Songs About Time Leo Najar, Randall Williams & Alan Lightman Converge For a World Premier of Musical Meditations on the Nature Of Space & Time

Posted In:   From Issue 720   By: Robert E Martin

10th February, 2011     0

“Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction”

- Albert Einstein

Dr. Alan Lightman is a distinguished physicist; essayist, novelist and Adjunct Professor of Humanities at M.I.T who published a short novel entitled Einstein’s Dreams back in 1993. Since that time, this New York Times bestseller has been translated into 30 languages, in addition to being rendered in a variety of theatrical settings. It continues to sell 25,000 copies each year.

Consisting of meditations on time and people in the city of Bern, Switzerland, the brilliance of Einstein’s Dreams centers upon the manner it explores often-complex questions within the context of everyday situations ecumenical to the common man. Focused on a young Albert Einstein, the work explores vivid dreams about the limitless possibilities of time that surround Einstein during his work on the Theory of Relativity.

With the blessing and support of Lightman, singer & songwriter Randall Williams created a song-cycle consisting of 20 compositions based around chapters of Lightman’s book, with his compositions orchestrated by Maestro Leo Najar that is now slated to presented at a World Premier of the completed work of Einstein’s Dreams with The Bijou Orchestra at The State Theatre in Bay City on February 26th at 8 PM and February 27th at 2 PM.

Insofar as the book explores the nature of time in ways both scientific & poetic, these ‘dreamscapes’ are Lightman’s imaginings of the thoughts Einstein may have had on the way to writing his Theory of Relativity.  Organized into a series of vignettes with a prelude, three interludes, and an epilogue, the writing reflects the myriad gifts of Dr. Lightman, who is equally well known as both a physicist and writer of both fiction & non-fiction.

As for Randall Williams, he is an equally intriguing & captivating talent and a perfect creative partner for the gifted Leo Najar, who’s reputation as a musical treasure in the Great Lakes Bay is cemented both through his legendary work with The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra and his later work with The Bijou.

Two hours after informing his voice teacher that he was leaving the world of classical music, Randall Williams graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Mons, Belgium at the head of his class. Because he felt the classical world lacked an inclusiveness that he relished with Folk music, with an unbearable division between performer and audience, he transformed himself into a minstrel of sorts, traveling with his guitar and writing songs in train stations, singing on street corners, cafes, and pubs. For a time he lived aboard a 20’ sailboat that he bought for $800, teaching himself to sail single-handed by sailing through the Baltic & North Seas with his guitar sleeping beside him at night.

“The weekend of February 25-27 is without doubt the biggest thing we’ve ever done, at least in terms of potential for national exposure,” reflects Najar. “This is going to be a big deal, as we’re also working on a piece for the Kennedy Center and another in St. Louis.”

Setting the Stage for a Singular Collaboration

The genesis for this ambitious and innovative translation of Lightman’s book had its inception last summer when Williams was in Bay City to sing with the Bijou Orchestra for the Bay City Fireworks. Williams mentioned having recently re-read Einstein’s Dreams and his interest in possibly setting a song or two around ideas that it expressed. Although Najar had not read the book at that time, his wife Regina Turner expressed great admiration for the work, so as Najar learned more, he suggested instead of merely setting songs, he might try to write a ‘song-cycle’ in the tradition of Schubert, Schumann, and Ravel.

“A song cycle is like a concept album in our era of music composed in the studio rather than on paper,” explains Najar. “The songs, taken as a whole, depict a particular poet’s vision of a subject or story line. To do this effectively, a composer has to grasp not only the individual subject of each song, but an overall aesthetic and feel for the ‘bigger’ message.”

“I encouraged Randall to take this approach in part because I thought it would be illuminating to the world of songwriting,” continues Leo. “I find it odd in a way that in an era where music is so completely dominated by songs, so little has been done by contemporary songwriters to explore the possibilities that exist by extending the form.”

“When Schubert wrote song cycles, he did it for the entertainment of his friends, all of whom were in their 20s. He died when he was only 31, so this was not formal concert music. It was songwriting, intended for the enjoyment of amateur singers entertaining their friends.”

As for the spark that struck Williams’ to attempt this ambitious project, Randall notes how deeply the book moved him when he first read it seven years ago. 
“In wondering why such a simple book about a fictional account of one guy’s dreams could have that effect, my inner artist began asking deeper questions: What in these simple stories is so profound? The answer, of course, is that these dream-narratives are just a vehicle to deliver a much deeper message of our common humanity.”

“The stories take place in 1905 Switzerland, just as the young patent clerk is about to break the world with a new paper discussing his general Theory of Relativity,” continues Randall. “And yet, Einstein’s story is just the form not the content. So really, these songs originated with a desire to tell Dr Lightman’s story with all of its emotional complexity and yet make it accessible to audiences through the language of music.”

