How Does Science Sound? UNC's Festival on the Hill Has Some Answers. | Music Feature | Indy Week
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How Does Science Sound? UNC's Festival on the Hill Has Some Answers. 

Acoustic Research

Composer, professor, curator, de facto scientist: Lee Weisert

Photo by Alex Boerner

Composer, professor, curator, de facto scientist: Lee Weisert

In 1893, physicist and amateur musician Max Planck, who would go on to pioneer quantum physics, made his first and only foray into musical analysis. In a paper, he argued that a chord progression in Heinrich Schütz's choral work So far ich hin zu Jesu Christ went out of tune because of subtle, unconscious changes by singers attempting to make it sound "better." He devised an experiment to test this, but the results didn't confirm his theory.

This incident, as told by the interdisciplinary researcher Peter Pesic, made Planck more attuned to empirical reality. It nudged him from absolute adherence to abstract principles and paved the way for his discovery of quantum physics, the theory that changed our understanding of the universe.

This weekend's Festival on the Hill, which stretches through the weekend at UNC-Chapel Hill, grapples with these interesting, unexpected interactions between music and science. Launched in 2002 by the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Music, this biennial festival fosters discussion between scholars, composers, and performers around a given theme, from Black Mountain College to "Revisions and Rethinkings," which looked at music that exists in multiple versions by the same composer.

This year's theme, "Music, Science, & Nature," stems from the work of UNC composition professor Lee Weisert.

"I've had a long interest in composers whose music has walked this line, as well as using scientific and natural concepts in my own music," says Weisert, who has experimented with cutting-edge motion analysis and the sound of ice thawing in his own music. "And that's where the idea for the festival came from."

The theme's breadth will allow for a wide range of topics for lectures, concerts, panel discussions, sound installations, and scientific demonstrations. On the scholarly side, Pesic will deliver a keynote titled "Music and the Making of Modern Science." In other presentations, composers will discuss the use of algorithms in music, scientists will discuss sound perception, and musicologists will analyze the racial politics of UNC's sonic environments.

The anchor, though, is a Sunday afternoon performance of John Luther Adams's massive Sila: The Breath of the World. Written in 2014, Sila is the latest in the Pulitzer Prize winner's string of works meant to be performed outside. "The challenge," Adams has said, "is finding the music of the piece within the larger, never-ending music of the place."

The piece is incredibly open; there are five separate scores—one for strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and vocalists—that can be played in any combination or any order, simultaneously or sequentially, in one space or many. The players pace their sounds by the length of a long exhalation, with silences being the length of an inhalation.

Members of the UNC Symphony Orchestra, the Wind Ensemble, and Carolina Chamber Singers will scatter about McCorkle Place, the open grove near Franklin Street, to create clouds of musical color. As an audience member, you control your experience by walking among the players, finding the timbres that speak to you. The sounds of nature and the Chapel Hill surroundings will seep in unpredictably. During the premiere at Lincoln Center in New York City, a police siren blended perfectly with billowing chords.

The other concerts will be relatively more traditional but intriguing nevertheless. After Friday's keynote, a group of mostly pianists will offer impressionist views of nature. Debussy's and Ravel's hallucinatory visions of water bump into Olivier Messiaen's ecstatic birdsongs. On Sunday evening, the UNC Faculty Jazz Ensemble will play jazz tunes about science and nature—Charlie Parker's "Ornithology," Charles Mingus's "Pithecanthropus Erectus," Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile."

Saturday's concert gets literal with the science-and-sound connection through a series of works built on field recordings or demonstrations of physical properties. Using different interpretations of the overtone series "Spectra for Harry Partch," written by Weisert's late mentor, James Tenney, results in a wall of drones with a string quintet. An Alvin Lucier piece routes "Strawberry Fields Forever" through a teapot to demonstrate acoustic principles. For Cricket Voice, Hildegard Westerkamp recorded one especially vocal cricket in northern Mexico and manipulated the results. And The Audible Phylogeny of Lemurs is an immersive work for eight-channel electronics, which parses the complex vocalizations of the animals at the Duke Lemur Center.

"Some of the pieces are probably more provocative than any kind of noisy, hyper-aggressive, screeching piece," Weisert says. "There's a humanist, expressive quality to aggressive, abrasive, in-your-face music, but people can find it more troubling if you find out someone's rolling dice to write the pitches. John Cage is a great example. For the Etudes Australes [part of Saturday night's concert], he put a star chart on some staff paper and put dots where the stars are. What does that mean?"

This article appeared in print with the headline "Acoustic Research"

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