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The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

Lyrical reflections at the crossroads of truth and meaning.

The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

In her haunting ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Adrienne Rich serenaded “the ex-stasis of galaxies / so out from us there’s no vocabulary / but mathematics and optics / equations letting sight pierce through time / into liberations, lacerations of light and dust.” It is a peculiar meta-miracle, to fuse these complementary modes of sensemaking — mathematics, the language of truth, and poetry, the language of meaning — into something that enlarges both, expanding the horizons of beauty and understanding in the mind beholding the fusion.

This miracle is what The Universe in Verse celebrates, and no person embodies it more exquisitely than the Canadian astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), who belonged to that rare species of genius with extraordinary talent in not just one but two, and thoroughly different, domains of creative endeavor.

The daughter of a geologist, Elson grew up as a keen observer of the natural world, spending large swaths of her childhood exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake. By the age of six, she could distinguish sandstone pebbles from limestone pebbles. By nine, she had grown besotted with the dazzling nocturnal skies of northern Canada, with the way they emanated the infinite question of what it means for the universe to be infinite, beguiled by the cosmic wonders filling that infinity. By sixteen, she was in university, falling further in love with astronomy. Her first glimpse of Andromeda, our sister galaxy, dazed her with its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.”

The spiral galaxy NGC 7331, located in the constellation Pegasus about 45 million light-years from Earth, discovered by William Herschel in 1784. (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

At twenty-six, having completed her Ph.D. at Cambridge — Newton’s hallowed ground — Elson received a postdoctoral research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — Einstein’s hallowed ground — to work with the first data from the Hubble, which was about to launch later that year. But when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the grief-stricken eyes of the world, the horizons of space exploration darkened, the launch of the Hubble was delayed, and Elson’s research assignment vanished. Trapped in Princeton’s unwelcoming atmosphere of systemic sexism, without support and without a riveting project at hand, she found herself withdrawing as a researcher.

One thing solaced and perhaps even saved Elson as her astronomical career took this dispiriting dip — the lively Tuesday evening gatherings of poets, whose company and camaraderie she found to be “far more expansive and congenial” than the stranglehold of the scientific patriarchy. Verse opened up new frontiers of inquiry and observation — not of the universe without, but of the universe within. She came to cherish it and practice it with the same passion she had brought to astronomy.

In her twenty-ninth year, just as she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard during a fellowship there and became the youngest astronomer to serve on a decennial review committee in the history of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that most commonly afflicts people in their sixties and seventies. She transmuted the brutality of the treatment into raw material for poetry — “Not outer space, just space / The light of all the not yet stars,” she writes in “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — and continued pursuing her first and greatest scientific love: galaxy formation and the study of how stars are born, live, and die.

Upon returning to Cambridge in her early thirties, with her illness in remission, Elson and her team used the deepest image of space the Hubble had ever taken to determine the limits of how much regular stars contribute to the mysterious halo of dark matter enveloping the Milky Way — a major contribution to our understanding of the universe and a bittersweet metaphor for Elson’s life and body of work, hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Elson returned her stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, leaving behind 56 scientific papers, a slender, sublimely beautiful book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and the devastating question of what else a person of such uncommon genius would have given the world had chance granted her a longer life.

At the third annual Universe in Verse, I invited Regina Spektor, one of the most intensely poetic songwriters of our time, to honor Elson’s singular, tragic, transcendent genius with a lovely reading of her poem “Theories of Everything” — a meditation on our eternal struggle to discern the unfeeling laws of the universe, over which we have no control and by which we must abide, and to project ourselves onto them, creating cosmoses of beauty and meaning within their indifferent parameters, all the while ourselves remaining mere projections of these very laws.

THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
(When the lecturer’s shirt matches the painting on the wall)

He stands there speaking without love
Of theories where, in the democracy
Of this universe, or that,
There could be legislators
Who ordain trajectories for falling bodies,
Where all things must be dreamed with indifference,
And purpose is a momentary silhouette
Backlit by a blue anthropic flash,
A storm on the horizon.

