Music, Dancing – and Maths (!) – at the Conway Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tyrone Landau. The Conway Collective, Conway Hall, London 20.2.2013 (CD)

Tyrone Landau: Principia Mathematica

Principia Mathematica would not, at first glance, seem to be promising source material for a musical. This work, written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead and published in stages between 1910 and 1913, was an attempt to set out logical foundations from which, in principle, all of mathematics could be derived.

In fact the lofty ambitions of the project turned out to be unattainable, as Kurt Gödel proved in 1931 that some elements of mathematics could not be derived using Russell and Whiteheads’ techniques.

It’s probably fair to say that even professional mathematicians would find Principia somewhat dry. Like the foundations of a building, Principia was not really intended to be subject to regular viewing, but rather to be tested for soundness from time to time.

So it was brave of Tyrone Landau to turn this work into a musical in the form of Principia Mathematica. This first performance, by the Conway Collective at the Conway Hall, demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of using Principia as source material for a work of this type.

Some of the language used by Russell and Whitehead in Principia also has a colloquial meaning – logical statements about the baldness of the King of France is one amusing example used in the piece – and the use of this in the spoken and sung sections of the piece was surprisingly effective.

On the other hand the lack of a narrative in the source meant that the work lacked a clear sense of direction and instead came across as a series of largely disconnected set pieces.

Opening with a spoken rendition of the explanatory section from Principia, the work had 10 scenes with song, dance, pre-recorded solo violin and various combinations of these along with further spoken excerpts from Principia. One interesting feature was a group of ‘Philosophers’, seated immediately in front of the audience, who interacted with the other performers, sometimes interjecting commentary and sometimes joining in to dance.

Musically, the different scenes adopted a range of styles. The opening piano-accompanied song had a touch of Debussy whilst ‘Stroke Function’ introduced a cabaret song, both sung and acted very effectively by Jenny Patrone. The recorded (un-credited) violin solos were also very evocatively played and sounded as though played on a gramophone record.

I can’t help thinking, though, that this was something of a missed opportunity. Had the piece introduced Kurt Gödel’s response to Russell and Whitehead’s work in some way then this could have given the work a story and a stronger focus as well as helping the audience to better understand both the context and importance of Principia.

Nonetheless a brave and spirited attempt to make something of an important philosophical work of the early 20th century; not successful in all parts but with some highly effective scenes.

Carl Dowthwaite