STEM ARTS: MUSIC AND BIOLOGY

 

How does science inspire music, and vice versa? Emerging composer Fay Wang leads a musical ensemble in the premiere of a Hop-commissioned work created in collaboration with Dartmouth’s Department of Biological Sciences. This year, as Dartmouth microbiology scientists shared their view of life through a microscope, Wang created a work capturing the beauty and intricacy of the biologist’s world.

 

Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Question: What intrigued you about this project initially? What inspired you to come to Dartmouth for this commission?

 

Wang: Last summer I got the email from Margaret who introduced me to this project. This project, which was funded by the Mellon Foundation, was a chance for the Hopkins Center for the Arts to partner with the Dartmouth Biology Department to commission a new music work that integrates research the composer gains through several brief residencies at Dartmouth. The goal is to bring science students closer to a creative process and for them to better understand how a composer views the natural world. In terms of scientific content, the faculty are most interested in the idea of microbial evolution, including resistance to antibiotics. There is also an inherent drama of dying, rebounding, and resisting—a kind of a circle of resistance involving more and more tension. I’ve worked with filmmakers, playwrights and choreographers before, but never with scientists. My instinct just told me that I should do this project. Also I might have the OCD of doing challenging things that I haven’t done before. I wasn’t a very good science student back in high school, but biology was my favorite science course. I missed the smells of the lab and observing cells under microscopes. This project might sound boring and nerdy to others, but to me, it’s really exciting and I could tell that some of my musical concepts, languages and characteristics fit this project well.

 

 

Question: What have you learned from the researchers at Dartmouth? What parts of the research are most intriguing to you?

 

Wang: I’ve been meeting with biologists in both the biology department and medical school, and even some hospital staff. I noticed that even though every one of them had very specific area of research, everything was related and closely linked together. This means it is important to be accurate in every detail so you don’t give your colleagues bad data and affect their results. It’s kind of like how musicians work together: the composers start the ideas and write the pieces, performers practice their own parts, and eventually everyone gets together in rehearsal with a conductor who conveys the composer’s ideas and organizes the ensemble. The stakes are really different though - for musicians, if we give a bad performance we get negative feedback from our audience and critics, which might make us feel bad but is actually harmless from a practical point of view. But if scientists do a bad experiment or report inaccurate data, that could immediately and concretely impact human life in a negative way.

 

I saw a lot of research projects that really interested me, but I think the most impressive and special experience for me was the afternoon we visited the NICU in the hospital. Other meetings that we had were mostly in office rooms, classrooms and labs. But that particular one was in a real hospital where we observed some babies that were born extremely underweight or with some disease... I remember there was one tiny little kid that looked like a kitten entangled by tubes. I had never seen anything like that before, and it was definitely depressing in a way. But after having a conversation with Dr. Juliette Madan hearing about her work with these babies and her feelings when she has to watch her patients die, I was filled with admiration for these people who work so close to death. They have to deal with emotionally heavy stuff almost every day, but still manage to keep a good attitude about their lives and work.

 

 

Question: Tell us about your time spent at Dartmouth. What was memorable? What stands out as key moments that have helped you develop the piece? What was surprising?

 

Wang: Dartmouth is a great place - it’s a really pretty campus even though it’s in a little town, and I really like the faculty and staff. Everyone seems really nice, both in the Hopkins center and biology department. I also noticed that that you have an almost entirely female staff on this project, and wondered if maybe that was part of the reason that you guys chose me. Like the sciences, composition has a pretty bad gender imbalance.

 

Honestly pretty much everything was memorable and I got a really good vibe just going from place to place and talking to people. I was even invited to the actor Alan Alda’s workshop, which, even though it wasn’t a part of the project, was still quite useful and inspiring.The microbe lunch was another particularly interesting experience to me - I’ve never had so many kinds of cheese in my life. (China’s not a big cheese country) I felt like tasting microbes, or at least food made of microbes, was a really good way for students to realize that science is really everywhere in our daily lives, not just some abstract thing with no relationship to us. I think I said something like, “Now I have to let the ideas travel from my stomach to my brain, and then to my ears.” Dr. Almagro-Moreno was a very interesting and charismatic scientist. He’s not only a biologist but also a musician - he played flamenco guitar and he looked very artsy. He also had these stuffed microbes, which were adorable. 

