Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment or paradox concerning a cat sealed, unobservable, in a chamber along with some force that that might or might not kill it has taken on an enormous life of its own in popular culture. Schrödinger proposed the thought experiment in the face of remarkable uncertainty about subatomic particles that emerged when Einstein’s began to unseat Newton’s understanding of matter. Its basic point describes the concept of superposition – when two (or more) contradictory states (such as a cat being alive or dead) co-exist indeterminably due to our inability to observe and ‘collapse’ reality into one ‘truth.’
In our time this one part macabre, one part amusing and two parts intriguing paradox is applied indiscriminately (and usually with little or no knowledge of its original meaning) to any seeming logical contradiction (witness if you will, Schrödinger’s Dumpster.)
Like all widely-known truisms (clichéed and otherwise), Schrödinger’s paradox has a way of sneaking up on all sorts of applications, and in my particular corner of the musical world, so dependent on currently unwise or even outlawed gatherings by artistic ensembles and their audiences, I find myself wondering outside of the cat’s chamber.
The novel coronavirus pandemic drags on as a defining presence in the world’s life. It has progressed from a curiosity, to a concern, to an emergency to for the time being, a ‘new normal’ – but perhaps unknown or unconsidered by some there are people, societies, industries and institutions for which it has reached the status of existential threat. True, the interruption it represents to normal life is in some form of ‘temporary’ – months, years, perhaps according to some even a generation – which implies a return to normal. But when abnormal persists for too long a sinister ‘statute of limitations’ begins to creep into effect – people sicken and die instead of recover, businesses flounder and fail instead of pulling through, institutions implode or recede to mere shadows of themselves, and things we have taken to be ‘ways of life’ seep into history or even fade from all memory.
Are, for example, the many virtual choirs whose checkerboard singing faces we see and voices we hear through our screens currently alive or dead? Of course, we tell ourselves, they are alive – choristers, conductors, boards and audiences are deeply invested, technology is bringing people together and unlocking creativity – even making great art at times. But many of them, like ICU patients on ventilators, are certainly threatened in any number of ways, by their older, vulnerable memberships and audiences, by the loss of critical musical and social capital imposed by lockdown, by evaporated ticket revenue and always-uncertain corporate, government and university funding, now thrown into hitherto-unknown stress. And critical to the analogy, our screens may give us hope, but we cannot peer into the chamber, so our choirs are, after Schrödinger, both alive AND dead – we cannot determine which, nor know when or from whence that answer will come.
But before this sobering state of affairs defeats us (and resisting the temptation fully to uncork theoretical physics) let’s consider ‘superposition,’ the concept underlying the seemingly perilous plight of Schrödinger’s Choir. Superposition relies, yes, on uncertainty, but in a glass-half-full sense it must be remembered that it absolutely includes life. In the so-called ‘Many Worlds’ or multiverse view of reality all confined cats survive – as well as perish. Physicists and philosophers use the ironically negative term ‘collapsing reality’ to refer to settling, when the chamber is opened, on a single state for a particle, or a cat, or a choir. Reality while it is undeterminable is open; it is a fantastical ‘house of many rooms’ that will perhaps not stand forever – but on so-called collapse it focuses, it concentrates: it does not disappear.
More practically our families, our businesses, our churches and our musical lives may be redefined by this phase of their shared history, but collectively survive it they will, and whoever is outside the box wondering will doubtless find amid our losses and heartbreaks beauty, creativity, vitality and always music.