But even the painting on the wall behind,
Itself an accident of shattered symmetries,
Is only half eclipsed by his transparencies
Of hierarchy and order,
And the history of thought.

And what he cannot see is this:
Himself projected next to his projections
Where the colours from the painting
Have spilled onto his shirt,
Their motion stilled into a rigorous
Design of lines and light.

A Responsibility to Awe is a breathtaking read in its slim totality.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — one of the most beautiful things ever written about the power of music.

BP

Regina Spektor Reads “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music.”

Regina Spektor Reads “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand

“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in 1889. Walt Whitman celebrated it as the profoundest expression of nature and Aldous Huxley as an expression of the “blessedness lying at the heart of things.” Philosopher Susanne Langer considered it “a laboratory for feeling and time,” whose mysterious power both eclipses and illuminates all the other arts.

Among the chorus of great writers who have extolled music’s supreme and singular power is the Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) in a splendid prose poem titled “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” included in his indispensable Collected Poems (public library).

In this recording from the annual Poetry & the Creative Mind event at Lincoln Center hosted by The Academy of American Poets, Regina Spektor — one of the great musicians of our time — brings Strand’s masterpiece to life with such loveliness and tenderness:

THE EVERYDAY ENCHANTMENT OF MUSIC

A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music. Then the music was polished until it became the memory of a night in Venice when tears of the sea fell from the Bridge of Sighs, which in turn was polished until it ceased to be and in its place stood the empty home of a heart in trouble. Then suddenly there was sun and the music came back and traffic was moving and off in the distance, at the edge of the city, a long line of clouds appeared, and there was thunder, which, however menacing, would become music, and the memory of what happened after Venice would begin, and what happened after the home of the troubled heart broke in two would also begin.

Complement with Strand himself reading his stirring poem “The End” in the final months of his life and his lyrical love letter to dreams, then treat yourself to this year’s Poetry & the Creative Mind if you are in New York and join me in supporting The Academy of American Poets with a donation so that they may continue to do their noble work of making this world a little more poetic.

BP

New Music Spotlight: Regina Spektor “Far”

What Seinfeld has to do with the best new album by the best old favorite.

We’ve been enamored with semi-indie darling Regina Spektor for years. (Seeing her live at TED 2009 didn’t hurt, either.) And part of her fascination lies in the ability to reinvent herself beautifully, without losing the core of her brilliance — charmed vocals, superb piano and incredible lyrical sensibility. That’s exactly what’s happening in her new album, Far, out today.

The entire album is an absolute gem, but our favorite track has to be The Calculation — delightfully upbeat and somehow Seinfeld-like in its ability to be about nothing particularly grand while capturing the great human truths.

And in case you sit there wondering how an album could possibly be this ridiculously good, it may have something to do with the fact that Jeff Lynne — named the fourth greatest producer in music history — is behind it. Well, that and Regina Spektor’s indisputable genius.

Another highlight comes from Laughing With, a piece of open-to-interpretation commentary on the hypocrisies of our belief systems.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rov3pV9PsRI

Snag Far today and ponder existential truth to the best soundtrack there is.

BP

Kierkegaard on the Spiritual and Sensual Power of Music, the Essence of Genius, and the Key to a Timeless Work of Art

“If Mozart ever became wholly comprehensible to me, he would for the first time become wholly incomprehensible to me.”

“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche bellowed his unmistakable baritone of buoyant nihilism into the vast chorus of great thinkers extolling the singular power of music.

A year before his birth, Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) — another thinker of soaring lucidity, unafraid to plumb the darkest depths for the elemental truths — took up the subject in a portion of Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library) — the 1843 masterwork that furnished his insight into transcending the tyranny of binary choice, our greatest source of unhappiness, and the only true cure for our existential emptiness.

While Walt Whitman was singing the body electric across the Atlantic and contemplating the power of music through the lens of Beethoven’s genius, Kierkegaard placed at the center of a long essay on “the musical erotic” his ecstatic love of Mozart, from which emerges a larger centrifugal meditation on the power of music, the nature of genius, and what makes a timeless work of art in any field.

kierkegaard0

In a sentiment evocative of Aldous Huxley’s logic-subverting observation that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Kierkegaard writes:

I am convinced that if Mozart ever became wholly comprehensible to me, he would for the first time become wholly incomprehensible to me.

