Writing songs in the key of e=mc2

Diane Nalini, like Queen’s Brian May, is a musician with an odd second career: physics

Writing songs in the key of e=mc2Diane Nalini’s two worlds are about to collide. The 34-year-old, an applied physicist at the University of Guelph and professional jazz singer, is set to release Kiss Me Like That, her fourth album, featuring 13 songs about the stars and the moon. While the concept sounds like a gimmick, especially coming from an astronomy buff, it’s only fair to note that Nalini’s previous musical efforts have been well received. A review in the Montreal Gazette from a few years ago noted that Nalini has “a beguiling voice with beautiful intonation.” Another, in the Globe and Mail, praised her “bell-clear tone, meticulous enunciation, playfulness and subtle swing.” Even Bill Clinton is a fan. While studying at Oxford in 2001, Nalini met the sax-crazed former president after performing a 40-minute set at a black-tie event for about 20 that he attended. A year or two later, at a Rhodes Scholars’ reunion, Nalini approached Clinton to re-introduce herself, but was cut off before she could get her name out: “Of course I remember you, Diane,” Nalini recalls Clinton saying. “I have your album on my MP3 player.”

That kind of endorsement might have prompted some musicians to drop everything in the pursuit of fame. But Nalini, while honoured, refused to pick one side of her brain over the other. And this musical-physicist combo isn’t unheard of. Some argue that’s because physics, like music, focuses on patterns, sounds and waves. Others cite the work of Pythagoras, who found there are mathematical relationships between harmonious notes. In any case, Nalini is not alone. This summer an opera about the existence of additional dimensions, written by Harvard particle physicist Lisa Randall, will debut on a Paris stage before touring Europe. And the most famous crossover artist of late is Brian May, Queen’s legendary guitarist. In the fall of 2007 May completed his Ph.D. thesis, a paper on interplanetary dust that he started working on in 1971, three years before heading out on the road with the band. “Most musicians I know have a strong grasp of mathematics,” says Nalini, who was born in Montreal. “They have to. Keeping the beat, counting out divisions of beats, thinking about harmony. Music theory is almost dauntingly mathematical.”

Nalini teaches a physics of music class at Guelph that includes lectures on acoustics, pitch and the workings of the ear. She uses music in all her classes as a way of “demystifying” physics. So it’s not surprising that a bit of her work in the classroom has spilled into her lyrics. The title track of her new album features a mnemonic—OBAFGKMLT—used to help students remember the order of the stars and brown dwarfs (Oh Be A Fine Girl . . . Kiss Me Like That). “I was using astronomy as a metaphor for a relationship that used to be great but has gone sour,” says Nalini. In Love in Outer Space, about a woman who has grown tired of men on earth and decides to seek out an extraterrestrial, she sings about the hydrogen line. Nalini plans to release the album (which includes six originals) this spring on Earthglow Records, the label she launched after moving back to Canada in 2003. All the songs, including the covers—the best-known are Sting’s Valparaiso and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James—have a lyrical connection to science or the world out there.

During the school year, Nalini, who teaches under her full name, Diane Nalini de Kerckhove, tries to limit herself to two gigs a month. She plays jazz clubs and festivals—no loud bars. “I’m not interested in being background music,” she says. She’s an admitted audiophile, and is disheartened by the shift to MP3s—society’s willingness to accept poor quality sound, she says, in exchange for convenience. So does Nalini hear music differently from those of us with a less scientific ear? “Maybe, if I put my technical hat on,” she says, “But it can ruin my own experience pretty fast.”

Though she doesn’t think her understanding of sonics gives her an extra edge as a singer, Nalini says it doesn’t hurt when putting the finishing touches on a track in the studio. “There are a bunch of frequencies—some are overlapping and some are surging in certain places—and it’s about making sure that all the frequencies are balanced,” she says. She also enjoys the subjectivity in music-making. “I like the idea,” she says, “that there isn’t just one right answer.” A nice balance from her day job, which currently involves building two beam lines from an accelerator. Fodder for a follow-up album, perhaps?