Noam Elkies - Canonical Forms: A Mathematician's View of Musical Canons

Noam Elkies

Talk details

Talk Abstract

In a musical canon—be it "Three Blind Mice" or the climax of a Bach fugue—a melody can act as its own harmony. The task of finding such melodies leads us to consider musical structure from points of view usually associated with science and mathematics, not the arts. The lecture will be illustrated with diagrams as well as a variety of musical examples (including at least one improvised in real time), and will require no technical background in either music or mathematics. Partial financial support is provided by the MSU Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.


Noam D. Elkies

Noam D. Elkies is a professor of mathematics at Harvard and the youngest person ever tenured at the university. His research on elliptic curves, lattices, and other aspects of the theory of numbers has been recognized by such prizes and awards as the Presidential Young Investigator Award of the National Science Foundation and the Prix Peccot of the College de France. His work in mathematical exposition and teaching was recognized by awards from the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America, and Harvard's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. He currently holds several records for ranks of elliptic curves and related Diophantine questions.

Alongside his mathematical career, Elkies has been playing the piano and composing since the age of three. Born in New York, he studied piano with A. Vardi in Israel and with J. Carlson at Juilliard Pre-College after returning to the United States in 1978, where he graduated with highest honors in 1982.  His composition teachers include Sadai, Davidovsky, and Kirchner. Solo performances include Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #5 with the Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble, and Elkies' own Rondo Concertante, with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras' Repertory Orchestra in Boston's Symphony Hall. His compositions, often but not always in styles that recognizably flow from traditional idioms, range from short character pieces for solo piano, to the "Brandenburg Concerto #7" premiered by Metamorphosen, to Yossele Solovey, an opera staged in 1999. His "E Sonata" for flute and piano is included in Alice Dade's "Living Music" CD released by Naxos earlier this year.

Elkies is also known as a solver and composer of chess problems, and won the World Chess Solving Championship in 1996.