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Tour Around the Universe

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Enrico Chapela, composer of Magnetar Enrico Chapela, composer of Magnetar

“It was a tour around the Universe!” That was the enthusiastic assessment of the Magnetar Concerto according to Dr. Raymond Laflamme, Director of the Institute for Quantum Computing.


This intersection of music and science was the hyperspatial surface upon which a concert was delivered to an audience at Kitchener's Conrad Centre on April 20, 2017.


It not only included Magnetar, by the Mexican composer Enrico Chapela (pictured above), but a world premiere of Does God Play Dice (Quantum Etude) by Edwin Outwater. Both composers were in attendance, with Outwater himself conducting the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. It is rare for even one composer to be present at a symphony concert; having two can only be described as a rare delight!


The concert opened with a 12-minute composition by Mason Bates entitled The Rise of Exotic Computing. Outwater told the audience this piece depicts the progression of computers to the point where they reproduce themselves in an organic way. Those who are truly concerned about such a development will want to read my recent article in Sun News about the societal threat of robots. The link is Here:


Bate's creation begins with a deeply brooding and calculating mood. One can actually sense an awakening as it blossoms into something akin to a Chinese-inspired melody. The harp, which often gets overwhelmed in a concert, made a noticeable impact here.


In introducing Outwater's premiere performance, the audience was treated to a video of a conversation between him and Laflamme. I have already quoted from an interview he granted Sun News. In the video, he says “Both musicians and physicists want to understand the world. Musicians do it in a creative way.” To advance both science and music, he said, “You have to ask the right questions – you need to be able to push the boundary.”


The way we conceive of the world using quantum will break down someday. What is the music of tomorrow? A partial answer may be found in Quantum Etude. As the orchestral experience began, each instrument played its own tune – for example, one double violin was being plucked, while the others each played something different.


Wind instruments were positioned above the stage on either side of the concert hall, while a variety of strings were placed at the rear for a truly immersive experience. The string instruments eventually achieved coherence with a monotonous few notes; superimposed on them was a variety of sounds from the wind instruments. These concepts of coherence and superposition come directly from quantum physics. Randomness was also incorporated into the performance, as Outwater rolled a die, shown to the audience on the screen above. The resulting numbers instructed various instruments to play, thus ensuring this was not only a world premiere, but a unique event.


In an interview, Outwater said “I wanted it to sound jagged, like thinking hard.” He likened the creation to a mobile, the sort of kinetic sculpture made popular by Alexander Calder.


The 25-minute Magnetar Concerto was the longest event of the evening, with the energetic Johannes Moser from Germany playing an instrument most people have never seen: an electric cello. Chapela was also fully engaged in the performance, at an electronic keyboard near the conductor.


It was indeed, as Outwater cautioned, a rollercoaster ride. The frenetic pace set by the electric cello, emitting cosmic echoes, gave way to a plethora of musical images ranging from the Pink Panther to a sweet melody and hard rock.


In introducing the composition, Chapela said it was inspired by the explosions of magnetic stars in deep space, thus the name Magnetar. It certainly stepped out of classic acoustic sound, finding a new freedom.


I asked Chapela what he wanted the audience to understand from hearing this. “It's what I want the audience to feel, not what I want them to understand,” he said. “Wherever it takes them is what I want them to feel.”


This sentiment was echoed by Laflamme, who told me “Instead of just learning about a part of the Universe, they lived it!”


Kudos to Outwater and the K-W Symphony for offering the most innovative musical experiences in Canada with the Intersections series of concerts.







Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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