How collaborative was the creative process between Williams, Najar, and Lightman, and what were some of the fundamental goals they set forth creatively when embarking upon this translation of LIghman’s work?

“For me the creative process began with a guitar and a copy of the novel,” explains Williams. “I read and re-read, sketched and hummed, and slowly began to add chords and melody to the words, while keeping them mostly intact. A few chapters have been changed only slightly, but the song creation was collaboration between my guitar, Dr. Lightman’s prose, and myself. The first recording, however, was extremely collaborative – with three others and myself co-producing. Leo’s musical vision and direction added structural integrity, Chip Reardin and David Weber at Airshow Studio in Indiana gave feedback and sonic direction, and together we captured pretty clean versions of these songs in CD format.”

“My biggest goal through this entire process has been to bring out in song the common humanity that Dr. Lightman so masterfully paints with his words. In doing so, the songs range from serious to funny, from contemporary acoustic folk all the way through Funk and Blues. Adding an orchestra to all that is the perfect merger of form and content.”

“For me our collaboration has worked on a number of levels,” adds Leo. “The songs are, first & foremost, Randall’s work and he is a first class acoustic guitarist. One of the most amazing things about them is that the texts are all directly Alan Lightman’s work, which Randall set in both poetic & prose styles appropriate to the piece.”

The songs are actually divided into two albums. On the first album, which was recorded in December with a small ensemble, I was co-producer, keyboardist, and wrote the cello parts. The second album is for Randall plus the Bijou Orchestra and for that I will write all the orchestrations. The Prologue & Epilogue will appear in both albums, but of course it will be a larger scale piece with the orchestra.”

“One of the things I admire about Lightman’s book is that he illustrates sometimes complex ideas about time by telling stories about the citizens of Bern, Switzerland, his home at the time of his First Theory. This makes many of the ideas easy to grasp at first hearing, which is a necessity for them to work in the context of a song.”

In working with a small ensemble consisting of guitar, keyboard, cello, and fiddle, a tight focus is employed between the musicians, with different tempos and styles of music utilized to represent the vast and divergent ruminations upon time represented within Lightman’s book.

How do Williams and Najar feel these translated stylistically?

“Well, the interesting thing about style is that we’re throwing a pretty wide range of them together, unified by the guitar and voice and subject matter,” reflects Randall. “The style of song doesn’t stick to the individual chapters specifically, but it does pull out a few elements of that particular story. Take A Crooked Little Twist in Time, for example, it’s 12-bar blues. That song could have gone any number of ways, but I just chose to accent the absurd element of that particular chapter and have fun with it. One could easily have gone the other way and accented more somber elements of the chapter.”

“So there are various styles. Yes, there are recurring elements, tempos, rhythms, and of course lyrics. My favorites are the characters that appear throughout the cycle, especially the thick-fingered baker. Don’t tell the others, especially the lone man on the balcony, but I like him the best!”

“Actually,” interjects Leo, “the small ensemble is for the first album only. Randall is well-known in the acoustic singer/songwriter world, which is sometimes called ‘Folk music’, although I really don’t see much of the music performed there as fitting the traditional definition of Folk, so the first album is a bridge to that audience. We kept the ensemble limited to these instruments so we could articulate the differing musical styles without overwhelming the focus on ‘one man/one guitar.”

“I’m very pleased with what we accomplished with that group. Randall has written in a wide variety of styles, from classically infused Folk on one end through Country, Blues, and Funk on the other. They stylistic choices aren’t arbitrary, but the wide range of sounds tends to underline the breadth of Lightman’s vision.”

“In the Bijou version, color is expanded with the availability of more instruments, but I have still made an effort to keep the focus on the voice. I tend to dislike over-produced music, except maybe Mahler and Pink Floyd, and as a one-time blues guitar player, I gravitate to directness and simple texture. Thus I have a dozen players on stage, but they only appear as a complete ensemble in a few of the songs. The rest is about picking the right sounds out of the available palate.”


Given that Einstein was searching for a ‘Unified Field Theory’ that would tie all of his work on relativity together, but was never able to complete it, in working on this musical translation and song cycle of Lightman’ s work, does it move upon a circular path or a linear and more infinite path? Moreover, do Najar & Williams feel they were able to bring this elusive notion of everything in the universe being tied together firmly into play within the creative process of this work?

“I would say both,” explains Randall. “The cycle itself is circular, because even as one moves through songs, the themes are recurring and universal and could appear anywhere in the story line.  I played a few of these songs for an audience several weeks ago and got nice feedback from a few people who had been moved to tears at a particular song.”

“Another song called A World of Order sets a chapter in the book where the world naturally gravitates towards order. I played that song for friends and weeks later those two friends were talking with a woman who had a pocket full of paperclips. When she pulled them out of her pocket, they were connected in a chain. Both of them instantly thought of this song they’d heard weeks before. If people are moved on the night, or weeks later remember these little songs and it changes the way they view the world, then yes, we’ve done our jobs.”

