Music and Science Connection

If we take a (very) broad, retrospective look at things, music has been interwoven with the sciences – nay information – since its inception. From Pythagorean and other tuning systems to the particular mechanics of individual instruments, to the emergence of audio technology – the world of music is essentially a world of information bathed in sound.

Thanks to more recent studies in neuroscience, we’ve learned that music affects our consciousness, cognition, and other mental processes in ways that not only define how we listen but also (often) trigger our most primal and instinctive reactions and emotions. These phenomena are documented in studies, numerous books (such as Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain), and fascinating articles, such as this one featured in a recent New York Times ‘Sunday Review’ of The Opinion Pages. Yes, information is inherent in music, and that information tends to manifest itself in ultra-unique ways.

Composers have long been familiar with these connections (if only subconsciously), but only in the 20th century did they start outwardly exploring them (and their potential) in terms of musical material. More recently in the musical world, the data-driven sciences (e.g., probability and statistics, applied mathematics, analytics, psychology, economics, etc.) have taken hold, being given new form and new meaning through composition.

In the last few decades, there seems to have been somewhat of a “surge” in composers and sound artists deriving entire pieces of music from (specific pieces of) information, information theory, and/or raw data sets. While some composers focus on theoretical or philosophical aspects, others are concerned with hard evidence. Fascinatingly, but not surprisingly, certain composers of late have become interested in the data itself (lists of facts, figures, percentages, rankings, and charts) and have tasked themselves with giving sound and musical shape to these seemingly sterile, systematic findings.

Music—indeed life itself—is evolutionary. It goes without saying that a myriad of factors ultimately contributed to more intrepid styles of “classical” music. Nonetheless, I’m of the persuasion that the Futurist movement of the early 20th century somehow helped pave the way for future composers with a “bent” for what we now conveniently refer to as STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Futurism—the artistic and social movement that originated in Italy ca. 1909—embraced with abandon contemporary concepts of the future; its aim was to emphasize dynamic force and motion in industrial society.[1] The Futurists “admired speed, technology, youth and violence, the car, the airplane, and the industrial city—all that represented the technological triumph of humanity over nature…

They repudiated the cult of the past and all imitation, praised originality (‘however daring, however violent’), bore proudly ‘the smear of madness’, dismissed art critics as useless, rebelled against harmony and good taste, swept away all the themes and subjects of all previous art, and gloried in science.”[2] In music, this meant all kinds of noise—thunderous explosions, piercing whistles, and rude chugs. Special instruments known as intonarumori (“noise machines”) were developed and used in performances by Luigi Russolo (1883-1947), the Italian Futurist painter, composer, and author of the influential manifesto on 20th-century musical aesthetics, The Art of Noises (1913). Although all intonarumori were destroyed during WWI, and the Futurist movement itself had faded in tandem with the end of the war (1918), the recorded history of Futurism and the memory of its artifacts made a lasting impression on future generations of composers.

[1] The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford Music Online, s.v. “Futurism.”
[2] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Futurism.”

Among the first to acknowledge this influence was Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), the innovative French-born composer who, through his use of new instruments and exploration of electronic resources, came to be known by many as the “Father of Electronic Music.” His piece Poème électronique for electronic tape (1957-58) was written for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, premiered inside the Philips Pavilion (a design by Le Corbusier commissioned by the Philips Corporation, intended to showcase the company’s engineering progress) and broadcast on what has been estimated to be around 350 speakers. The speakers were fixed to the interior walls of the pavilion, which were then coated in asbestos (yay!).

The asbestos hardened the walls, creating a cavernous acoustic space of white clusters and irregular, craggy bumps and crevices. Ultimately, sound projectionists controlled the speakers via a series of rotary telephone dials; each dial could turn on five speakers at a time, out of a bank of 12. And here’s an interesting bit of trivia: As visitors entered and exited the Philips pavilion, they heard the projection of another musical work – Concret PH (‘Concret’ referring to reinforced concrete as well as musique concrète, and ‘PH’ referring to paraboloïdes hyperboliques or “hyperbolic paraboloids”) by a young Iannis Xenakis, who was Le Corbusier’s assistant at the time.

Long before the World’s Fair installation, however, Varèse had already established a penchant for highlighting scientific ideas in his music, as in Density 21.5 (1936), which refers to the density of platinum (close to 21.5 grams per cubic centimeter) and more specifically to the platinum flute of Georges Barrère, for whom the piece was written. Along similar (titular) lines, Varèse’s Ionisation (1929-1931) for 13 percussion players features the expansion and diminution of rhythmic cells, its title and structure referring to the ionization of molecules.

It was around this same time that the composer publicly acknowledged the influence of the Italian Futurist artists Luigi Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), particularly in the composition of Ionisation.[1] Years later, in a 1965 interview with composer Gunther Schuller, Varèse stated that he was “… not influenced by composers as much as by natural objects and physical phenomena. As a child, [I]… was tremendously impressed by the qualities and character of the granite I found in Burgundy, where I often visited my grandfather… So I was always in touch with things of stone and with this kind of pure structural architecture…”[2]

[1] Mark A. Radice, “‘Futurismo’: Its Origins, Context, Repertory, and Influence,” The Musical Quarterly 73, no. 1 (1989): 13-14.
[2] Robert Erickson, Sound Structure in Music (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), 49.

