An electronic oratorio for James Clerk Maxwell

Why does Blue Nile musician PJ Moore feel the need to Crowdfund an electronic oratorio for James Clerk Maxwell at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe?

Well, here’s a true story……


Artwork for In Time of Light. Credit: “Portrait of James Clerk Maxwell FRSE (1831–1879), after R H Campbell, reproduced by permission of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1987, about halfway through the 5 years it took to complete “Hats” (The Blue Nile’s now infamous contribution to the legend of ‘the difficult second album’ ) I lived in a house in India St. in Edinburgh’s New Town. Late one night, after a long day confined in the studio, I decided listen to the day’s work while taking a walk with my new-fangled cassette-tape ‘walkman’.

Thus festooned, and “lost in music” – I think it was an early run at The Downtown Lights, later covered fairly accurately by Ms. Annie Lennox! – I headed up the broad cobbled street and just a few doors along I noticed the engraved stone marking the birthplace of James Clerk Maxwell at No 14, then just a dwelling house but now a small museum and HQ of the Clerk Maxwell Foundation.

India St 2014

India St, New Town Edinburgh. Credit: PJ Moore

In most contexts this would continue with outline of “who Maxwell was” and a quick round-up of his contributions to modern science (OK – that might be more like quickish, because the list does actually go on a bit!) but here I want to skip ahead to focus on just one of his many achievements – the obscurely named 1865 paper “A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field”, whose 150th is one of the anniversaries IYL 2015 celebrates and of whose contents Richard Feynman said:

“From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade”

Now, I’d studied electronics at Glasgow University before applying my electromagnetic enthusiasms to recording and producing music and in those pre-WiFi days, when mobiles were rare (imagine……!), the recording studio may well have been the hot-spot of Maxwell’s legacy! Well, perhaps a close second to the JCM Radio telescope, which first “saw light” in 1987, and is so named because it makes its observations via non-visible light frequencies whose existence Maxwell had predicted.

But here’s the thing – I stood there, mentally ticking off some associations with his name…… the Maxwell-Boltzman distribution curve came to mind ( I’d been pretty good at the old thermodynamics!) and oh yes…. “Maxwell’s Demon”! Also, isn’t there some connection to colour theory? … maybe something to do with applied mechanics?…. and maybe feedback loops too? Yet there was something which somehow wouldn’t come into focus and it was a few moments before the words formed in my mind….”Maxwell’s Equations!!!”

So, ALL electromagnetism and, really, all of the science and technology which most distinguishes our era from Maxwell’s time began with his birth here in 1831? Was this truly the place where the Steam Age ended and the modern electronic age began? If Maxwell’s breakthrough of 1865 really was as significant as this, why was his key role not much clearer to me (a student and practitioner of Maxwellian miracles!) and to the populace in general?

And then I looked down at the little tape machine, with its electric motor pulling a magnetic tape of aligned particles across the head and at the little (shielded) cables carrying the signal up to the vibrating magnets to make the music play in my head! And all this music had been “printed” using all the various electromagnetic devices at Castlesound Studio – the big 2″ tape machine and the huge speakers (custom made by Linn Products – now THAT was a sound!) and the delicate microphones picking up sound waves using the fine movements of suspended magnets to generate tiny electric currents. .. all based directly Maxwell’s work.

Sadly, it’s easy to imagine someone having the same experience today, whilst instead holding a mobile phone as they do so. How can this be so?

While this might be the wrong forum to be claiming that too few people have heard of Maxwell, a leading Scottish expert on our hero told me recently he felt that only about 1% of Scots would know his name. Maxwell is indeed a prophet less well known in his own land!

I’d place local name-recognition a wee bit higher but not by much, but as to any actual awareness of what he contributed to the modern world… and when…. and the story of what soon came to pass when the meaning of his work was better understood? Well sadly I’d have to agree with that low estimate.

