NSO's 'Math and Music': More Fun Than Algebra

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Mesmerizing as ratios and lowest common denominators may be on their own, when a rendition of reveille played on a laundry hose shows how they work in music, they're a lot more fun.

At the Kennedy Center's Family Theater on Sunday afternoon, members of the National Symphony Orchestra brought numbers to life with a presentation called "More Math and Music," the second fraction-filled concert in the Connections series. Developed by cellist Yvonne Caruthers, the series links music with such academic subjects as science, language and history.

Flutist Aaron Goldman and percussionist Daniel Villanueva joined Caruthers in demonstrating the "great ideas" of Maurice Ravel, Pythagoras, Steve Reich, Richard Strauss, Pachelbel and pop singer Daniel Powter. With an easy demeanor and no condescension, the trio explained how to fit three notes into a two-beat measure by subdividing the three notes into six, how scales are based on ratios, and how songs are based on patterns. Some issues were left a bit hazy -- how exactly did Reich's clapping music work? -- but the trio laid a strong foundation for musical understanding and encouraged the audience to take up a bow or a drumstick and explore the new concepts.

Each instrument was both revered and demystified. Caruthers and Goldman showed the inverse relationship between the instrument's string (or its air column length) and its frequency (or pitch). As the string or the flute was longer, the sound was lower.

Villanueva showed how the repeated rhythms on the drums create different styles, from hard rock to a marching band roll-off.

Although they pointed out that the same discoveries could be made with a laundry hose, PVC pipes, rubber bands or bare hands, their brilliant sound and virtuosity made strong cases for the real thing.

-- Ronni Reich

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