 

 

As far as key moments in the development of the piece go, a couple things come to mind. The project’s very first meeting – where Dr. Olga Zhaxybayeva gave a presentation on the evolutionary process – got me thinking about how I could structure the piece from a timeline-based perspective. Another moment came when we visited Dr. Deborah Hogan’s lab, and she happened to show us some beautiful pictures that were captured from the microscope. They reminded me of the abstract indie short films that are accompanied by contemporary music, which I love. So I got thinking that these images could be an effective way of giving the audience another way to connect with the music. Finally, the previously mentioned visit to the NICU helped me further shape the structure of the piece based on the process of human life, from birth to death. In contrast to evolution, which is on a much larger timescale, human life is brief and intense, and also dramatic and emotional.

 

 

Question: Tell us about the piece as it stands now. What are the main ideas you're exploring? What can we expect to hear?

 

Wang: The piece will be presented from two different perspectives. One is "time", which is a storyline-based narration that relates to the evolution of human microbes. Olga and I had also discussed some ideas about the movements: in ancient times, how antibiotics were used as weapons in bacterial warfare; how humans, as big complex superorganisms, evolve in cooperation with microbial communities; human diseases and the suffering they cause; and finally, in modern times humans use antibiotics to fight pathogens. The other perspective is "space": this is about portraying the microbes' motions that might follow the visual work, not necessarily completely accurately, but with some crucial elements related. The two processes run concurrently and are introduced by the same materials.

 

 

Question: What do you want the audience to hear and experience when they come to the concert?

 

Wang: My music tends to use continuously changing instrumental combinations to create intense colors and gestures. I can’t guarantee that everyone will like it, (since it’s impossible to write a piece that everyone likes) but my hope is that the audience is never bored, and that even people with no musical knowledge can still feel the dramatic expressions, the complexities and the beauties of colors during the 15 minutes. In terms of staging, my original thought was setting the instruments up in the shape of a human body on stage, like some sort of art installation. But now I’m not sure - we’ll see what ends up working the best. Another idea that I think will end up in the final version is to have a few performers with movable instruments in different parts of the hall, maybe the back corners and the sides. They’ll gradually walk from offstage and gather onstage as the piece progresses. I’m also planning to perform a voice part in the piece, which the other instruments will follow. In a way, I’ll be like a conductor that holds the group together. Conceptually, having the musicians move onstage imitates the behavior of microbes, cells or bacteria. Some of them won’t move - as I saw in Salvador’s research, some bacteria stay in the intestine, while others move around quickly. But in any case it’s a direct and visual way of showing the audience how bacteria move around. Hopefully it will also make the audience feel more involved in the action “onstage”, since in a way the entire hall will be a stage, and the audience will hear sounds coming from many different directions.

 

 

Question: How has working with scientists affected you? In what ways has learning about the way scientists work affected your creative process?

 

Wang: Scientists are very patient! They deal with the same materials and same subjects everyday, and every experiment takes a very long time and a lot of work for only one result. But it’s very similar to how musicians develop a piece from small ideas, and eventually make them into a single complete work. In certain sections of the piece, I also want to use a recurring music subject, with very subtle differences each time, as a reflection of the scientists’ working process. This was partly inspired by our visit to the evolution lab, where Mr. Craig Layne showed us how they compared soil samples under different temperatures. So this idea of one recurring subject with slight differences will also one of the concepts that’s included in my piece.We also visited Dr. George O’Toole, Deborah’s husband, who talked to us about some big-picture things: the role of the researcher in society, how he works with students in his lab, and the history of microbial research. He compared microbes to five-year-olds: they might be quiet and shy when they are by themselves, but act differently when you put them all together in a group. Similarly, microbes behave differently in communities than they do on their own. He also compared the scientist’s way of approaching the world to the artist’s, saying that the best scientists are able to think analytically while still making intuitive moves.

 

 

Question: Why do you think it's important or interesting to make connections between music/the arts and science?

 

Wang: Nowadays, people talk about cross-genre all the time, not only between different musical genres, but also between different fields. In the contemporary classical music world, there are composers such as Pierre Boulez or Iannis Xenakis, who started out in mathematics and architecture, respectively, and use that that experience to structure their music. In the rock music world there’s also math rock. I can’t think of many examples of combining music with biology, but Bjork, one of my favorite artists, made an album called Biophilia, which involves many different musical languages, and connecting them to biology, cells, natural world etc. with various ways of expression. Microbiology is a more specific field since it includes two ideas: small and life. It is actually very good material for contemporary classical music to be based on, since we have room for music that doesn’t work in a traditional ways. Contemporary music can be about the concept: how you organize small, seemingly random materials into a art for the ears, and then letting the audience understand those sounds in their own ways. The sounds are tiny and can’t exist on their own: they’re like nothing. This is similar to microbes - on their own, they’re tiny, invisible organisms, but together they can make organs, or even a beautiful human body. I think that’s how microbiology relates to contemporary music.





