Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Music / March 4, 2010

Blending music and philosophy

September 17, 2009, whether he knew it or not, artist and producer John Boswell started a phenomenon. His original concept was simple enough: as a lover of scientific philosophy and music, he sought to bring the former to the latter.

Thus was born the Symphony of Science. Unlike previous acts which explicitly wrote songs about science, Boswell decided to take a different route. His experience with auto-tuning software and apparent stockpile of episodes of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” found him clipping and editing sound bites from speeches and presentations given by a wide variety of scientists.

The first result was “A Glorious Dawn” featuring Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. It opens with a segment from Cosmos – Carl Sagan doing his best to imitate the song of a whale. This begins to loop and is absorbed by the soft, enveloping keyboard composition.

The auto-tuning kicks in shortly thereafter. At first impression, the sound of regular speech forced into a semblance of melody is a bit awkward, but one can quickly become accustomed to the style; it blends well with the electronic composition.

Some of the phrases included are quite long and can sound clumsy, but these inelegancies can be forgiven in light of the chorus.

“A still more glorious dawn awaits,” Sagan proclaims. “Not a sunrise, but a galaxy-rise; a morning filled with 400 billion suns – the rising of the Milky Way.”

Sagan’s naturally rhythmic delivery of the phrase, combined with Boswell’s expert auto-tuner manipulation and keyboard arrangement, creates a catchy, memorable and almost poignant chorus.

It inspires thoughts of cosmic exploration and child-like wonder at the mysteries of the universe. So successful was this first endeavor that Boswell was able to release “A Glorious Dawn” on Jack White’s Third Man record label and release the song on iTunes to much acclaim.

If evoking this sense of awe and wonder is what Boswell intends, then he succeeds at his task mightily, for in each of the current five songs he has created his subdued compositions work in tandem with his choice of scientific lecturing.

Where “A Glorious Dawn” explored topics about the formation and state of the universe, its follow-up piece, “We Are All Connected,” dwells on humanity and our relationship to the cosmos. Featuring the late, great Richard Feynman, Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and even Bill Nye, the piece shows Boswell’s growing experience with his methods.

The song feels less clumsy; no longer are the lines long and sometimes complex thoughts, but shorter, easily digestible thoughts.

It does not necessarily have hard scientific fact but is filled with profound-sounding scientific philosophy, and it sounds all the more powerful when it is set to music. The strength again lies in the chorus, again by Sagan.

“The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together. The cosmos are also within us; we are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” he announces.

Because the lyrical styling is so atypical (in that they are not really lyrics at all), it sticks in the mind.

The thoughts these songs inspire are fascinating, awe-inspiring, and simply incredible. For the lover of science, they can remind one of why the field is a worthwhile undertaking; even for someone who doesn’t necessarily know much about the field, these works can serve as an excellent jumping-off point for learning and inquiry.

Boswell’s efforts to popularize science are taking excellent shape in this project and are worth a look for anyone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch “The Universe” on the History Channel.

Dan Dyrda

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