So why in the name of the cosmos am I LARP-ing Albert Einstein like a 1950s doo-wop band? !
Well, I wanted to make you smile in these very tense times.
It started as a COVID-19 fever related hallucination. I had the virus for seven weeks, in the pre-vaccination era. Lying medicated on the couch, thinking about the universe, I remembered that Einstein died in 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey. I knew he was a classical violinist and wondered what other types of music might have been in the air around him during his golden years. And, just like that, Albert’s voice turned into a doo-wop band, humming a softly rocking tune, in my virus-heated head.
Remember how all our hair got longer coronavirus pandemic turned into a scary month of isolation? Shout out to the barbers and tonsor artists who have been prevented from practicing their essential craft! My “Einstein shag un-cut” grew on its own. So I thought, how about a video with billions and billions of Alberts?
I don’t really look like Einstein except in comparison to the rest of humanity’s beautiful rainbow. Ancestry.com and 23andMe both say I’m >95% European Jew, hence an Einstein genotype I guess.
Albert Einstein has been embraced in popular culture as the archetypal long-haired, absent-minded, eccentric professor. Unfair to him, but that didn’t stop me from affecting those manners in an effort to warm your heart. As Robert Heinlein once explained: actors wear the faces of their characters from the inside.
I filmed the members of the choir on blue screen in the reserve of my house. My goal was to embody the music; six guys for a six-part harmony, etc. Giving each guy a slightly different personality was a fun challenge. I am far from being a dancer; a little flickering and swaying light is all I could handle. I leave the jive-swing to the pros! But the doo-wop gods demand at least one attempt at choreography.
Einstein on the board is an iconic image, although there are surprisingly few photographs. Only a physical example survives; check it out at the History of Science Museum in Oxford, UK This image sent me down the creative path to the chalk-like art you see in the video.
I worked with the incredible Graphics by Nick Stevens to develop animations in the blackboard style. All are all derived from Einstein’s “thought experiments”. The recurring clock tower is a stylized version of “Zytglogge” in Bern, Switzerland, a short walk from where Einstein worked in the patent office. Einstein’s thoughts on the elasticity of space-time probably originated from his work on the electromechanical synchronization of clocks, such as those that kept Swiss trains running on time. Albert took the Bernese tram to get to work. Dreaming of moving trains put him on the right path to discovering special relativity. So we gave our “Gedanken-Tram” a starring role.
I edited this video in Adobe Premiere Pro.
Doo-wop began as a black American art form, quickly adopted (some would say co-opted) by other ethnicities. Too many of its early practitioners never got their deserved credit. There is no formula for doing doo-wop, but there are some conventions: five singers stacked, or more. Vocal lines often lengthen single syllables into tracks, in the style of gospel music. (These are called “melismatic melodies.”) Mouth percussion. “Blow” harmonies and nonsense syllables. A spoken bridge section, often in bass voice. Falsetto blooms and ornaments.
It is rich, expressive and emotional music that still influences pop culture today. I thank the doo-wop spirits for allowing me to commune with them. Listeners with keen ears will hear a tribute to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
Harmonically, “Simple relativities (your imagination)” is quite close to a well-known doo-wop/jazz chord progression. Musicians can hear it being propelled by the cycle of diminished seventh chords. Sometimes the chords are stacked on top of each other to an enriched, more emotional sound. I wanted to set it in a key where I could sing the full range of voicings (from bass to castrati) without resorting to studio trickery – not that I’m against that! There’s a bit of digital tuning, but most of the time it’s just me taking a ridiculous number of takes to get the parts right.
I set the pace with a stab at human beatboxing. Later I called in Tom Brechtlein to play some authentic 50s drumming. Peter Zale followed up with some smoky organ licks. I played everything else. Everything was written, recorded and mastered in Pro Tools.
