Sunday 3 July 2011

Introducing the Scientist-Composer

‘Music which should pulsate with life needs new means of expression, and science alone can infuse it with youthful vigour’. (Edgard Varèse)

Throughout history, music and science have shared common ground.  Developments in scientific knowledge have similarly led to the advancement of musical research.  Phythagoras used mathematics to explain the vibrations of a string, closely studying the intervals of tones that it produced, ‘the first physics was musical’.  Pythagorean musical tuning is based on this study of broken intervals of a vibrating string. Robert Root-Bernstein, in his article ‘Music, Creativity and Scientific Thinking’, suggests that musical and scientific abilities are ‘correlative talents’.   He highlights that skills associated with music, such as ‘pattern-forming...aesthetic sensibility, analogising and analysis’, are also important correlative talents of scientists. The author presents a table of composers, who were, in fact, also scientists, but are not known for such involvement.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a physician, Camille St. Saens (1835-1921) was interested in astronomy, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) was a chemist, and George Antheil (1900-1959) was an endocrinologist and inventor. Other scientific careers held by the composers catalogued by the author include: mathematician, surgeon, microbiologist, inorganic chemist, zoologist, geologist, engineer and cardiologist. The author also highlights the musical element to science, and how music has played an important part in scientific research.  For example, geneticist Susumo Ohno, who
‘converted DNA sequences into musical equivalents that sound like Chopin nocturnes in order to listen for patterns that lie hidden within our genes’.
Music is used in other ways as a tool for scientific research.  Hidden patterns can be distinguished through the use of music, and this has presented scientists with a useful tool for furthering areas of scientific research.  Our sense of hearing, of listening, is manipulated in music and can therefore yield further results when used for scientific research; as the eye can only process a certain amount of information.

Composers of the twentieth century have taken on a new personae, that of the ‘scientist-composer’.   A scientist-composer is a composer who engages in scientific research and development for the purpose of composing a piece, or furthering research into new ways of composition.  They are primarily a composer, and rely on scientific research solely as a point of reference.  A scientist-composer can be seen to use key theories and terminology from science, in an attempt to develop new compositional techniques and ideologies. Root-Bernstein highlights the existence of musical-scientists, a concept very different to that of the scientist-composer.  A musical scientist, in comparison, is a scientist who uses musical elements exclusively to further research in the field of science, as he/she is primarily a scientist.  The phenomenon of the scientist-composer can be said to have began in the early twentieth century with the inventions of Thaddeus Cahill (1867-1934), Léon Theremin (1896-1993) and Maurice Martenot (1898-1980).  These inventors stimulated composers such as Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) and Futurist Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) to envision new prospects for music.  They shared a vision that new scientific technology and machinery could be used to create new music.  Interestingly, this idea had been previously foreseen by Lady Lovelace (1815-1852), who worked with Charles Babbage (1791-1871) on building and designing ‘the analytical machine, a mechanical ancestor of the computer’.  She anticipated the possibility of using the machine for ‘non-numerical tasks, in particular that of musical composition’.  This illustrates that the concept of the scientist-composer was not necessarily born in the twentieth century.  Instead, it has developed as part of musical consciousness, and has perhaps manifested itself in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The array of composers involved in the phenomenon is vast and includes such composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen (1922-2007) and Futurist Luigi Russolo.  Russolo and the Italian Futurists initiated a movement in music, literature and art in the early twentieth century called Futurism.  This movement succeeded in creating grounding for a new aesthetic in music, largely due to Russolo’s Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises, (1913).  Russolo was captivated by new industrial noises and the ‘noise-sounds’ of machinery and technology of the early twentieth century.  Russolo’s manifesto displays how industrialisation affected music.  This radically new way of thinking led to the development of a new psychology in music.  After the Futurist movement, other composers became interested in concepts highlighted by Russolo, namely the use of new technology and the use of ‘noise-sounds’ for musical composition.  Malcolm MacDonald highlights that in the twentieth century
‘the figure of the scientist came to subsume the prophetic, spiritually authoritative functions of magician and priest’.
Here, the author highlights an idea which will prove to be central to the phenomenon of the scientist-composer.  The figure of the scientist is placed on a pedestal, and regarded not only as one who works with laws of nature and the universe, but one who has the key to hidden truths, he becomes a mystical figure.

Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) developed Russolo’s idea of ‘noise-sounds’ and began to use sounds, not only from new technology and machinery but also from the surrounding environment.  He worked as a radio technician at the Radiodiffusion Française (RTF), which allowed him access to a wide range of broadcasting equipment, of which he used for experiments with music.  Schaeffer coined the term ‘sound objects’ to signify sounds that were distinct from their acoustic beginnings, sounds that were to be appreciated only within themselves, as seperate from their origin.  In 1952, Schaeffer redefined his idea of ‘sound objects’, he stated that they could be classified in terms of seven values of sounds: mass; dynamics; tone quality/timbre; melodic profile; profile of mass; grain; and pace.  Such an evalutation provides an almost scientific analysis, and presents Schaeffer as composer involved in the phenomenon.  Karlheinz Stockhausen was a leading German composer, whose electro-acoustic compositions and aesthetical writings display an innate scientific commitment.  Scientific agenda seemingly penetrated both his writings and compositions.  Stockhausen uses scientific theories to develop new ideas in music, such as his theory of micro-time and macro-time. His developments in music display scientific agenda, as the composer is captivated by astronomy and mathematics.  Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) worked as an architect as well as a composer and, as a result, the scientific element to his work inevitably refers to his mathematical training as an architect.  Xenakis uses the Fibonacci series to determine time structure in his work Metastaseis (1953/54).  The composer also developed Stochastic compositional techniques, a mathematical term applied to music which ‘is a theory of probability: that the results of chance will reach a determinate end’. An overview of the phenomenon reveals that science had advanced with musical consciousness as composers began to think of music and science as being interdisciplinary.

Franco-American composer, Edgard Varèse wrote and lectured about the ‘necessity of closer collaboration between composer and scientist’. His writings reveal that he viewed science and scientific discoveries as inspirational.  He stated
‘For me there is more musical fertility in the contemplation of the stars... and the high poetry of certain mathematical expositions than in the most sublime gossip of human passions’.
He regarded scientific research, such as that into astrology and mathematics, as innately more musically inspirational than any human emotion.  Here, one can see how Varèse can be considered to be a scientist-composer.  Through an analysis of his compositions and lecturers, a deeper understanding of his scientific commitment will be portrayed.  Like Stockhausen and Xenakis, Varèse created new theories in music which were scientific in nature; they employed scientific theories and terminology.  A central compositional idea for Varèse was his concept of ‘spatial projection’ of sound or music projected in space.  Varèse developed his theory of moving sound-masses and shifting planes, as he envisioned the new possibilities science could bring to music.  John D. Anderson, in his article, ‘Varèse and the Lyricism of New Physics’ presents his concept of spatial projection as a parallel to Einstein’s quantum theory.  He states that in 1905
‘Einstein augmented the quantum theory by hypothesizing the existence of photons, or travelling particles of light energy. Each photon was the energy equivalent of one quantum. Photons could travel through space for infinite distances but would remain undiminished in energy. A close parallel to the concept of the photon is Varese’s projection in space, in which sounds were conceived as entities capable of travelling infinite distances, undiminished in intensity’.[3]
Spatial projection of music was to the forefront of Varèse’s creative mind, particularly in his work for magnetic tape, Poème électronique (1957/58), a work commissioned by Philips Corporation which would be premiered at the Brussels World Fair in 1958.  Poème électronique was the only work in which Varèse truly achieved spatial projection of music, although his earlier works for conventional instruments must also be considered in terms of this concept. Varèse was. Poème électronique is a pivotal work of the twentieth century, as it ignited huge change in the compositional possibilities for composers. 

Has music developed so much in line with science that the scientific element has taken over? Or rather, is this the progression that music must take, to uncover sounds of our environment and the hidden world of which our ears know nothing about? 

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