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OperaShots: Nitin Sawhney and Schrödinger's cat

By Royal Opera House

29 March 2010 at 3.40pm | Comment on this article

Last week saw Jocelyn, Orlando and I swinging on rubber tyres and punching bags in a photography studio for opera shots publicity, which was actually pretty good fun and an unexpected laugh. This week, though, is all about composition.

In case you found my first blog a little confusing, my part in opera shots will be to create a new work based on an impulse I had some time ago. The idea of using techniques from vedic Indian mathematics, calculus and quantum theory along with the musical and lyrical traditions of various cultures arose from my deep interest in the connections between ancient Hindu philosophy and physics. It was important to find an appropriate musical vocabulary to convey the universal and complex nature of those connections and so I have set about focusing on an operatic variation of Erwin Schrödinger's hypothetical cat.

Erwin Schrödinger was a celebrated physicist, with an intense interest in Hindu philosophy, mathematics and music, who in 1935 set about creating a hypothetical construct to expose the absurdity of quantum theory. In his construct, he placed a cat in a box along with a radioactive substance that had a 50 percent chance of decaying. If it decayed it would trigger a poisonous substance that would kill the cat. Therefore, Schrödinger's cat existed in a precise state of balance until it was observed. In that small moment (“quantum tunneling”) between opening the box and seeing the cat, several possibilities existed. The cat was considered to be dead or alive and in a strange “superposition” of being both simultaneously.

In my opera, “Entanglement”, I have changed the cat in the box into a pregnancy test where the very existence of a new life hangs in the balance. To communicate the idea I have chosen five women to sing in 5 different time signatures at an accelerating tempo (hence the need for calculus).The entire opera plots the arc of that tense moment between observation of a result and the emergence of a settled reality.

In Hindu philosophy the concept of “Dharma” postulates a universal flow to the universe that accounts for our freewill and individual decisions. A few years ago I interviewed Oxford university professor, quantum physicist and author of “The Fabric of Reality”, David Deutsch, at his home about his concept of “the multiverse”. In his idea, derived from the mathematical theories of 50’s physicist, Hugh Everett, all possibilities based on observation co-exist in separate parallel universes. In other words there is a universe that accounts for every direction in which freewill flows.

In my opera, there are five women who represent each of the possibilities related to the outcome of the observed pregnancy test… This precedes the moment at which the wave function collapses into the very reality we, the audience, inhabit.

In order to represent some of those complexities I have consulted with geniuses such as Marcus Du Sutoy, Maths professor at Cambridge who helped me get my head around some of the calculus involved in accelerating a tempo curve at changing rates whilst maintaining a precise number of beats and 5 co-existing time signatures ending on a precise moment in time!

Tomorrow we will workshop the opera again with all musicians and singers present. I’ll let you know how that goes.

- Nitin Sawhney

By Royal Opera House

29 March 2010 at 3.40pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Nitin Sawhney, Opera Shots, ROH2

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