Of course, he didn’t come out of the blue …there was Oersted and Ampere and Gauss and Faraday before him and Hertz and Heaviside and Lodge and Marconi and, of course, Einstein after … but Maxwell DID lay down the laws which explained what his predecessors just couldn’t – for example, certain effects Faraday had seen between electricity and magnets in 1831 (the year of JCM’s birth!) and it WAS his ‘electromagnetic field theory’ and its implications which really rang the changes when finally vindicated by Hertz in 1887 and his pivotal role deserves scrutiny so it can be understood.

In fact another leading expert on Maxwell, Dr. Dick Dougal, has told me that we really need to construct a hybrid Maxwell/Einstein figure, so that concepts initiated by the former and completed or interpreted by the latter can be more easily seen – for example the full meaning and implications of the nature of “the speed of light” (which is right there in Maxwell’s Equations of 1865).

It turns out there are many reasons why he is such an ephemeral figure – he was just too visionary to be properly understood and accepted in his own time and in terms of longer term recognition (once his predictions were proven and the ‘radio age’ could begin), he was long gone.

Also Maxwell’s personality was quite the opposite of the thrusting egos whose very names seem still to insist on their importance, from Newton to Edison. Freeman Dyson has gone further and written that Maxwell was “absurdly and infuriatingly modest”, referring to an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Liverpool in 1870 on the various theories of what light might be and what rules might govern its behaviour. With typical oddball humour Maxwell outlined the prevailing theories of the day, such the Thomson/Helmholtz vortex theory and only referred to his own well established but as yet unproven theory of light as he finished, saying “there is another theory of electricity which I prefer…..”. Dyson wonders whether this was all tongue in cheek and whether Maxwell expected the more discerning members of the audience to understand the joke” but also suggests Maxwell was at fault in failing to promote his ideas and concludes that “the moral of the story is that modesty is not always a virtue”.

Maxwell wrote some epigrams that are often grouped under the title “A Philosophy of Life”. Have a read and also have a look at where there’s a spoken word clip at and also one celebrating Maxwell’s Tartan Ribbon demonstration of May 17th 1861!

                           The Philosophy of Life Of James Clerk Maxwell

He that would enjoy life and act with freedom must have the work of the day continually before his eyes. Not yesterday’s work, lest he fall into despair, nor to-morrow’s, lest he become a visionary. And not that which ends with the day, which is worldly work, nor yet that only which remains to eternity, for by it he cannot shape his actions.

Happy is the man who can recognise in the work of Today a connected portion of the work of life, and an embodiment of the work of Eternity. The foundations of his confidence are unchangeable, for he has been made a partaker of Infinity. He strenuously works out his daily enterprises, because the present is given him for a possession.

Thus ought Man to be an impersonation of the divine process of nature, and to show forth the union of the infinite with the finite, not slighting his temporal existence, remembering that in it only is individual action possible, nor yet shutting out from his view that which is eternal, knowing that Time is a mystery which man cannot endure to contemplate until eternal Truth enlighten it.

These words fit with the Epicurean attitude to life and to nature (and by extension to human nature and dealings) which has Maxwell leaning backwards in Sandy Stoddarts’ magnificent statue on George St.. For Epicureans, tranquility makes life pleasant, and you achieve tranquility by living prudently, honourably, and justly – a good description of our man’s approach, and no doubt in his quiet and patient way he simply believed his theory (which he held to be “Great Guns”) would eventually be proven true.


Sandy Stoddart’s statue of James Clarcke Maxwell in George St Edinburgh. Credit: Wikicommons.

Sadly he wasn’t around to see that happen. Maxwell died in 1879 at just 48 and even when Hertz proved the existence of the predicted EM waves in 1887 there was still no broad understanding of his near-magical ideas or of where they would lead. Indeed, when asked, Hertz said there were “no applications” for the waves.