Noting that his analysis of the power of music and the criteria for artistic greatness is “written only for those in love,” he proclaims with the unselfconscious exultation of the besotted:

I am like a young girl in love with Mozart and must have him placed highest whatever the cost… and I shall beg Mozart to forgive me because his music did not inspire me to great deeds but made a fool of me — I, who through him lost the last grain of reason I possessed, and now spend most of my time in quiet sadness humming what I do not understand, haunting like a ghost what I cannot enter into… To take him away, to efface his name, would be to overturn the only pillar that hitherto has prevented everything collapsing for me into a boundless chaos, into a fearful nothingness.

I like to imagine that Kierkegaard knew of Beethoven’s only surviving love letter, to his “immortal beloved,” and it was with this knowledge, with the subtlety of the allusion, that he places Mozart above all geniuses, even Beethoven. Switching voices and audiences, Kierkegaard reaches across mortality and possibility to address his master-muse directly:

Immortal Mozart! You, to whom I owe everything, to whom I owe the loss of my reason, the wonder that overwhelmed my soul, the fear that gripped my inmost being; you, who are the reason I did not go through life without there being something that could make me tremble; you, whom I thank for the fact that I shall not have died without having loved…

A century before Aldous Huxley found the secret of the universe in Don Giovanni, Kierkegaard considers Mozart’s crowning achievement:

There is one work alone of his which makes him a classic composer and absolutely immortal. That work is Don Giovanni. Whatever else he has produced may cause pleasure and delight, arouse our admiration, enrich the soul, satisfy the ear, gladden the heart; but it does him and his immortality no service to lump everything together and make everything equally great. Don Giovanni is his acceptance piece. With Don Giovanni he enters that eternity which lies not outside time but within it, which no curtain conceals from human eyes, into which the immortals are admitted not once and for all but are constantly discovered as one generation passes and turns its gaze towards them, is happy in its contemplation of them, goes to the grave, and the next generation passes in its turn and is transfigured in its contemplation.

This latter criterion for immortality, for artistic greatness, is also what makes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman’s Don Giovanni — one of those rare bridges between the ephemeral and the eternal, swelling the river of time with absolute aliveness for every human consciousness that steps onto it.

Through this gateway of Mozart’s genius, Kierkegaard considers the nature of all true genius and the ultimate gift of all transcendent art. A century and a half before Michael Pollan reflected so beautifully on Bach, the cosmos of belonging, and how music allays the loneliness of being, he writes:

From the moment my soul was first overwhelmed in wonder at Mozart’s music, and bowed down to it in humble admiration, it has often been my cherished and rewarding pastime to reflect upon how that happy Greek view that calls the world a cosmos, because it manifests itself as an orderly whole, a tasteful and transparent adornment of the spirit that works upon and in it — upon how that happy view repeats itself in a higher order of things, in the world of ideals, how it may be a ruling wisdom there too, mainly to be admired for joining together those things that belong with one another.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

With this, he turns to the essence of genius, squarely confronting the common hubris — a form of human self-consolation — that genius is merely a matter of chance-conferred opportunity, and that if the same chance befell any one of us, we too would rise to the level of genius. He dismantles the elemental arrogance at the heart of this mindset:

