Lake Effect, Spring 2019, Volume 23: "Einstein’s Violin"

Einstein’s Violin

by Al Maginnes


Music builds itself, somehow, on numbers,

a house that rises

so naturally we forget it has architecture, a plan

that might be studied for years, but never mastered.

Years of practice and still the foundation might float

unanchored or the placement of fingers fail.

The small improvisations

that make an adventure of melody might slide by unheard.

You could

play for years without learning to recognize the swerve

into a chord that shifts the tune’s field,

the way Einstein believed

planets might alter the focus

of gravity. Physics, after all, is built of numbers as well,

its long-limbed equations built to probe

the architectures of the universe.


Some know the bodies of instruments as well

as those

who spend their energy charting the heavens, watching for

new eruptions among constellations they know like the

names of their children.

Last night, leaning against the stage,

I wondered

if the guitar player saw the small brilliance of Venus,

the infinite

measures encased in an instrument when he tipped his head back,

let his eyes roll shut and let his fingers stir a cauldron

of notes

that blossomed, then faded

into white noise that

swallowed all that lay before it.


If the drummer or keyboard player

missed a note,

time stumbled, then found its footing. Unlike gravity,

music is not shared equally.

There is no place I know where gravity differs to any degree we can measure.

But it is possible to tell the good player from the


to read who is playing and who is phoning it in for

the night.


For those who are scholars of nothing in particular,

one entertainment is watching those who know their


When one scientist’s book makes its argument for

one construction of the universe

while his friend

argues for another way of coercing the same arrangement

of space and time,

I find some joy in knowing

there is no final answer,

the way two pianists might

make different tunes of “Stella by Starlight.”


I’ve seen enough pictures of Einstein holding a violin

to wonder if anyone recorded

his playing. A search

through the dustbins of the internet told me

there was a recording of Einstein playing

Mozart’s Violin Sonata KV 378, but a little more reading

told me this recording was fake,

Einstein’s playing attributed

to Carl Flesch. Without anything to hear

and only the testimony of his wife and friends,

we are left

to wonder what constellations took shape while he played,

what new equations timed the age and velocity of

those universes?


Did he conjure the humming between spheres that is

almost music?

He would come from his study, pick up the violin

or sit at the piano and play, his mind revolving

in the deep reaches of this universe or the next one.


I can look at a page of sheet music or math problems

but read nothing,

but I know the sound of the music

I love

when I hear it, even if its making remains as mysterious

as mathematics or the unreadable realms of stars.


Maybe all the universe is navigated

with numbers,

measures of the incorporeal waves that govern

time and space,

commanding that we age one-half breath

at a time. So each clock tick is both

a tallying up and a subtraction.

Even while your fingers

gain velocity over the keyboard, the instrument of

the body

is pummeled by gravity, a pressure that remains

constant and uncounted.


We have all come awake

to a voice that stopped

just as our eyes opened, the secrets breathed away

the instant an eye registered light.


in that hovering where the body has

no particular beginning or end,

I’m struck by a line

ringing fire, and, for that moment, true as a chord.



I must decide whether to find a notebook and write it down

or believe it lingers through my single journey

of sleep.

Last time I did this I wrote, “Slow lunch.

Matches, Bring dolphins and worry,” a constellation

I will never navigate.

I retreated to the window,

where I counted a few houses still lit,

burning their way to or from the eternal dawn

where Einstein crafts a slow melody,

the start of a day’s mysterious universe.