Einstein’s Wife

EINSTEIN’S WIFE, Elsa, once wrote that music helped her husband think about his theories. Albert noodled with the numbers, wandered out to the piano and thumped a bit, made a few notes, and headed back to the blackboard. (This is also pretty much how the writing process works, if you were wondering.) Einstein used theory to try to work out the harmonies of the universe and the music of the spheres. For him, e and m and c were all mixed up together with his b-flats and g-sharps. Music, mass, energy, space, and time, all spun out of the same stuff.

I, like Einstein, wrestle unsuccessfully with complicated mathematics and have my share of bad hair days. I also agree with Albert in this: music and time travel are related. Relative, even.

I am about to become a grandmother and the year is 2009, but I hear Burl Ives singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” and I am back in fourth grade, unwrapping an Easy Bake oven under a white-flocked Christmas tree and coveting my little sister’s new Barbie.

Driving to hear my son’s rock band in concert, I hit the wrong radio button in the car, get Don McLean singing “And I Love You So,” and boom! It’s 1973 and I’m walking in the snowy woods on campus my first December away from home, thinking deep thoughts about Rod McKuen poetry.

When my iPod hits the Queen track “Radio Ga Ga,” I am suddenly homebound in the Halloween blizzard of 1991, playing cassette tapes on a boom box in the kitchen while I try to make dinner out of what I’ve found in the cupboards: a half pound of walnuts, a box of elbow noodles, and an orange.

Music somehow compresses all time into one ice-covered plane, on which listeners can slide around like skaters, gliding smoothly from year to year to decade to century and back again in the flick of a downbeat.

I’ve been coming to Orchestra Hall on Friday nights for 16 years, since I started dating and then married a cute guy in the bass section. When I take my seat on the first tier, I am there, in that salmon-colored chair under the bucket lights. But when the baton drops, music folds time and place in on themselves like pleats on an accordion and in some way H.G. Wells would envy, we travel on a tesseract of sound to the woodlands of Finland, to Vienna in 1787, to the Russian front, to Poland in 1944, to the suburbs of childhood, to the happiness of other decades, to the future we know is coming.

In an algorithm that even had Einstein wondering, music bypasses language, culture, religion, and time and introduces us to each other across vistas too broad to cross by using mere reason or logic. Music plucks the strings of some common invisible and unnamed organ all humans share and we not only understand each other’s worlds, but we can see and hear and feel the stuff of each other’s hearts. We are there with those who have long left the planet. We leave tracks behind us for those yet to come.

The baton falls, and the sound takes us out and beyond and away, making all the other places and times on the planet that aren’t ours feel familiar and universal and owned by us, too. Our lives and our futures and our pasts are revealed as more than relative; they are related.

The physicists who are studying wormholes ought to take a look at a symphony score.


Pamela Hill Nettleton has covered three European orchestra tours for Mpls/St. Paul magazine and the Pioneer Press. Her work appears in Redbook, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and the Star Tribune, among other publications, and she is author of 21 books. She is assistant professor of journalism at Marquette University.

This appeared in the Minnesota Orchestra Showcase Magazine in November 2009




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