As technical knowledge began to expand further with the progression of the 20th century, this fascination with the natural and physical sciences (and, more broadly, an awareness of modernity and change over time) became increasingly prevalent among younger generations of composers, many of whom have cited (or whose music strongly suggests) Edgard Varèse as a primary influence. On the periphery of this influence stand a few of Varèse’s contemporaries—innovative composers in their own right – such as Henry Cowell (1897-1965) and George Antheil (1900)-1959), both of whom were experimenting with timbre, rhythm and harmony in strikingly different yet equally adventurous ways. Antheil, in particular, was profoundly influenced by the Futurist movement, evidenced by several technology-based works such as his Second Sonata (subtitled “The Airplane”) for solo piano (1921), the Third Sonata (“Death of Machines”), “Mechanisms” (both ca. 1923), and perhaps his best-known work, Ballet Mécanique (1923-24).

Like Ionisation, the Ballet Mécanique is comprised of both percussion and noise instruments, calling for an ensemble “… consisting of three xylophones, four bass drums, a tam-tam, three airplane propellers, seven electric bells, a siren, two ‘live pianists,’ and sixteen synchronized player pianos.”[1] Antheil’s piece was the first to pair machines with human players and the first to exploit the difference between what machines and humans could play. Throughout their careers, Varèse, Antheil, and Cowell were each dealing with a liberation of sound and widening the view of spatial-temporal relationships.

From this cadre eventually sprung the musical mindsets and outputs of such seminal voices as: John Cage (1912-1992), who hardly needs an introduction here; Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), who, like his father, was a mathematician; Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), the Greek composer, music theorist, and architect-engineer who pioneered the use of mathematical models in music (i.e., applications of set theory, stochastic processes, and game theory); Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), the highly influential (and radical!) German composer who, for more than two years, studied phonetics, acoustics, and information theory with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn;[2] and Frank Zappa (1940-1993), the quirkily brilliant rock musician (a self-taught composer-guitarist, recording engineer, record producer, and film director whose musical hero growing up was none other than Edgard Varèse).


[1] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Futurism.”
[2] Michael Kurtz, Stockhausen: A Biography, trans. Richard Toop (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1992), 68-72.

So, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the outreach of Varèse’s influence is pretty damn wide. However, none of the composers mentioned above studied with Varèse directly. Among his notable students was an American composer, pianist, and music theorist named James Tenney (1934-2006), who studied not only with Varèse but also with Carl Ruggles (1876-1971), Harry Partch (1901-1974), and John Cage, all three of whom can be directly linked to Henry Cowell. Tenney also studied information theory under composer Lejaren Hiller (1924-1994), who incidentally was a student of Milton Babbitt. During the late 1960s, Tenney performed with the ensembles of Steve Reich (b. 1936), Philip Glass (b. 1937), and Terry Riley (b. 1935); he was one of the four original performers of the rarely heard Steve Reich piece Pendulum Music (which premiered on May 27, 1969, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York), and also performed on Terry Riley’s 1968 album, In C. Among a host of musical friends and figures, Tenney also hung around with the likes of George Brecht (1926-2008), a conceptual artist and avant-garde composer, as well as a professional chemist who worked as a consultant for companies including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Mobil Oil.

Tenney’s work largely deals with the perception of sound, typically through micro-tunings or pure (or just) intonation, as well as stochastic elements, information theory, and what he referred to as “swell,” which is essentially arch form. His music from 1961-64 consists primarily of computer music, now probably one of the earliest significant bodies of such work in existence. After 1964, the majority of Tenney’s pieces are instrumental, often for unconventional combinations of instruments (such as 1985’s Changes, for six harps tuned a sixth of a tone apart) or for variable instrumentation, such as Critical Band (1988)—a supremely weird and wonderful piece in which a single, straight tone slowly and quietly fans out (over 17 minutes) until it becomes a blaring, brazenly warped major triad that steadily dies away.

Tenney seems to have been fascinated by the subtlest, smallest, and minutest differences in a piece of music; this would certainly speak to his interests in microtonality and alternate tuning systems. As his second wife, Lauren Pratt, revealed in a documentary interview about her late husband’s work, “… Jim would do things like buy every copy out there [of performance] of [John Cage’s] Sonatas and Interludes and compare movement lengths … and compare the different performances in a very, kind of, data-analytical way …” As might be expected, James Tenney was an influential pedagogue, as well, holding teaching positions at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the University of California, CalArts, and York University in Toronto. Pratt recalls that Tenney “…assigned [historic] chronicles to his students, in order for them to understand the context of musical events—not just the musical events happening in a vacuum, but what was going on in the culture at the same time…”

His students include John Luther Adams (b. 1953) and Larry Polansky (b. 1954), a founding member and co-director of Frog Peak Music (a composers’ collective), who, by the way, happens to be a well-known regular at the MLA annual meetings! I had the privilege of speaking to Larry for a few minutes this past February in San José, and have to say he’s a super cool, super interesting guy—look for Frog Peak’s exhibit table at next year’s meeting in Atlanta!

These days, keeping track of composer lineage (which is to say nothing of following “new music” as a whole) is excitingly (and frustratingly) harder to track than ever before; there are more who call themselves “composers” now than even, say, 10 or 20 years ago. Many of us belonging to Generation Y have already recognized the change; in some ways, it’s been “the story of our lives.” Much like library and information sciences, the field of classical music today is going through a paradigm shift. Both of these fields are built upon foundations which have rarely, if ever, been stationary—they are professions which have historically thrived and grown during times of great change.

We are experiencing one of those right now, and I for one feel we have much to gain in thoughtfully and respectfully challenging the established traditions and practices in both realms. The time has come, not to “rock the boat,” per se (although, I’ll admit—it’s kind of fun), but to essentially promote growth (individual and institutional) as well as (perhaps more importantly) currency and relevance—concerns that are at the forefront of even the most uptight, old-fashioned librarian’s mind. If not now—when?