Jean-S├ębastien Caux

Rosalyn Tureck

Posted on 2021-02-23   Anecdotes

As I've explained before, one of the great things about being a student in Oxford was that one was constantly confronted with tons of interesting events happening all over the place all the time. And that included some pretty life-transforming ones.

One day, one of the professors in the physics department, Robin Stinchcombe, asked me if I could help one of his friends out: there was a nice symposium at which some famous people were speaking, and that friend of his (a certain pianist named Rosalyn Tureck) needed somebody knowledgeable about both science and music to attend/record the talks and then prepare the transcripts for later publication.

"So who will be speaking?" I ask. Robin's answer was "Well besides Rosalyn herself, there will be Michell Feigenbaum, Roger Penrose and Richard Dawkins."

I guess you can understand that I took on the task. It's not every day you get to hang out with such a bunch of swell people.

So there I was, at some point in late 1995, attending the symposium and drinking fizzy with the big names. The talks by Feigenbaum and Penrose were absolutely wonderful. Feigenbaum was talking about emergent phenomena , and Penrose gave a lecture on the concept of Pattern. I wasn't quite as pleased with Dawkins' talk (two of my friends famously removed me physically from the audience because I was huffing and puffing my discontent a bit too loudly).

After the meeting, back in my modest student room, I took my typing machine (yes, I did have one of those!) and tape recorder, and proceeded to type up all the lectures (OK I admit it, I didn't type up Dawkins' lecture, but heck did I work keenly on the Feigenbaum and Penrose ones, which they ended up being quite happy about).

My work done, I phoned up Rosalyn Tureck (who I had only briefly met on the day of the symposium) to tell her the transcripts were ready. She asked if I could bring them up to her house up North, not too far from the center. So I take up my bike, and just make my way to her place.

It was late on a Saturday afternoon when I rang her doorbell. Pretty soon the door opens, and there is Rosalyn Tureck at her glorious height of 5 foot 2 inches, greeting me with a broad smile and immediately grabbing the big brown envelope I had in my hands, quickly opening it up and starting to peek at the promised transcripts, chatting away as she does. I tell her a bit about what I thought of the lectures, and we kind of just keep on chatting for a while. At some point she says "Look, why don't you just stay over for dinner? I've got some leftovers, with a bit of imagination we'll sort something out."

For the next two and a half years, I went over for dinner to Rosalyn's place every available Saturday (I used to pick up some quiche or similar food on the way up to her place; she covered the wine). She was 81 years old, but as bubbly as a teenager. We used to spend hours chatting about everything: although she was a musician, she had a lifelong interest in science and couldn't get enough of it, so we never ran out of things to say. My friends in College became very suspicious that I should spend all my Saturday evenings with an eightysomething... but you see, she was truly young at heart. In music, she experimented with lots of new things and had a lifelong revulsion for stuffy things and people (for her audition at the Julliard, she famously played God Save the Queen on the theremin). I remember once being at a group dinner in her company, and her at some point telling me "these old stuffy people are so boring, let's just leave and go hang out by ourselves young people".

The lady was a worldwide famous musician, so she ended up being my short-circuit connection to 20th Century history. A Julliard school early graduate, she was taught by Schoenberg for a while, bruised up with Wanda Landowska, and had an amazing music career. Even Glenn Gould (who is perhaps unjustly much more famous than she is) gave it to her: she played Bach better than he did. Among scientists, she met and interacted with pretty much all the big names you can think of from Niels Bohr up, and had lots of fun things to say about many of them.

I remember one of our conversations in particular. She used to ask me what I though about this and that theory, be that evolution, the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, whatever; but also what I worked on, so she could get a feel for real ongoing research. Back then I was interested in disordered systems, and I explained to her that sometimes, a system which is too "clean" doesn't know how to configure itself: moving things about doesn't change anything, so the system can't decide what to do. The nice thing is that adding a bit of "junk" actually helps the system make up its mind, so you get order and lots of interesting things, by simply adding a bit of disorder. She loved the thought and said it reminded her of something Primo Levi had written, and found the quote from his book "Il sistema periodico":

"... l'elogio della purezza, che protegge dal male come un usbergo; l'elogio dell'impurezza, che dà adito ai mutamenti, cioè alla vita."

"... the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, or said otherwise, to life."

On her side, she very often came back to this thought (the second bit, not the first, "too puritanical" like Levi said). On my side, I put that citation from Levi in my doctoral thesis.

Possibly the greatest privilege of my friendship with Rosalyn was that I would get to witness all these private practice sessions: often, after dinner and in between our long chats, she would sit at the piano and play a bit, with me as her only privileged audience. I remember her hands very distinctly. Surprisingly, for a world-class pianist, they were absolutely tiny. Her nails were striking, as if a sculptor had shaped them. Just looking at her fingers, you would have thought she was perhaps 40 years old, at most.

During the latter part of our friendship (I eventually left Oxford in the summer of 1998), she was working on a new recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. This ended up being her last big release, see here. I got to hear the preparations for this straight from her, in private, as her eternally grateful twentysomething physicist friend.

She passed away in 2003. You will find a nice obituary of her here. The symposium which ignited our friendship still has some traces of existence on the internet here.

My daughter's middle name was chosen in memory of this great pianist and friend.