Science/Music Commissioning Project

“Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it.” — Richard Feynman, American physicist (1918–1988)

We are actively creating new music for voice and guitar through our Science/Music Commissioning Project, which seeks to further public understanding and appreciation of science by exploring the process of scientific discovery, celebrating the insights of a science-informed worldview, and illuminating the human side of science through song.

Image by Madeline Sturm

Science has not traditionally been a subject or source of inspiration for song. While science increasingly affects how we view ourselves, the world, and our place in it, many aspects of science remain poorly understood by the general public. Many view science with suspicion, and most have little appreciation for how science is done or what the process of scientific discovery is like.

But science is a human endeavor and, as such, is worthy of exploration through the dramatic, emotional medium of song. Moreover, the insights of science — evolution, quantum theory, the Big Bang, the structure of DNA, and so on — are beautiful, inspiring, and worth celebrating. We hope through this project to create music that will convey the beauty of science and illuminate the human side of the scientific enterprise.

The Project’s first commission, Abyss of the Stars: A Mass for Voice and Guitar, was written by noted composer Terry Champlin, faculty member at Mannes College of Music and Vassar College. The piece sets texts by renowned scientists Albert Einstein, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Richard Feynman in the context of the traditional mass. The juxtaposition of these texts alongside the Latin words of the mass highlights the sense of wonder and celebration that accompanies the scientific understanding of physical laws, human origins, and the evolution of the cosmos.

The second piece, Scientiphilicity, was written by harpsichordist, organist and composer Thomas Donahue. The first two movements uses texts by several famous scientists, including Einstein, Bohr, and Curie. The third and final movement is a setting of a poem by Mr. Donahue, based on the writings of Jacob Bronowski. The texts provide insight into what doing science entails, and draw parallels between art and science.

The Project’s third piece was composed by Frank Wallace, a prolific composer of music for voice and guitar, who performs as guitarist and singer with Duo LiveOak. The six-movement song cycle, entitled Men, Women and Molecules, sets poems by Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at Cornell University. The poems explore life, love, and human relationships with insight and humor, from the unique perspective of a scientist.

Since both of us come from science backgrounds — we have straddled the arts and the sciences for many years — we are excited about this project that combines both of these worlds. John earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked in academic, biotech and pharma research environments for the past twenty years. Throughout that time, he has also been active as a musician, performing frequently in solo and ensemble settings. Currently, he leads a research group using genomics-based approaches to drug discovery while maintaining an active performing career and serving as President of the New York City Classical Guitar Society.

Gioia earned an M.S. in Mathematics from M.I.T. She has taught mathematics at Harvard University and published original mathematical research. She now works as an actress and singer, and recently premiered her one-woman show Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze, an autobiographical story of her past life as a mathematician.

Together, as the Olson/De Cari Duo, we released our debut recording in 2006. The CD, Quiet Songs, includes the world-premiere recording of David Lesiner’s song cycle Outdoor Shadows as well as the first American recordings of John W. Duarte’s Five Quiet Songs and his arrangements of Gershwin standards. According to Urban Guitar, “fresh interpretations … make this a CD worth listening to.”

Works from the Science/Music Commissioning Project

Abyss of the Stars: A Mass for Voice and Guitar by Terry Champlin
Scientiphilicity by Thomas Donahue
Men, Women and Molecules by Frank Wallace
Orbit by J. Andrew Dickenson