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James Mulcro Drew: Animating Degree Zero

James Mulcro Drew, Chamber Music at Extreme Temperatures
Chamber Music Today

In thermodynamics, an adiabatic process is any thermodynamic process in which no heat is transferred to or from the surrounding space. The term 'adiabatic' literally means impassable, coming from the Greek roots ἀ- (‘not’), διὰ- (‘through’), and βαῖνειν ("to pass"). It means a total absence of heat transfer.

At temperatures near 0°K, nearly all molecular motion ceases and the entropy change ΔS = 0 for any adiabatic process. Pure substances can (ideally) form perfect crystals as T→0.

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In this wonderful recording we have members of the Barton Workshop performing several works that James Drew composed between 2001 and 2005.

At very low temperatures in the vicinity of absolute zero, matter exhibits many unusual properties including superconductivity, superfluidity, and Bose-Einstein condensates.

At [musical] temperatures close to absolute zero, quantum [musical] particles begin taking on new 'collective' properties. Delinquent waves begin to act in concert. At low temperatures where everything occurs in slow-motion, the true nature of the most basic constituents of the ensemble are revealed. I wonder whether it could be measured... wonder whether quantum phenomena like the 'observer effect' occurs outside the subatomic world, in the world of macroscopic processes like human beings playing and listening to music. According to the second law of thermodynamics, all physical processes in the Universe can naturally flow only from a state of greater energy to lesser energy.

Throw a stone into a lake, and the ripples it makes eventually die out. My cup of hot coffee can [left by itself in a setting where the ambient temperature is lower than the coffee] only get cooler, not hotter.

But near absolute zero the particles comprising an object behave differently. Although the ensemble 'atoms' are still part of a 'gas', they behave more like atoms of a metal--like one smeared-out single entity, similar to experiments with rubidium gas by Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1995, for which they won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001. The James Drew expressions form what I think is a musical equivalent to a Bose-Einstein condensate--a peculiar property of atoms slowing down so much that they are zen-like, almost at rest.

The sonic attributes that I'm referring to can be heard in each of the compositions on this disc... the 'direct sound duration' of each note, as contrasted with indirect sounds and their durations and decay. Listen to the sympathetic resonance between notes and the quadratic effect, especially in the piano part [when applicable].

In the piano, a very high soundboard Q-factor shortens high frequencies' durations. The piano's soundboard mechanical impedance affects the global sound duration of the instrument, and, for the instrument performed and recorded on this disc, the high impedance yields longer-duration sounds, slower decays. The tones blossom after the initial attack, and sympathetic resonances bring the ensemble of waves in-line. Electron-cloud-like, metallic.

On hard [piano key; viola; etc.] attacks, the nonlinear part of the string response increases, producing frequencies with twice the values of the normal ones. The quadratic effect influences the loudness of this nonlinear response, and, when the score has such low entropy [close to musical absolute zero], the nonlinearities are very prominent--and are probably related to the superfluid Bose-Einstein condensate-like quality of the collective, coalescing, long-range musical effects that are created here. Similarities to quantum software algorithms (see writings by Matt Hastings at LANL, and others), in terms of process and in terms of how you go about measuring statistical physics properties of music like this...

Drew was born in 1929 and studied with Wallingford Riegger and Edgard Varèse. He taught at Northwestern University, Yale University, UCLA, Cal State, and other institutions. He has performed with and co-founded several musical groups, including the Crossfire Mission Orchestra in the late 1960s in New Haven (radical performances, often behind barbed wire), the Mysterious Traveling Cabaret, the American Music Theater in California, the Blast Opera Theater. In his quasi-retirement he has undertaken concerts and arts education work with the Grey Wolf Project. Barton 'Zero' disk is simply excellent.