16 July 2009

Jonathan Kolm: Air on a Super-String


L    ove is most nearly itself
When ‘here’ and ‘now’ cease to matter.”
  —  T.S. Eliot.
J onathan Kolm’s recent compositions reveal that physics can be a rich source of compositional ideas. In particular, Jonathan’s ‘Quantum Music’, a 24-minute chamber work for oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello that received its première in Richmond, Virginia, in 2001 is explicitly evocative of quantum uncertainty, entanglement, and randomness/stochastics. This piece won the third place prize in 2002’s National Federation of Music Clubs Contest. The textures are interesting throughout, and the narrative arc is accessible and deeply moving. Surprisingly so, considering the ‘representational’ motivations and title of the piece.

A ccording to Susan Strehle, [Binghamton University (SUNY) Dept of English], artists who are ‘actualists’ balance attention to questions of art with an engaged meditation on the external, actual world. While ‘actualist novels’ or ‘actualist paintings’ or ‘actualist compositions’ diverge markedly from ‘realist’ representational practice, Strehle claims that they do so in order to reflect more acutely what we perceive as ‘real’. Reality is no longer merely or conventionally ‘realistic’. In the new physical or quantum universe, reality is discontinuous, energetic, relative, statistical, ‘subjectively seen’, and ‘uncertainly known’—all terms taken from physics.

A    ccording to conventional aesthetics, [music] aims either at realistic representation of life or at the anti-realistic exploration of artistic processes. It selectively focuses either on human reality or on the linguistic and formal rendering that constitutes its art. Fictional choices work this way because, for traditional theorists, perception itself functions in ‘either-or’ fashion... [Composers] therefore direct the [listeners; performers] to observe either the garden outside the window or the glass through which the garden appears... The legacy of these assumptions becomes especially restrictive—even blinding, I would argue—for critics of post-modern [music].”
  —  Susan Strehle, p. 1.
A nother of Kolm’s physics-inspired pieces, this time on a cosmology/astrophysics scale, is ‘The Primitive Cosmos’ for 10 percussion (3 marimbas (one 4 1/2 octave), 2 vibraphones, xylophone, bells, timpani and 2 multi-percussionists). This won second-place in 2001’s Percussive Arts Society competition. This piece is intensely rhythmic, taut yet somehow simultaneously tranquil—astonishingly so. Rhythmic ‘mass’ is interconvertible to-from ‘energy’. Beautiful!

O ur minds have difficulty visualizing higher dimensions because we can only move in three spatial dimensions. One way of dealing with this limitation is not to try to visualize higher dimensions at all, but just to think of them as extra numbers in the equations that describe how the world works—or, in the case of Jonathan Kolm, how his music works. This opens the question of whether these ‘extra numbers’ can be investigated directly in any experiment/performance (which necessarily give different results/effects in 1, 2, or 2+1 dimensions to a human scientist/listener/performer).

T his, in turn, raises the question of whether models that rely on such abstract modeling—and potentially impossibly-huge experimental apparatus/ensembles—can be considered scientific/musical. Six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes (like the jpeg above) can account for the additional dimensions required by superstring theory. Superstring theory says that every point in space (or whatever we had previously considered a ‘point’) is in fact a tiny topological ‘manifold’ where each extra dimension has a size on the order of the Planck length/nanoquaver. Kolm’s ‘Quantum Music’ evokes impressions along these lines, especially the woodwind parts’ articulations.

B ohmian mechanics’ was formulated in 1952 by David Bohm as an ontological theory of quantum phenomena. It was revisited and expanded some decades later by John S. Bell. Bell investigated the ‘nonlocal’ structure and implications of Bohm’s theory and was led to formulate Bell’s inequalities. Experimental tests of the inequalities verified that Nature is nonlocal—capable of long-range correlations and ‘entanglements’ between two or more particles separated in space. Bohmian mechanics has since then prospered as a logical counterpart of quantum mechanics. Bohmian mechanics concerns the motion of elementary particles. Statistical analysis of these yields the formalism of quantum mechanics in terms of mathematical Hilbert spaces, self-adjoint operator-observables, and projection and positive operator-valued metrics. Tunneling times, ‘arrival times’, and ‘first-exit times’ are mathematically modeled in Bohmian mechanics. I do not know whether Jonathan Kolm has employed the mathematical abstractions of Bohmian mechanics as part of his compositional practice, but the features of his instrumental writing suggest that this may be so.

 Jonathan Kolm
J onathan Kolm’s music combines emotional intensity and rich harmonic colors and has been recognized with awards and prizes in national competitions—in choral works in addition to his instrumental compositions. In 2008 he participated in the American Composers Forum workshop for new choral music working with conductor Philip Brunelle and Vocal Essence. He has had several choral commissions by the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus and other groups. ‘A Dream within a Dream’ (soprano, cello and piano) and ‘Winter Heavens’, premiered in New York City by the New York Virtuoso Singers, are notable. He was a Symposium Fellow at MUSIC05 in Cincinnati where his piece for three percussionists on one vibraphone ‘Warrior from the Deep’ was premiered. ‘Crystal Fantasy’, for violin, cello, flute, and clarinet was performed at the Dallas Museum of Art where it won second place in the 2005 Voices of Change Composition Contest. In 2006 a cantata for choir and orchestra was commissioned and premiered in April, 2006 in Austin, Texas, as well as set of pieces for violin and piano that were commissioned by the Austin Eurhythmy Ensemble and premiered in St. Paul, Minnesota, in May, 2006, and has been favored with many subsequent performances. His work for SATB chorus ‘Cedo Maiori’ was premiered in October 2006 in New York City by the New York Virtuoso Singers at Columbia University.

U nlike many composers of new music with unswerving devotion to white-on-white, Jonathan Kolm is clearly unafraid of sonic ‘color’. He floods his compositions with natural light to achieve a constantly-changing interior and multiple gradations of intimacy. He is unafraid of introducing bold acoustic colors, covers Le Corbusier celloistic club-chairs with purple oboe and blue clarinet fabrics.

N ature and physics give us an uncountable infinity of variations on the theme of quantum ‘indistinguishability’. In some variations, the theme is obvious; in others it is hidden. In physics, quantum ‘entanglement’ has priority over ‘indistinguishability’. Entanglement is the heart of quantum physics. If there were no entanglement but only one-particle interferences, then why should we not just accept a wave theory as an adequate account of the phenomena? We are able to know that this photon or this clarinet expression is a quantum object because we know that two photons or an oboe and a clarinet can become entangled even though they are spatially separated. Their quantum structureness is made palpable by the parts’ entanglement—the way they are written, the way they are played.

B y ‘quantum structures’ we mean systems of events that model abstract quantum mechanical processes. If you are interested in this stuff (for your own use in composing, or as an aid to analysis of music like this) there is a highly-readable discussion of these things in Mirko Navara’s chapter in Engesser, Gabbay, and Lehmann’s book (pp. 335ff).

J onathan received his DMA in Composition from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. He previously had taken his MM in Composition at Virginia Commonwealth University (2000). He is currently Asst. Prof. of Composition and Music Education at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

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