Kyle Prifogle and the Music of Mathematics
Steve Charles—As a student I struggled with learning mathematics, so as a writer I’ve often asked friends who are mathematicians to describe for me the beauty they see in their chosen discipline. I know my inability to see it is a result of myopic ignorance. I want to be moved by an equation the way I’m moved by a line from a poem, a piece of sculpture, a scene from a play.
Thanks to Kyle Prifogle ’09, I think I get it now.
Prifogle’s recital Friday night in Salter Hall was nothing short of amazing. (See a photo album here.) His playing of Beethoven’s “Appasionata” seemed effortless (which is saying something, as Prifogle’s intensity at the keys can make “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sound dramatic), but it was hearing and seeing Kyle play the “Scarbo” section from Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit—a piece famous for its incredible difficulty—that was the revelation for me.
It’s gorgeous, playful, wild, magical music. And because I’ve now seen this mathematics major/music and physics minor preparing for and playing concerts on everything from classical piano to Ugandan madinda—even seen him take the lead singing role for Wamidan on occasion—I had no doubt he could do it.
So, unlike recitals in which you just pray the musician can get through the piece, Kyle’s virtuosity set me free to absorb the music and enjoy watching him play it.
And at some point during that section, looking through my telephoto camera lens and watching his fingers whip and slide over the keys one second and articulate a handful of them the next; watching him lean hard into the keys, then sit up like he’d been shocked by them; watching the eyes glance down for a moment then back at the complex patterns of notes on the page of music before him; all the while listening to those wild notes and beautiful 20th century chords flying out of the Bosendorfer piano, I got it. A glimpse, maybe, of how the mathematical mind sees the world like the notes on the page, and the beauty of the spaces between them.
To me, Kyle was playing and proving the emotional beauty of mathematics. I couldn’t help recalling a photo shoot in his sophomore year as he stood pondering a mathematical equation with that same intense, mouth-to-the-side look he gets when he’s really concentrating on the music and those notes on the page meet the music rising from inside him.
I remembered, too, that when he wrote his first blog from his travels in Uganda to learn the madinda from the masters there, how he was determined to come up with a system by which he could notate, recall, and analyze the intricate patterns he recognized in these musicians who played exclusively by ear. All so that he play them himself, as he did earlier this spring during his final concert with the College’s world music ensemble.
To be a mathematician and musician is a double gift, not only to the bearer of the gift, but to those of us who get to listen. We’ve been blessed to have Kyle Prifogle here these past four years, and by the hours upon hours of hard work he has put in to learning and getting ready to perform these works for us, helping us to see and to hear the beauty of the gifts he has been given. Even changing the way a few of us see and hear the world.