When you set to music the aphorisms of Albert Einstein, you quickly discover that many statements attributed to Einstein were never spoken or written by him. The source texts I used are noted at the bottom of the page (see below). I did a lot of musical elisions and sometimes paraphrased for the beat. Definitely worth reading Einstein’s full original quotes in context, licensed for this project by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; great people doing important work!*
A caveat about the word “relativity”: Einstein intended his theories of relativity to explain only the facts of physics and mechanics with respect to moving objects. He specifically warned us not to allow ourselves to reinterpret human relationships in a relative moral context. He didn’t want us to justify misconduct as arguable in the circumstances. This is something that dictators do. I tried not to approach Einstein’s luminous line.
To accompany the video, I also wrote an editorial that gives much more context on the relationship between Einstein’s physics and his philosophy.
With this sweet doo-wop lullaby I intend to give you a short break away from all the politics, fears, daily drudgeries and all that doomscrolling. But it’s not an anesthetic. The video and song are intended to improve your point of view, to empower you. I tried to approach it with the same twinkle-in-the-eye humor that Einstein had at the time. He saw him go through difficult times.
May this music energize you to explore the real Albert Einstein for yourself!
Your imagination is more important than your knowledge.
Imagination encircles the world. (1)
Imagination is everything;
Independent of the opinions of others (2)
Relatively… just relative
The most important thing: don’t stop questioning.
Curiosity makes its own reasons (3)
He who can no longer wonder and marvel is, so to speak, dead (4)
Relatively… just relative
The most beautiful thing to live is the mysterious (5)
It’s understandable ! (6)
Don’t stop questioning. Imagination embraces the whole world.
Imagination is everything!
It is the source of all true art and science.
[Relativity] Don’t stop questioning
Curiosity makes its own reasons.
Knowledge of what is does not open doors to what should be (7)
The eternal mystery of this world is that it is logical.
It’s understandable ! (8)
The most important thing: don’t stop asking yourself questions
Curiosity makes its own reasons.
He who can no longer wonder and marvel is, so to speak, dead!
Relatively… just relative
Your imagination is more important… Your imagination…
Stream/Download this song here: https://davidsbrody.hearnow.com/
© The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives
(1) 1929, Saturday Evening Post interview by George Sylvester Viereck & 1931, “Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms” Original background: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
(2) 1930, American Magazine: “A Close Look at the World’s Greatest Thinker” & 1944, letter to physicist Robert Thornton. This paraphrase is a truncated adaptation and is not authentic. Original background: “Knowledge of historical and philosophical context gives that kind of independence from the prejudices that most scientists suffer from. This independence created by philosophical insight is the mark of distinction between a mere craftsman or specialist and a true seeker of truth.”
(3) May 2, 1955, LIFE Magazine: “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity’, memoir by editor William Miller. Original context: “The most important thing is not to stop questioning yourself. Curiosity has its raison d’être.”
(4) 1949 book: “The world as I see it” Philosophical Library, New York. Also delivered in a 1932 speech to the German League for Human Rights, Berlin, and originally published in the 1931 volume 84 of Forum & Century. Original context: “He who does not know this and can no longer wonder, can no longer marvel, is as it were dead, and his eyes are darkened.”
(5) 1931 book: “Living Philosophies” Einstein, et al., adapted from Forum & Century volume 84. Original background: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
(6) March 3, 1936 Article “Physics and Reality” published in volume 221, number 3 of “The Journal of Franklin Institute”. It is Einstein himself who paraphrases Immanuel Kant. Einstein’s original context: “It is in this sense that the world of our sensory experiences is comprehensible. The fact that it is understandable is a miracle… It is one of the great achievements of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s original statement: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”
(7) May 19, 1939, address at Princeton Theological Seminary. Original background: “Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not directly open the door to what ought to be.”
(8) ditto. This is another Kant/Einstein paraphrase and is not authentic. Original context of an alternative translation: “The very fact that the totality of our sensory experiences is such that, through thought…it can be put in order; this fact is one which marvels us, but which we shall not understand never. “