“My effort in terms of orchestration and production has been to keep the wide variety of musical languages coherent in their support for Randall’s vision,” reflects Leo. “I don’t think there is a unified musical theme her, but there are some cyclical elements that reappear, even as there are characters who appear in more than one song.”

“Having said that, I will say that the first musical device we hear in the Prologue is the piano playing a series of four notes: C,G,D,A. They are all the same interval, something we call a perfect fifth. If we begin by playing a C, then move up a perfect fifth each time, eventually we move through all 12 tones of the western scale and arrive back at C. I didn’t want to use all 12 tones, as that would resonate something different in the minds of some musicians, since there are composers, Schoenberg chief among them, who wrote music exclusively by creating series of 12 tones. These composers are called ‘serialists’, not surprisingly.”

The four tones are sufficient to imply a great circle that returns upon itself, and I thought that was a good way to unfold music that was inspired precisely by one man’s desire to find a unified theory of physics; the appreciation of that search by another man in his novel; and a third man’s appreciation of the others in his music.”

Obviously, tying and translating these divergent characters, theories, and motifs into a coherent song cycle must have been daunting; but what was the most challenging component involved with bringing this creative exercise into play?

“For me it’s time and space,” smiles Leo. “Randall and I click really well together, but he lives in Maine and is constantly traveling and I am here in Michigan. We got together to discuss the project in Maine in August; that was proposed to Dr. Lightman. We next got together the first weekend in December for a three day ‘lock-in’ at the studio in Indiana, where we recorded for 14 hours a day, slept on the floor, and ate out of the microwave.”

Insofar as this February performance will serve as a World Premier, the first CD (with the small ensemble) will be available at the concert as well as online at www.einsteinsdreams.org. The second CD with the orchestra will be recorded live during the concert and available for sale as soon as production and artwork are completed. Both Leo and Randall are extremely excited about the release of both CDs, and their enthusiasm for the show itself is palpable.

“I’ll tour solo as well as with a small ensemble,” notes Randall, “and I may tour together as a duo or with the ensemble. And yes, I do plan to tour with at least one more orchestra – the Teton Falls Orchestra in Idaho has already asked to perform this program together next year.”

“There will ultimately be four versions of this work,” adds Leo. “Apart from the two versions Randall mentioned, the Bijou-sized version is something we are pushing toward museums and college campuses, and we will be performing on WFMT in Chicago in August, with that performance going out over Sirius radio. Ultimately, there will also be a version for full orchestra. All of them, of course, require Randall to sing and play guitar.”

Finally, did Randall and Leo come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of what Einstein was able to achieve and postulate for humanity through collaborating on this work together; and did they glean and fresh insights about Einstein’s theories through this creative exercise?

“Absolutely, I did, and continue to,” states Randall. “My favorite so far has been discovering Einstein’s ‘thought experiments’ where he wrestled with extremely complex expressions of relative time and space in simple examples. Links to several of these are also posted at www.einsteinsdreams.org.”

“I came away with a love for a book I did not know, an appreciation for the connection between the scientific and the artistic, and an interest I have had since an infatuation with reading Jacob Bronowski in the 1970s,” concludes Leo. “I came away with new friends and a new musical world for myself as a performer and writer.”

“I’m still getting to the Einstein part. This story uses Einstein as a jumping-off point, but its really about personal discovery. Alan’s book describes time, as it exists in many different worlds. I think people inhabit most, if not all of those worlds, at some point in their lives.”

“That is what makes this project so fascinating. Einstein’s lonely search is everyone’s search. That is the genius of the book and the composer. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”


Of Additional Note:

On Friday, February 25th, The Delta College Planetarium is having a lecture with Dr. Alan Lightman, the author of Einstein’s Dreams. Dr. Lightman will speak on the minds of Artists & Scientists. The program is at 7:00 PM and is presented by The Bijou Orchestra as part of its weekend celebration of the World Premier performance of Einstein’s Dreams, written and performed by Randall Williams with The Bijou Orchestra.  Following the lecture, attendees are invited to attend the first rehearsal of Einstein’s Dreams with Randall and the Bijou at the State Theatre.  Admission is complimentary.

The Bay County Library System is also excited to announce a very special Booked for Lunch event on Friday, February 25th from Noon to 1:00 PM at The State Theatre in Bay City.  Alan Lightman, distinguished physicist, essaying, novelist and Adjunct Professor of Humanities at MIT will review his internationally best-selling novel, Einstein’s Dreams, in advance to the World Premier performance by The Bijou Orchestra.

Booked for Lunch is a long-standing tradition and the most popularly attended adult program at the Bay County Library System. There is no charge to attend this event and no registration. For more information please call 894-2837 ext. 2221 or visit baycountylibrary.org.


Please login to comment



Current Issue


Don't have an account?