Review: Quantifying Goethe

In today’s Waterloo Record | Watch the whole concert.

Right from the beginning, the Perimeter Institute has recognized symbiotic relationship between arts and science. This is a more unusual approach than it may first appear. In our specialized world, the two are usually viewed as an either/or binary like on/off or dead/alive. Up until roughly 175 years ago, it was assumed that well educated person could converse intelligently about science, art, literature, religion and philosophy.

Most of the men we consider to be hugely influential, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, were considered universal men; that is equally brilliant in a number of disparate fields. It is the influence of poet, dramatist, scientist and novelist Goethe (1749-1832) that was examined by the Penderecki String Quartet Friday evening.

Goethe’s theories and ideas permeated practically all aspects of European knowledge in the 18th and 19th centuries and it was considered the done thing for men to stop in at Weimar for a visit while on their Grand Tour. A tad ironic perhaps, but it is the pervasiveness of all things Goethe that threw a bit of monkey wrench into the idea of quantifying the man. After all, if Goethe influenced everything then the theme has no reductive function and is therefore not really that useful.

The evening began with a short lecture given by Gino Segrè comparing Goethe to the physicist Neils Bohr. The connection was real although the reason for making it at that particular moment, aside from giving Segrè a chance to talk about his new book, was rather more elusive.

The first string quartet piece was Five Movements for String Quartet by Anton Webern. Dry and sparse, it was a good fit acoustically for the Mike Lazaridis Theatre although I spent most of the time wondering what the point of the accompanying video presentation was. The connection between the two men was Goethe’s Theory of Colour but all the pixelated graphics brought to mind was a mid-1990s screen saver.

Kotoka Suzuki‘s VESTIGA for string quartet, dance, live electronic audio/video and nuclear magnetic resonance machine was the piece around which the rest of the concert was programmed. It consisted mostly of short burst of sounds and colour with periodic interpolations of pre-recorded sound. I liked it as a piece of music but a lecture on how the nuclear magnetic resonance machine works would have gone miles towards making the science of the process more clear.

Schubert’s Quintet in C Major was the final piece of the evening and from the very first phrase, the room was a problem. The sound dies almost immediately, which makes achieving the lushness needed for this piece if not impossible, at least very hard work. Perhaps trying to make the best of a tough acoustic, the PSQ opted for an interpretation that was lean and unsentimental. A few intonation disasters aside, the performance was enjoyable and at times exciting. In the end though, I found myself longing for a little more of the sweet sound and playfulness for which the Quartet is known.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *