The Science of Music, The Music of Science

Recording Details

Speaker(s): 
PIRSA Number: 
06040006

Abstract

From at least the fifth century B.C.E., music became a way of knowing the world, when Pythagoras discovered the mathematics of musical beauty. Proclaiming that certain simple ratios produce the most pleasing harmonies, he offered them as one element in the structure of an orderly universe. Yet, right from the beginning, vexing paradoxes arose. When multiplied to higher and higher frequencies, the very formulas that form what seem to be covenants under heaven’s watchful gaze produce tones that are antagonistic, refusing to merge peacefully. The structure of musical space appears to warp.

In a time when science, art, politics and religion were tightly woven strands in the fabric of Western civilization, this was no small issue. At stake were the very underpinnings of God’s grand design. Indeed, this issue launched centuries of battles over music (and art) that engaged such powerful figures as Pythagoras and Plato, St. Augustine, Leonardo da Vinci, Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Rousseau and many others.

In a multi-media presentation employing musical performance on pianos in different tunings, visual images and a bit of theater, Stuart Isacoff takes us on a journey through history to unveil the little known story of those fights. At the center of it all was a fundamental question: does nature, filled with laws for the workings of our physical world, also have rules governing how we should select the notes of our musical scales?

This lecture/recital is based on Mr. Isacoff’s critically acclaimed book, Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization (Knopf and Vintage), described by The Economist as “immensely entertaining, original and informative,” and by National Review as “a whirlwind tour through the history of Western culture, told with flair and grace.” The New York Times Book Review declared: “Isacoff untangles the complexities… with the aplomb of a virtuoso pianist playing scales.”

Stuart Isacoff is a pianist, composer and writer. He is a recipient of the prestigious ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. Mr. Isacoff is the editor of the magazine Piano Today, and author or composer of numerous musical works published by Alfred A. Knopf, G. Schirmer, Boosey & Hawkes, Carl Fischer, Music Sales, Warner Bros., and Ekay Music. He has also written for The New York Times, The New York Sun, The Wall Street Journal, Connoisseur, Musical America, Chamber Music, Early Music America, The Grove Dictionary of Music in America, and many other periodicals.

As a lecturer and recitalist he has appeared at The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, The Verbier Music Festival, The Gina Bachauer Competition, The Los Alamos National Laboratory, and other major concert and university venues. Mr. Isacoff’s piano recitals frequently combine classical repertoire with jazz improvisation as a way of bridging musical works written centuries and continents apart. He teaches the Philosophy of Music on the graduate level for Purchase College of the State University of New York.