world everyone knows the world will end soon and they want to savor every moment that remains. People do as they please and are finally honest with one another, for they know there will be no consequences to their actions."

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