“Monodrama of Old Haven” is being premiered by Yale musicians at Yale’s New Music New Haven concert.



Joined Doblinger Music publishing in Vienna; Became member of BMI society in the United States and AKM society in Europe.

 

“Pisces Monodrama – Selections of Works by Fay Wang” is being published in China by Tian Tian Culture & Art Co, Ltd

 

 

“Timid As A Mouse” for “loadbang”, a new music ensemble based in NYC, is premiered at The Tank in NYC.



“Awaken Flamingo” was premiered by Yale musicians at New Music New Haven concert.



Co-written Yale School of Music project - Gospel Musical “Broken Chains”

 

“EOS - Empyreal OasiS”, a commission for China’s EOS orchestra, was premiered in Beijing Concert Hall for the 5 year celebration of EOS. The concert also presented Mahler’s Symphony NO.9

 

Gave a lecture entitled “New Characterism In My Music” at the composer forum held by the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra in Taichung



“Diary of A Female Warrior” is premiered at the Thailand international composition festival in Bangkok, and also performed at the “NewEar” concert in Kansas City



“Ching Cheng” for Chinese Chamber Ensemble, commissioned by “New Chinese Music Project”, performed at Beijing Chamber Music Festival



Co-written a major dance drama “Red Boat”, commissioned by Beijing Dance Academy, premiered at Peking University Centennial Auditorium



Performed composer Andy Akiho’s “No One To Know One” for Double CD Release Concert at the Gershwin Hotel in NYC

 

“Melting Clock” for string quartet was performed by ensemble De Reihe at the grand concert hall of ORF Austrian National Broadcast



“Melting Clock” was selected to be performed in “Crosslink” Concert Tour in Switzerland by Galatea Quartett. Lecture was given on the piece at the composer’s seminar

 

Performing at the Steinway-John Lennon “Imagine”, limited edition piano launch event at InterContinental Hotels Shanghai

 

 

“Pisces Monodrama” (vocals-Fay Wang), performance at the Opening Concert of the Third Beijing Chamber Music Festival where it was well received



Performed “As in a Dream” for soprano and Zheng by composer Chen Yi in Kansas City



“Friedrich’s Somniloquy” was commissioned by the Classic Euro Young Festival, performed in the Shanghai Expo Concert Series, Shanghai Concert Hall



“Friedrich’s Somniloquy” for full orchestra was performed by the RIAS Youth Orchestra in Berlin, conducted by Gerd Albrecht

 

Received “The Ezra Laderman Prize”- for the best composition written for musical theater or voice at the Yale School of Music Honors Dinner

 

 

“Red Cheongsam @ Midnight” received Honorable Mention at the 2010 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composers Awards

 

 

“Yaf’s Monodrama” for voice, tape and mixed ensemble was performed at Yale School of Music Sprague Hall. Conducted by composer Samuel Adams.

 

 

Sung and performed in “NO one To kNOW one” by Andy Akiho at Yale School of Music Sprague Hall. Later recorded on Andy Akiho’s album. 

 

“Pisces Monodrama” was performed at Yale School of Music Sprague Hall 



“Pisces Monodrama” and “Yaf’s Monodrama” were broadcasted in “Music for Internets” program

 

 

“Red Cheongsam @ Midnight” was performed at Yale School of Music Woolsey Hall



“Melting Clock” was performed in the Second Beijing Chamber Music Festival.



“Drunken Cat In the Ancient City Wall”, commissioned by ensemble DIE REIHE, performed at Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna and broadcasted by Austrian National Broadcast ORF Radio.

 

As the composer and lead singer, she performed at Home of Jazz concert hall in Lincoln Center with her group “YXM”, which consists of musicians from Yale – violinist Xi Chen, cellist Mo Mo and pianist Jian Liu.

 

 

“Mystery of JD”- music for short film, commissioned by “Yale School of Music, Music in Schools Initiative” program. Recorded at Sprague Hall and performed in New Haven.



“Melting Clock” was performed in the “New Music New Haven” concert.



Served on the jury for “Chinese singer competition” held by the ACSSY

 

As the composer and lead singer with the group “YXM”, we performed mini musical drama “Encounter of Sounds” in Yale Chinese Culture Night concert at Woolsey Hall.