The link between mathematics and music has always been there - our ears hear in frequencies and even before those frequencies were known in physics terms, ancient philosopher-scientists had determined that the language of math linked areas as remote as planetary motion and harmony. "There is music in the spacing of the spheres," wrote Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans didn't have irrational numbers, negative numbers or even a zero but they didn't need those for their kind of symbolism.
The beauty of music led lots of people to understand math. Every guitar player learns the circle of fifths, even if the knowledge about frequencies and numbers is high order. For Mark Bowden, Director of Composition at Royal Holloway, University of London, it went the other way around; the math inspired the music. He was reading "The Music of the Primes", by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, about the history of prime numbers and the Riemann hypothesis exploring how prime numbers relate to music, patterns in nature and our lives and, coupled with inspiration from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, he came up with his composition "sudden light" which is going to be performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on Friday, October 26th.
“I made use of many sequences of prime numbers to construct rhythms, form and some of the smaller musical details,” Bowden explained. “It is a very common observation that music and mathematics share many properties. The philosopher Leibniz once commented that 'music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting'. However, merely representing numerical patterns in sound is not enough to create a work of art. In sudden light I have sought to embed many patterns based upon prime numbers into the fabric of the score, both horizontally, in terms of melody, rhythm and form and, perhaps more crucially, vertically, in terms of harmony and texture.
“These patterns develop and interconnect as the music progresses but are not consciously audible to the listener. It is my intention for the audience to experience the music, as Liebniz described, 'as a secret and unconscious mathematical problem of the soul'.”
Bowden was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize for 'sudden light' in 2006. He was appointed Resident Composer at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in June 2011 and will be in post for four years.
The concert, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, will take place at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, on Friday October 26th at 7pm. In Wales and want to listen? Tickets are priced at £7.50-£9.50 by visiting www.wmc.org.uk
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