Charles Darwin may have had his biggest impact on biology, but he began his scientific career as a geologist. So it’s appropriate that earlier this year, retired geologist John Ramsay, who had long studied the famed biologist’s life, accepted a commission to compose a Darwin-themed string quartet.
Darwin “did some pretty fundamental geological mapping,” says Ramsay, drawing a parallel to his own geological career, during which he has drawn maps of the Scottish Highlands, South Africa, and the Swiss Alps. Ramsay says he and Darwin also share a penchant for putting “ideas that spring from other parts of one’s life” into their current work. He notes that Darwin applied lessons from Earth’s landscape to biology, adapting, for example, Charles Lyell’s theory of gradual geological change to living things. Similarly, Ramsay’s musical tribute draws on his own geology background. “Knowing Darwin’s work, I wrote my quartet first of all on the evolution of the Earth,” Ramsay says.
At the beginning of the piece, a disorganized Earth takes shape, with the core, mantle, and crust emerging into distinct musical themes. Life then arrives. Next, Ramsay writes in his concert notes, “the ‘wriggly’ primitive forms evolve into … stronger and more continuous themes representing reptile and mammal forms.”
Performed by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Ramsay’s composition premiered in Cambridge, U.K., during the Darwin Festival (Ramsay pictured above and Quartet playing pictured below) on 7 July 2009. The Darwin Quartet gave its second performance late last month during the triennial Cambridge Music Festival. The two festivals jointly commissioned the piece, and Ramsay hopes the Fitzwilliam Quartet will record the composition next year.
How did a structural geologist who spent his career climbing the academic career ladder at British and Swiss universities end up composing evolution-themed music? National service: After completing his Ph.D. in geology at Imperial College London, recalls Ramsay, “I became a cellist in an Army orchestra” in 1955. For 2 years, he toured Britain and British bases in Germany.
When his tour was over, Ramsay had to decide between pursuing music or geology. “I was hard-put,” he says, “but I only started playing cello at 18, … and that’s a bit late for someone becoming a top professional.” Instead, he continued with geology research and teaching at Imperial College, moved to the University of Leeds, and eventually settled in Zurich, Switzerland, with joint geology appointments at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and the University of Zurich. But his other passion has come to the forefront again now that Ramsay has retired. Today, he teaches and composes music in the French hamlet of Cratoule, in a wine-growing region near the Rhône River whose landscape he describes as “wild without being fiercely wild.”
His music hobby did not directly influence his geological career, Ramsay says, but a night class on life-drawing he took while in the Army probably did shape his interest in geological maps: “They are scientific records of the rocks on the Earth’s surface, but they can be exceedingly beautiful things.”
Ramsay says he tried to incorporate Darwin’s ideas about the fleeting nature of any individual species into the epilogue of his composition; the music is meant to evoke a barren landscape, devoid of today’s multitude of species. “Darwin showed that practically all the organisms that have lived on the Earth had a limited species-life, and practically all of them have died out and been replaced by new ones,” Ramsay notes.
And what would Darwin have thought of the composition? “I don’t know what he would make of my string quartet, [but] he was very worried toward the end of his life about where things were going,” Ramsay says. “My idea is that perhaps the world will finish up like Mars, without life but still with a great deal of beauty.”