Composer James Dashow ’66 creates an opera based on the mathematician’s life

For the past decade, composer James Dashow ’66 has been crafting an opera on the life of Archimedes, the third-century B.C. Greek inventor and mathematician whose short life was marked by legendary genius. Archimedes is the thinker geometry students have to thank for determining the relationship between the surface and volume of a sphere in a cylinder. He also supposedly leaped out of the bathtub after discovering the principle of buoyancy, shouting “Eureka!”

But Dashow has been preparing for his own eureka! moment of sorts — he plans to stage the opera in a planetarium.

Using the scant appearance of Archimedes in the Greek historian Plutarch’s biography of Roman general Marcus Marcellus, Dashow’s opera creatively fills in the gaps in what we know about Archimedes’ life, taking some artistic license to imagine the mathematician’s thoughts.

By showing Archimedes as someone who is persuaded to put his considerable talent to work fighting the Romans, the opera makes a point about “what human beings do with the most gifted people among them,” as Archimedes’ brilliance is harnessed for destructive ends. Dashow has no venue or date scheduled for the opera, which he is still working on, but several portions of the piece have had sneak previews at universities and music festivals.

The opera also marks the latest stage in the cutting-edge technical creativity of Dashow, who has been composing computer music since the medium was so new that he had to invent code himself. Along the way he picked up Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, co-produced a radio program for Italian national radio, and received a career award at the Bourges (France) electronic-music festival, the electronic-music equivalent of the Oscars.

Dashow composes work for both computers and live orchestras, but the Archimedes opera will be a computer feat alone — there will be no orchestra. The opera promises to be a full-immersion experience, Dashow said. With the planetarium staging he can combine live actors with a light show, creating a “spatial counterpoint” to his musical work, he said, explaining: “Moving around in space, the composition takes on a whole different kind of aesthetic.”

The lone music major in his class, Dashow staged an opera of The Scarlet Letter for his thesis. He started experimenting with computer music in graduate school and then in Italy, which he has called home for 38 years. He has come back to teach at Princeton and MIT, and was on campus last spring to present one of his Archimedes scenes and talk about his computer system for integrating musical pitches.

“The computer is a musical instrument. We have to learn how to play it like we learn how to play anything else, only it can make any sound under the sun,” he said. “You don’t just sit back and let the computer do the work.”