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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Cosmic Convergences: Einstein Talks About Music Improvisation with Rabindranath Tagore

When patterns in research and life converge, insight dawns.

vladimir nabokovWe first came across the idea of "cosmic synchronization," a.k.a. the serendipitous convergence of events, while reading the memoirs of the writer Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov was a man keenly attuned to patterns - the kind you experience in life as well as the kind you make or create, when, say, you assemble particular song lists for your iPod, reorganize problems or people at work, or, in his case, write a short story or a novel. Cosmic synchronization was what he called the patterns that strike us as marvelous coincidence. Well, we recently experienced an interesting convergence. Perhaps not of cosmic significance, but remarkable nonetheless, this little convergence links the last three of our posts on Einstein, musical improvisation and amateurism into a larger and synthetic whole.

rabindranath tagoreThe pattern emerged like this. For some time we have been researching the avocational interests of Nobel Prize winners. Scientists with artistic hobbies; economists or peace prize winners with scientific interests; laureates in literature with avocations in the visual arts or music, that sort of thing. Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet, short-story writer, novelist, dramatist and educator who won the Nobel Prize in 1913 provides one of the more interesting examples. In addition to his writing, Tagore was also a composer, setting many hundreds of his poems to music. And late in life he took up painting. Poking around, recently, in the library and on the internet, we found that Tagore met Einstein in 1930 and the two had a conversation that was duly noted and recorded. We read the transcript (and you can, too, by going to

einstein and tagoreThe two men begin by musing on chance and causality, on free will and determinism, something you might expect given Tagore's humanistic concerns and Einstein's work in modern physics. Agreed that the lessons of science suggest that these two forces exist simultaneously, in some sort of "constant harmony," their thoughts turn to the creative possibilities this polarity might enable in human affairs. Tagore brings up music in India, "which is not so rigidly fixed as western music," as illustration:

"Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling within the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation."

Clearly intrigued, Einstein suggests that this kind of creative freedom for the player (as opposed to the composer) can only take place where strong artistic traditions remain a part of the daily life of most people. He appears to regret that "[i]n Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own". As a result of this specialization, music performance achieved high standards, certainly, but any variation or deviation from the work as composed was "often prescribed," if at all tolerated.

Einstein may have been thinking of the practice among 19th century musicians of improvising on the pieces they played during performance, making recitals both unpredictable and exciting. By the 1930s this practice had long since died out, to be replaced by an overweening respect for the written notes of the score (Hamilton).

Einstein may also have been thinking of his own musical habits. He could and did play all the notes of his favorite composers, but in a manner typical of the revolutionary physicist he was, he improvised as well. His sister Maja recalled that when he took up the piano, he quickly became dissatisfied with the written notes and "constantly searched for new harmonies and transitions of his own invention" (Winteler-Einstein, p. xxi). Later in life, he found relaxation in improvising on his violin as well: "First I improvise, and if that doesn't help, I seek solace in Mozart [surely one of the greatest improvisers!]. But when I am improvising and it appears that something may come if it, I require the clear constructions of Bach in order to follow through" (Ehlers, p. 132). Variations, then, but on a theme.

At this point, a singular thought occurs in our own minds. Bingo! Wow! Bazinga! :) Duh!

Variations on a theme, indeed! Our last few posts have touched on the decline of the amateur's license to make art personal, the role of song leaders in community singing, and Einstein's musical avocations and their impact on his intellectual creativity in physics. All three loosely related by issues of creativity, to be sure, yet suddenly drawn into a tight pattern of meaning and significance. For here we have Einstein, musical hobbyist, commenting upon the role of creative license among musical performers. Amateur or otherwise - these performers are manifestly not the original composer of a piece and yet expected to contribute to its enacted presentation, its felt experience. As Tagore makes clear, the performer has a great deal of creative freedom, is in fact a kind of collaborator in constructing the music:
"In India, the measure of a singer's freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer's song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of the melody which he is given to interpret."

kim and reggie harris
Our post on song leaders in the African-American tradition, as explored with Kim and Reggie Harris, completes the pattern when Einstein asks Tagore: "Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?" Tagore responds: "Yes. In Bengal we have a kind of song-kirtan, we call it - which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment added by the singer."

Suddenly we see the callouts of song leaders, 19th century recitals, Einstein's private improvising, and Bengali music as bits of a larger puzzle, one which traces a picture of composer, performer, amateur, and audience owning the musical creation in equal parts, each creating, re-creating, co-creating and recreating a common culture through participation.
jacob bronowskiAnd what is the meaning of the pattern we glimpse in this (cosmic) convergence? Perhaps this: that there is no music, no art, no science unless we - all of us, professional and amateur alike - enter in, help fill it out and make it our own. In his book, The Visionary Eye, the scientist and poet Jacob Bronowski suggested that insight and understanding can only persist within this participatory context. "...[W]hen we catch the sense of the image and its echo in us," he wrote, "we recognize ourselves in the artist, we recognize ourselves as one with his creations, and conversely, we recognize the whole of the human race within ourselves" (p. 127). Bronowski had a name for that moment and that meaning; he called it creative enlightenment. But that's another post. :)

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2010


Bronowski, J. The Visionary Eye, Essays in the Arts, Literature, and Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978.

Ehlers, Anita. Liebes Hertz! Berlin, Birkhauser, 1994; Calaprice, Alice, Ed. The Expanded Quotable Einstein. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hamilton, Kenneth. After the Golden Age, Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory, An Autobiography Revisited. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1966. Originally published 1947.

Winteler-Einstein, Maja. "Albert Einstein - A Biographical Sketch." Preface to The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume One: The Early Years, 1879-1902. J. Stachel, et al., eds. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.


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Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.