How Science Influences Modern Music

How Science Influences Modern Music

JULIAN FALCO

On the third floor of the Norman Hackerman Building, Dr. Harris and her team are working to visualize the brain in all of its beauty and complexity. Her lab deals with synaptic plasticity and focuses on the hippocampus: specifically, its role in the creation of memories and emotion. With cutting-edge hardware and software (and lots of hard work), they create stunning 3D visualizations of synapses dotted along dendrites and use these models to understand how the brain works and changes over time. Studying these connecting points in the brain could provide insight on how this synaptic plasticity is involved in the creation of our long-term memories.

The work done in this lab has captured the attention of many, both involved in science and otherwise. It has captivated one person in particular: Austin-based composer-bandleader-improviser Graham Reynolds. Called “the quintessential modern composer,” Reynolds writes music for a multitude of styles and art forms, ranging from film music, theater, and rock clubs, and has been heard throughout the world. He is the Artistic Director of the non-profit Golden Hornet, an organization that commissions new music and fosters the eclectic styles of rising composers. His adventurous and innovative style of music goes well with the powerful theme of discovery in the Harris lab. Dr. Harris and Reynolds happened to meet over dinner at an Austin Chamber Music concert.

As part of Golden Hornet, Reynolds curated The Sound of Science, a concert album dedicated to the expression of scientific ideas in the language of music. The album, written for amplified cello and electronics, features world-renowned cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, who has played in the Kronos Quartet and been a cellist for renowned composers like Philip Glass. The first piece in the concert album, titled The Brain, is written by Reynolds and was directly inspired by the work done in the Harris lab. They worked closely together, with Reynolds often visiting the lab. The music video, which can be seen here, features visuals like a simulated neurotransmitter release, a reconstruction of synapses along a dendrite, overlaying folds of the brain, and the process by which the brain is examined and the visuals created.

“I want it to convey not only the beauty of the science, but also the process of gathering it,” said Dr. Harris when she was discussing the music. “I love that part of feeling the tension of the process… He really captured it.”

Dr. Harris’s study of memory in the brain is actually influenced by her previous music experience. She was exposed to the tradition of performers memorizing music, a tradition that again came to her attention when a teacher in the music department at UT asked her how memory works in the brain; the teacher ended up studying neuroscience in order to better help his students with music memorization.

“I can’t even imagine having that much repertoire in your brain, if the brain even works like that,” said Dr. Harris. Her interactions with the arts prove that the dynamic connections formed between artists and scientists, just like synapses in the brain, tie together ideas from wide-reaching fields and create beautiful masterpieces.

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