Superstrings (City Halls)

Sage Pearce-Higgins

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had a theory of everything?” This sentiment is likely to be expressed by a theoretical physicist, whose area of science has been searching for some sort of ‘Unified Field Theory’ since Albert Einstein coined the term.

The idea is to find some way of joining all the fundamental forces together with the fundamental particles to make a neat and simple formula that somehow explains the universe. ‘Superstring Theory’ has, for many years, been the best candidate for the task, despite its far-flung predictions and apparent un-testability.

This was the subject of the engaging lecture given by Professor Brian Foster and violinist Jack Liebeck as a prelude to Liebeck and pianist Katya Apekisheva’s recital.

Both the lecture and recital were based on Einstein and his connections with music. The link was somewhat tenuous — not much of ‘Superstring Theory’ has anything to do with music, and not much of the recital’s programme had much to do with Einstein — but it was inspiring to hear science joined with music. Einstein was, after all, a great aficionado of classical music and amateur musician himself. He recognised the subtle nature of understanding and the need for approaches other than that of science.

Despite its undeniable success and contribution to the world’s prosperity, most modern science has been based on a strong general principle: to reduce in order to unify. In other words, if we look closely enough at the world around us, then we will see underlying similarities. The discovery that the universe is largely composed of a hundred or so chemical elements is a good example of this. Yet reductionism has its dangers: look at Freud’s destructive attempts to explain human behaviour by means of a few subconscious urges. If we zoom in too closely, we miss the big picture.

Unfortunately, Liebeck and Apekisheva’s playing was infected with some of this harmful reductionism.

Rarely have I heard two such excellent musicians play so well together at the level of single notes, yet so far apart in terms of larger shapes. The shorter phrases were integrated, but in terms of sound, colour and narrative structure, the players were in different worlds.

Equally, when it came to the massively varied styles of the composers programmed — J. S. Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Dvorak and Bloch — it seemed that the performers were trying to play them all in a similar way.

Heterogeneity is to be celebrated; in music this means different techniques and different sound worlds for different composers, especially if the programme stretches across three centuries.

Both performers favoured a somewhat direct approach, avoiding the mystique that makes for the most engaging playing.

This gave the Mozart a certain brutality, but it worked excellently for the Bloch. A composer of Jewish origin, Ernest Bloch often used Jewish motifs in his work, including the three-movement Baal Shem, which Liebeck and Apekisheva played with great energy and conviction.

It was illuminating to hear in Brian Foster’s lecture that the elusive ‘Superstring Theory’ posits explanatory vibrating strings that are actually larger than the current fundamental particles (quarks and the like). In order to understand better, we often need to take a step back.


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