Performance to mix biology, music

by Margarette Nelson | 4/29/14 5:22pm

The processes of microbial evolution, for many, would not inspire art. Yet this is precisely what composer Fay Kueen Wang used to create “STEM Arts: Music and Biology,” a composition she will perform tonight in the Oopik Auditorium in the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center.

Commissioned by the Hopkins Center with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Wang has composed a piece bridging the oft-persistent gap between science and the arts. The grant also funded last year’s commissioning of an opera about inventor Nikola Tesla in conjunction with the Thayer School of Engineering.

Last April, shortly after the success of the Tesla project, Hop programming director Margaret Lawrence reached out to biology professor and department chair Elizabeth Smith about collaborating, Smith said. Over the summer, Lawrence identified Wang as someone who could carry out this collaborative project.

Wang said that the novel nature of the project drew her to accept.

“I thought it could have a lot of space and a lot of potential,” she said.

Wang, who studied at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music and Yale University’s School of Music, is currently a DMA candidate at Boston University. She began composing formally in high school and said she seeks to work with various styles.

“I don’t just write the same music over and over again,” Wang said.

Her three-movement “Monodrama Series,” for example, “combines all kinds of musical genres and musical languages,” she said. Composed at Yale, the piece served as a ”key point” in her career, she said.

For this project, Lawrence said Wang made several visits to Dartmouth, each spanning about two days. Wang visited several biology classes and spoke with biology and Geisel School of Medicine professors to learn more about the field.

A visit to the neonatal care wing proved to be “a really memorable moment” for Wang, who saw how cell resistance affects newborn babies with disease.

Ultimately, Wang narrowed in on the field of microbial evolution for her composition.

Biology and computer science professor Olga Zhaxybayeva, a microbiology specialist who spent time with Wang during her visits, said she recognized the artistic potential of microbiology.

“In a lot of ways, any of these dynamic processes could be implemented in music,” Zhaxybayeva said. “We can tell a lot of stories about bacterial communities.”

Wang noted that this project was unlike any other that she had completed.

“I work with filmmakers and choreographers and writers,” Wang said, “but I’ve never worked with a scientist.”

The project allowed Wang to explore different approaches as a composer and a musician. Whereas her previous compositions were fully notated, for this piece, only the pitch is predetermined, the timing and rhythm of each note left to the discretion of the performer.

To form a chord, performers will play their note as they hear one another, Wang said. She likened this to a biological process in which a trigger cascades a number of other signals and mechanisms.

The musicians in Wang’s ensemble will play on electric guitars, electric keyboards, drums and pianos. Wang, who is both a conductor and a vocalist, also hinted at the possibility of a spoken word component to the performance.

The biology department, Lawrence said, understood how arts could both “enrich the experiences of their students” and assist “their faculty [in telling the] stories they were trying to tell.”

Lawrence said that Smith was very engaged in the 2012-13 Year of the Arts at the College.

Smith served on a panel about the incorporation of arts into science, technology, engineering and mathematics at an October 2012 New Hampshire arts and education conference. Arts and science, she said, are not mutually exclusive.

“It’s like cross-training,” Smith said. “They use totally different sides of your brain, but exercising one part of your brain helps the other part of your brain.”

In different ways, both artists and scientists serve as observers of the natural world and require creativity and pattern recognition, Smith said. Artists are interpreting what they see, while scientists form hypotheses, she said.

Lawrence said she hopes that more collaboration between the Hop and non-arts departments will follow.

“We want to see how many non-arts departments we can partner with in very deep ways,” she said.

Wang will perform tonight at 6:30 p.m.