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 Whittlesey’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.”
So it’s a situation where everybody feels liberated, and each moment is precious. Everybody values every second because they know there’s only a finite amount of time left. Can you describe the music you wrote for that chapter?
Well, it’s scored for choruses, flute and piano and it’s very melodic. The tempo is waltz time, three beats to a measure, but like a lot of my music, it tends to change meter from measure to measure. It’s sung by the children’s chorus as well as an adult choir and it’s in a major key, which is interesting because while a lot of my music tends to be in the minor mode, in the chapter where the world is ending it’s a major key. It’s a very straightforward and simple, but it ends very powerfully with the full choruses. And it’s only about four and a half minutes long. How did you approach what Alan Lightman called the sadness and loneliness of some of the characters?
One of the chapters that stands out in my mind is the one where he imagines time standing still. In the book people have the option of going to this place where time stands still, and the closer you get to it the slower time goes. So it’s attractive to people who want to capture something like a wonderful love affair or the joy at the birth of a child that they want to last forever. But the problem is that when you leave that place you go back into a world that’s changed completely – your family and friends are all dead, your neighborhood is gone. Being where time stands still is a wonderful way to capture one precious moment, but then you lose everything else.
As I was reading that chapter I heard a kind of impression of sound that was very rhythmic. The text talks about your heart beating slower, and when I read that I could actually hear a heart slowing down as a percussion effect with the tympani. So as the chorus sings the words “our hearts beat ever slower,” the percussion echoes the words with the actual rhythm of a heartbeat. It’s very wistful, very reflective and one of my pieces in terms of the arrangement. What’s your day like when you’re composing?
I usually work four or six hours a day on a project like this. I like to get things done in the morning, when my creative powers seem to be really on. I usually have a pretty clear idea about what I want to do. Everything is done in the brain before I actually sit down at the keyboard. So the first part is putting all the notes on the staff with the computer. I usually do that for a couple of hours, just recording stuff that’s accumulated during the night.
Then I take a break. I’ll go to the gym, or do my correspondence, or just do the things that require maintenance. Pay bills, do some Web surfing or Google things that interest me.
Then there’s a second sitting that’s more of an editing process, where I’m revisiting the music I composed earlier. That’s when I’m checking my ideas, figuring out what chords to use, working out the arrangement. That part’s more of what I call the “decorative” aspects of composing. How did you get started in music?
I started very early. In fact, the piano over there is the same one I played as a child and which my granddaughter is playing now. My parents bought it for me as a present for my third birthday. I had a good ear and there was a lot of music in my house and I was able to pick out melodies by ear – I could play whatever I heard. That’s still true today.
We lived in New York City, and my father, who worked at Rockefeller Center, took me to a lot of different places when I was young. We grew up with a lot of music in the family on both sides; my grandparents subscribed to the opera ,and my father used to take me to all sorts of little plays and Broadway musicals. My parents went to the theater a lot and they would always bring the records and programs back. I just basically fell in love with the theater.
My parents encouraged me. They made sure I practiced and got to my lessons. They were of a generation where one or two people in the family always played the piano. We’d get around together in the evening or on holidays and that was I how learned all this music – Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin – I heard all that music when I was a very young girl because I would sit there and play it and my family would sing it. So I learned not only classical music but because of the family thing all this other stuff that would stand me very well later.
Later in my 20s I played in all these elegant places, resorts basically, Hiltons, some of the nightclubs in Manhattan. I can remember a lot of them. In my 30s I went back to rock and roll.
In the 1970s and early ’80s I taught piano and was involved in a lot of ensembles. I was living in New York and playing with a New Wave band called The Lines – no real reason except we were practicing in the backyard and we needed a name. But we did well, we toured with the Ramones, with the Jam and other groups.
I worked with some wonderful ensembles and composers. My husband and I moved to Baltimore in 1992. Since then I’ve written a lot of things on commission: for example, I wrote an anthem for the commissioning of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and a theme song for a group called Parents Anonymous, which deals with issues of child abuse and neglect. I also wrote a commissioned piece for the BSO’s holiday pops concerts called Christina’s Suite, wrote music for the Concert Artists of Baltimore and did artist residencies at McDaniel College and the American Visionary Art Museum. So it’s been pretty much nonstop. What do you want to see happen with “Einstein’s Dream” now?
I’d like to see as many performances of it as possible in the future because it’s the kind of thing that can be appealing to many different kinds of audiences. People seem to respond to it very favorably. The collaboration between the arts and sciences is really just now beginning to take hold, but it’s something Einstein himself always believed in.