It thinks it an accident that the lovers get each other, an accident that they love each other; there were a hundred other girls he could have been just as happy with, whom he could have loved just as deeply. It thinks many a poet has existed who would have been just as immortal as Homer had that marvellous material not been seized on by him, many a composer just as immortal as Mozart had only the opportunity offered. Now this wisdom contains much solace and comfort for all mediocre minds since it lets them and like-minded spirits fancy that the reason they are not as celebrated as the celebrities is some confusion of fate, a mistake on the part of the world. This produces a most convenient optimism. But to every high-minded soul, to every optimate who does not feel bound to save himself in such a pitiable manner as by losing himself in contemplation of the great, it is of course repugnant, while his soul delights and it is his holy joy to see united those things that belong together. This is what fortune is, not in the fortuitous sense, and so it presupposes two factors whereas the fortuitous consists in the inarticulate interjections of fate. This is what historical fortune consists in: the divine conjuncture of historical forces, the heyday of historical time. The fortuitous has just one factor: the accident that the most remarkable epic theme imaginable fell to Homer’s lot in the shape of the history of the Trojan wars. In good fortune there are two: that the most remarkable epic material came to the lot of Homer. The accent lies here on Homer as much as on the material. In this lies the profound harmony that resounds in every work of art we call classic. And so too with Mozart: it is a piece of good fortune that what in a deeper sense is perhaps the only true musical subject was granted — to Mozart.

The pillar of that “profound harmony,” Kierkegaard argues, is a certain natural discernment which only the artist of true genius possesses — an ability to intuitively match one’s gift, one’s innermost longing, with the medium and vessel of its outward expression in the world:

The poet wants his material; but wanting is no art, as one says, quite rightly and with much truth in the case of a host of impotent poetic wants. To want rightly, on the other hand, is a great art, or rather, it is a gift. It is what is inexplicable and mysterious about genius, just like the divining rod, to which it never occurs to want except in the presence of what it wants.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

Only by wanting rightly are timeless classics born — the works that stand orders of magnitude above the “ephemeral classics,” those “dusk moths from the vaults of classicality.” The more abstract the idea the artist seeks to express, Kierkegaard argues, the more difficult to achieve this ideal and the more timeless the result if attained. More than a century before Where the Wild Things Are creator Maurice Sendak insisted that “fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music,” Kierkegaard considers the crowning achievement of abstract expression — the fantasy and feeling comprising the erotic:

The most abstract idea conceivable is the spirit of sensuality. But in what medium can it be represented? Only in music. It cannot be represented in sculpture, for in itself it is a kind of quality of inwardness. It cannot be painted, for it cannot be grasped in fixed contours; it is an energy, a storm, impatience, passion, and so on, in all their lyrical quality, existing not in a single moment but in a succession of moments, for if it existed in a single moment it could be portrayed or painted. Its existing in a succession of moments indicates its epic character, yet in a stricter sense it is not an epic, for it has not reached the level of words; it moves constantly in an immediacy. Nor can it be represented, therefore, in poetry. The only medium that can represent it is music. For music has an element of time in it yet it does not lapse in time except in an unimportant sense. What it cannot express is the historical in time.

But while both language and music address the ear, which Kierkegaard considers “the most spiritually determined of the senses,” it is precisely along this temporal frontier that the two diverge and music emerges as the atemporal conscience par excellence:

Goethe’s Faust is a genuine classic, the idea is an historical one, and so every significant historical age will have its Faust. Faust has language as its medium, and the fact that language is a far more concrete medium is another reason why several works of the same kind can be imagined. Don Giovanni, on the other hand, is and will remain the only one of its kind, just as the classic sculptures of Greece. But since the idea in Don Giovanni is far more abstract even than that underlying sculpture, one sees easily why we have just one work in music but several in sculpture. One can indeed imagine many more musical classics, yet there still remains just one work of which it can be said that its idea is absolutely musical, so that the music does not enter as an accompaniment but, in bringing the idea to light, reveals its own innermost being. Therefore Mozart with his Don Giovanni stands highest among the immortals.

Noting that language is “the proper medium for the idea” yet in it “the sensual is, as medium, reduced to the level of mere instrument and constantly negated,” he concludes:

Music is, then, the medium for that species of the immediate which, qualified spiritually, is specified as lying outside spirit. Naturally, music can express much else, but this is its absolute object.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on how music saved his life in a Norwegian fjord, Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of Mark Strand’s poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” and the German philosopher Joseph Pieper, writing a century after Kierkegaard, on how Bach will save your soul, then revisit Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the trap of busyness, and how to bridge the ephemeral with the eternal.

BP

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