THE SOUND OF SCIENCE | New York, National Sawdust

Commissioned by Golden Hornet (Co-commissioned by Kathleen & Harvey Guion), the Sound of Science is a project that sets out to pair scientists with composers to create work that makes sense of both worlds. Brought to life by electronics and Jeffrey Zeigler, the cellist took time at the start of the evening to mention that now is a time when scientific rationalism is under threat — here then was an opportunity to celebrate science through collaboration and art.

Shedding further light on the genesis of this project, Graham Reynolds took to the stage to recount the tail of emailing neuroscientist Kristen Harris to see if she’d like to do a project together: her response, an almost impatient enthusiasm exclamation that she’d been waiting a while for someone to put music to her work. With this sort of build-up, there was a not insignificant amount of pressure on the music to deliver on this high-concept programme of new music. Using a wide range of bowing and percussive techniques, Zeigler threw himself into a rarely relenting set of music that was at different times fractal, looping, buzzing, humming, angular, repetitive and spacious. In particular the piece by Foday Musa Suso inspired by the work of botanist George Washington Carver found colours that were bluesy, kora-like and all together mesmerising.

The choice of scientific research and interpretation was almost disorientating, and here is where there is maybe room for evolution. Having made the point that this was a project celebrating scientific-artistic collaboration, there was a notable absence of this dialogue on stage. It’s a mark of success when work inspires questions although as the majority of the composers were present maybe there was a complementary way to bring the methodology to the fore (as has been done so well online). In that same vein, while some of the visuals possessed a satisfying level of demonstrative sophistication there is certainly room to work in a more ubiquitous quality of illustration across the full body of work if there’s desire/funding to do so.

Even those of us who had only tangential contact with science will remember that the key to a good experiment is knowing where you stand with constants and variables. With Jeff, his cello and the electronics set as the constants in this project, the composers did well to find meaningful variety across the works. When the experiment/concert runs again, the opportunity to experiment with more synchronised visuals and discussion will surely produce another set of fascinating results.

The Sound of Science album is out now on National Sawdust Tracks and available for streaming/purchase here.

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