Maxwell’s Music

Guest blog by Wendy Stewart

Maxwell’s Music is a sound and spoken word composition featuring the electroharp and reflecting the life and ideas of the theoretical physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 79). It is performed by Wendy Stewart with James Wyness and the voice of Tom Pow.

Guest blog by Wendy Stewart

Maxwell’s Music is a sound and spoken word composition featuring the electroharp and reflecting the life and ideas of the theoretical physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 79). It is performed by Wendy Stewart with James Wyness and the voice of Tom Pow.

maxwell_j_c_as_a_young_manMaxwell was born in Edinburgh, brought up there and in Galloway at Glenlair House and studied at Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Cambridge University. His achievements were many, most notably a theory for the unification of electricity, magnetism and light in Maxwell`s Equations, where innermost harmony is the principle of relativity.  He showed that light is a form of wave motion and is affected by the electro- magnetic field it passes through.  His work, which laid the foundations for all radio communications, was cited by Albert Einstein as the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

He was truly a remarkable scientist, making important advances in the kinetic theory of gases, predicting the make-up of Saturn’s Rings and  producing the world’s first durable colour photograph in 1861. But he was also a poet , with a poet’s interest in both the meaning and the sound patterns of words, and a knowledge that mixed 19th Century science and art with versatility and humour.

This is evident in his poem ‘Reflections on Various Surfaces’  –

Yes, the faces in the crowd, and the wakened echoes, glancing
From the mountain , rocky browed, and the lights in water dancing –
Each my wandering sense entrancing, tells me back my thoughts aloud,
All the joys of Truth enhancing, crushing all that makes me proud.

He had a strong sense of family and friendship, an acerbic view of the establishment of the time and died too young at 48 being buried in his beloved Galloway at Parton Kirkyard, north of Castle Douglas.

Harmony, dischord, pattern and interference are all common to scientific method, music and indeed, life. We seek pattern, formula, resolution and balanced equation (a tune?) in both and are deeply affected, bodily and psychologically, by sound as a pure energy wave.

wendystewart1The harp, as an instrument, works with the physics of a standing wave – a plucked string of given length, fixed at both ends. Within this length there are nodes or points where harmonics of a fifth and an octave above can be played on the same string. This fundamental fact was instrumental in many of  Pythagoras’s  theories.  I use the electro harp, which transfers the energy from player to listener through a pressure sensitive pick-up on each string, to explore harmonic and interference patterns between strings and alongside James Wyness’s  textural sound recordings and live performance.

James will play layered recordings of ebowed zither strings, mixing live and alongside the prepared instrument itself. The ebow is an electromagnetic device which vibrates a metal string. Because of the relatively pure waveform of a bowed string the sound is often difficult to place – between an electronic and an instrumental sound. James makes and prepares his own instruments and so the sound has a buzz here and there and a sheen which gives it character.

Coincidentally, Maxwell mentions a player of this instrument in one of his poems ‘ The Musician of Nablos’ and the delta symbol of its shape is part of his equations.

In Maxwell’s Music, I also reflect this remarkable man’s life and his Scots heritage with a jig ‘Sward House’ by his great, great grandfather, John Clerk of Penicuik,  an early figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.  Maxwell’s knowledge of Burns’ songs is evident in his parody of ‘Comin through the Rye’ with ‘Rigid Body Sings’ ( a 19th Century foretaste of the Large Hadron Collider!) which Clerk Maxwell apparently used to perform to his own guitar accompaniment.

Gin a body meet a body flyin` through the air
Gin a body hit a body , will it fly and where?

Maxwell’s Music finishes with a waltz of contentment for this son of Galloway who changed the world but never forgot his home.

The piece was be played at the opening concert of the the inaugural Environmental Art Festival Scotland on Friday 30th August at Stormond Hall , Gretna Green. Wendy Stewart is a harpist and composer, active in music in Dumfries and Galloway, notably with Moniaive Folk Festival and the South West Fèis