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The Mysterious: Three Poems by Famous Scientists (2013)
for Baritone and Piano
Texts by Thomas Edison, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and James Clerk Maxwell

Click here to view score

I. In the Unknown Regions

II. Crossing

III. I’ve Heard the Rushing

Performed on April 10, 2014 at the University of Texas at Austin

Over the last several hundred years, our knowledge of the world and our ability to navigate it have advanced at an arguably unprecedented pace. For better or for worse, we move forward, often with little consideration for the lifestyle we are leaving behind. The songs in this cycle present a series of perspectives on the role of science – on both a personal and universal level. Written by three of the most influential scientists in the past two centuries, the poems are a reflection of their composer’s relation to their own work....

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) was a famous inventor, celebrated for creating the electric light bulb and the phonograph cylinder (among many other revolutionary contributions). His poem In the Unknown Regions depicts a flourishing land in the midst of a dangerous and volatile landscape. The poem seems to ramble from line to line; in fact, its meaning is only revealed in the last line, in which Edison suggests that what makes this land so beautiful is the absence of science.

Many regard J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1976) as the “father of the atomic bomb.” With an extensive education as a quantum physicist, he began work on the Manhattan Project in 1942. In Crossing, he describes how people tend to accept and celebrate advancements in science before thinking about its consequences. Interestingly, this poem was composed in 1928, well before the development of the atomic bomb.

James Clark Maxwell (1831-1879) is famous for his contributions to the field of physics, in which he synthesized four equations that elegantly describe all of electrodynamics. He was able to unite the forces of electricity and magnetism (called the electromagnetic force), and in doing so, created a more unified theory of how the universe works. In I’ve Heard the Rushing, Maxwell describes having lived a full and satisfying life despite moments of struggle.

The title of the cycle is a nod to Albert Einstein, who once said: “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.”

In the Unknown Regions, by Thomas Edison

In the unknown regions of the antarctic pale
1100 miles beyond the utmost limits reached by Explorers
there had been discovered by the Aerial Navigation
a region of gigantic Volcanoes all in active operation
pouring immense Volumes of Lava down to the plains.
That in the vicinity of these Lavas were large lakes of water
whose waters were continuously heated by the Volcanics
so that on the shore and for leagues back the land was arable
and covered with beautiful vegetation and highly populated
by a people of the Mongolian type and highly civilized
with a Literature of their own but without a Science.

Crossing, by J. Robert Oppenheimer

It was evening when we came to the river
with a low moon over the desert
that we had lost in the mountains, forgotten,
what with the cold and the sweating
and the ranges barring the sky.
And when we found it again,
in the dry hills down by the river,
half withered, we had
the hot winds against us.

There were two palms by the landing;
the yuccas were flowering; there was
a light on the far shore, and tamarisks.
We waited a long time, in silence.
Then we heard the oars creaking
and afterwards, I remember,
the boatman called to us.
We did not look back at the mountains.

I’ve Heard the Rushing, by James Clerk Maxwell

I’ve heard the rushing of mountain torrents, gushing
Down through the rocks, in a cataract of spray,
Onward to the ocean;
Swift seemed their motion,
Till, lost in the desert, they dwindled away.

I’ve learnt the story of all human glory,
I’ve felt high resolves growing weaker every day,
Till cares, springing round me,
With creeping tendrils bound me,
And all I once hoped for was wearing fast away.

I’ve seen the river rolling on for ever,
Silent and strong, without tumult or display.
In the desert arid,
Its waters never tarried,
Till far out at sea we still found them on their way.

Now no more weary we faint in deserts dreary,
Toiling alone till the closing of the day;
All now is righted,
Our souls flow on united,
Till the years and their sorrows have all died away.