Remarkable as it now seems, Sir Oliver Lodge (the “English Marconi” and a leading electromagnetic scientist of the 19th/20th Centuries) went along to Helen Duncan’s seances with that other great modern analytical mind, Arthur Conan Doyle and both Edison and Alexander Graham Bell seem to have thought that Maxwell’s waves might be SO other-worldly as to actually speak to the “afterlife”

This is a stark indication of the confusion over the meaning of Maxwell’s Theory but a shift was underway which  would later lead Einstein to say :

“One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk”

If all the above is true, then how best to “see” Maxwell – truly a lost icon whose his influence has become so omnipresent as to be invisible, just like most the electromagnetic waves (that one octave from red to blue aside) which fly always and everywhere in our service today! His ideas make possible all the miracles of modern life … but how can we appreciate this when we simply can no longer imagine a world without him?

I believe the way to shed light on him (pardon the pun!) is through words and music and if Maxwell’s tale seems too much to be true then as we consider him and his influence we’ll stick to the truth – scientific truths (the meaning of ‘curl’ and the ‘speed of light’), biographical truths (many wee sadnesses and immense resolve) and modern truths (of how we all live) … all truths welcome and we’ll see how it scans (damn puns!!!).

Simply put, In Time of Light will aim to celebrate and illuminate our hero, arguably the greatest, yet least recognised of all the ‘Great Scots” and sing his praises in 2015.

Aberdeen University (Maxwell’s sole Scottish post) will host a ‘workshop preview’ of songs and passages from the ‘electronic oratorio’ on May 31st as part of their May Festival and a Kickstarter campaign will launch this month to fund full shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Private sponsor/producer previews at 14 India St. (Maxwell’s birthplace and now a small museum and home to the Clerk Maxwell Foundation) over the weekend of August 15/16th 2015 (100 places only) will hope to generate the cashflow required for preproduction and rehearsals with four singers and four musicians, and public Fringe shows will follow later the same week at The Oval Hall of The Edinburgh Academy.

Please visit and watch for the Kickstarter launch later this month!

Do please think about joining me at India St!

See Jim Al-Khalili’s visit here and Jim on Maxwell’s “speed of light” letter to Faraday here.

PJ Moore - analogue manPaul Joseph (PJ) Moore studied Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Glasgow University, graduating in 1979.

Soon after, experiments in electronic synthesis and in recording led to the formation of The Blue Nile with songwriters Paul Buchanan and Robert Bell and the first release – “I Love This Life” – in 1981.

Now in love with the medium and the possibilities of (still mainly analogue) advances in sound technology the trio resisted any outside influence and began to hone a unique ‘synesthetic’ sound and in 1984 released “A Walk Across The Rooftops” (Linn/Virgin). A stunning mix of electronics, piano, guitars and real strings this groundbreaking recording prefigured the post-rock of the digital era and along with the follow up “Hats” (released 5 years later in 1989) remains a classic. (Disclaimer – no computers were used in the making of these albums and PJ’s never been in the same room as  Fairlight CMI, which makes it odd that some critics say the records are “too computer perfect” and even claim to recognise “that silky Fairlight string sample” Ooops! )

In 1990, The Blue Nile toured for the first time and stunned fans across the US and UK with note for note renditions of the two albums, concluding the tour with three nights at Glasgow’s brand new Royal Concert Hall, opened early for their run.

Two further albums followed, “Peace at Last” (Warners 1996) and “High” (Sanctuary 2005) though legal problems and industry machinations in the 90’s (anyone remember Warner/AOL?) and the effective collapse of the recording industry model the following decade ended the band in 2006.

Since then PJ has worked on songwriting and has also contributed music for theatre, art installations and for “Maxwell’s Rainbow” a 3D presentation of the life and work of James Clerk Maxwell.

One thought on “An electronic oratorio for James Clerk Maxwell

  1. While I found this interesting and will follow progress I would really like to hear another perhaps last album from The Blue Nile which must include a full contribution from PJ. Well me and at least a million others I expect.

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