The Collision of Science, Music and Theater: John Olson and Gioia De Cari

What happens when you put a scientist, mathematician, classical guitarist, playwright, organist, actress, teacher, vocalist and two MIT graduate degrees together in a blender?  You get the remarkably talented Olson/De Cari duo.  (Yes, duo as in only two people have accomplished all of that…) Combining their love of science and music, the husband and wife team launched the Science/Music Commissioning Project which seeks to advance public understanding and appreciation of science through original music compositions.

Despite their hectic schedules, John Olson and Gioia De Cari were kind enough to explain why they started the Science/Music Commissioning Project, what role science played in their career development and how they balance living the equivalent of eight different lives!

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BenchFly: Are there commonalities in the influences that drew you to science and music?

John: I think the influences that initially drew me to each were pretty separate. Growing up, I was always attracted to math and science, and as I grew older it just seemed a natural fit for me. I really couldn’t imagine not majoring in a scientific discipline, or not continuing on for a Ph.D. Music felt less like a natural fit, but the sound of the classical guitar, especially as I heard it on recordings by great artists like Andres Segovia and John Williams, drew me into the world of the instrument, and from there I became more interested and serious about music itself. The two started to come together for me through one book that I recall crystallizing a lot of things for me regarding both science and music. That book was Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I read it in college when it first came out, and it portrayed a marvelous, complex unity between art and science that I found tremendously attractive. Hofstadter very creatively synthesized a lot of intellectual areas, among them music, mathematics, computers, and even molecular biology, and made me want to delve further into each.

Gioia: I’m drawn, mainly, to things theatrical, which really don’t seem to go with science!

In the process of obtaining your graduate degrees, did music work synergistically with the creative scientific process, or did you view it as an unrelated hobby — an escape from a long day in the lab?

John: At the time, it was mostly a creative outlet. I’m sure it didn’t hurt (other than the time it took me away from the lab…), but I wasn’t aware of it directly helping the scientific process for me.

Gioia: I had a bizarre graduate school experience where pretty much everything that could go wrong did, which of course has made for good comedy for my solo show, Truth Values. At that time, I started using music and theater, which I loved, as a reward for doing my math research, which I despised. It worked out extremely well, actually, because it allowed me to rather quickly solve a problem my advisor posed to me that he had been working on for ten years.

You’ve started the “Science/Music Commissioning Project” in part to demystify science in the public’s eye. What motivated you to start the project?

John: We hit on the idea when we were looking for appropriate themes for new music we were trying to interest composers in writing for our duo. It struck us that a lot of scientific discoveries had elements of beauty, emotion and drama — the very things music is so good at conveying. We realized that science is an area that has been pretty unexplored as a source for musical inspiration. Given our backgrounds, we felt we were in a good position to foster the creation of new music that would draw on science in one way or another. So we started the project, and have discovered that a lot of composers find it to be an exciting idea.

You have stated that “many aspects of science remain poorly understood by the general public.” Are there any factors you would highlight as major contributors to the problem?

John: I think one of the biggest factors is fear: fear of what it means to accept concepts like evolution, the Big Bang, and so on. A lot of people seem terrified, not so much by what science may do, but by what scientific concepts would mean to their own lives and beliefs, if they were to accept them. That fear both comes from and contributes to the lack of understanding of so many aspects of science, from how it is done to what it has discovered. It’s hard to fight that fear, but hopefully the arts, including some of the music in our project, by celebrating — not explaining, but simply celebrating — concepts like the evolution of the cosmos, can help in some small way.

How do you see the Commissioning Project moving forward?

John: Right now we have two beautiful song cycles written for us. The first was Terry Champlin’s Abyss of the Stars: A Mass for Voice and Guitar, which uses texts by famous scientists such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman alongside the text of the traditional Latin Mass. The piece ingeniously uses that juxtaposition to heighten the sense of wonder that comes from contemplating some of the big ideas of science, from physical laws to human origins.

The second piece was written by Thomas Donahue, and is called Scientiphilicity, a made-up word meant to convey love of science. Tom also drew on historical writings, but also crafted some of his own, to create texts that illuminate how scientists think and what type of thinking is important to being a scientist.

We just received the music for our third piece, and, and we’re very excited about it. The composer is Frank Wallace, who is himself a wonderful guitarist and singer. The texts he set to music are by Roald Hoffmann, the Nobel-prizewinning chemist at Cornell who is also a very fine poet and playwright. A lot of his poetry uses science in interesting ways, and the pieces we and Frank chose for this piece make wonderful insights about people and relationships, but from the unique perspective of a scientist. They make for poems that are interesting and unusual, sometimes amusing, but always touching and insightful, and that give a glimpse into the mind of a great scientist.

Eventually, we’d like to have a full concert worth of material and something we can devote a new recording to.

Do you feel the importance of creativity in science is fully realized (or appreciated) by scientists themselves?

John: I think most scientists appreciate the creativity involved in a paradigm-changing or completely novel discovery, or even in a really good paper or seminar. What is probably less appreciated is the importance of creativity in day-to-day work. How to really be creative on an ongoing basis in science is, unfortunately, pretty elusive for most of us.

As graduate students, did you see your career path unfolding as it has so far?

John: I’m not sure how far ahead I was really looking at the time, but my career has progressed along pretty standard lines — grad school to post-doc to career in biotech and pharma.

Gioia: Not at all. I simply got to the point where I knew I must leave math, and so I did. If you had told me then that I would end up a professional performing artist, I would have been astounded. Even more surprising are the high-level people, organizations and media outlets interested in science that I never imagined I’d connect with as a student, that now are contacting me because of my solo show.

Science and music will always take everything you have and more. There’s always another experiment to be set up or another song to write. With so much going on in your lives, how do you find time to balance science, music, theater, life and love?

John: It’s a real challenge — it feels less like balancing and more like juggling! And you’re absolutely right — there is never enough time to devote to any of these activities; you can always do more. It does help to have clear priorities. Personally, I also have to accept that I simply can’t practice as much as I might want to or maintain as large a repertoire as I’d like. But one advantage that Gioia and I have is that our artistic pursuits give us the opportunity to work together and spend time with each other as we work on them.

Gioia: That’s a great question for John – he does indeed manage to balance all that – he is superman! I have a somewhat easier time of it, given I am not in science any more. But the life of an artist is a crazy balancing act in any case – you are constantly going from one project to another, often more than one at once, and having time to “have a life” too is pretty challenging.

Would you recommend scientists pursue an outside hobby as a way to complement and enhance their work at the bench?

John: I think an outside interest is important for balance, and that’s probably true whether you are a scientist or in some other line of work that is demanding and requires long hours. Another interest, whether it is music or running or whatever, can help clear your mind, exercise other parts of your body and brain, and bring you into contact with people outside the lab. All that, in the right balance, I think can very much enhance your work.

Do you find that being a scientist positively influences your music/theater? If so, how?

Gioia: My wacky journey through the world of mathematics, which I left so many years ago, has ironically brought me much success in the arts! And the Science/Music Commissioning Project offers a very nice opportunity for us, in that it unites our scientific backgrounds with our skills in selecting texts and bringing music to life. It’s very helpful, especially in the arts, to find something that you are uniquely suited to offer.

What’s the easiest way for us to support your work?

John: To learn about and support the Science/Music Commissioning Project, people can visit our website at olsondecariduo.com. They can also learn there about our recording, Quiet Songs, and sign up for our mailing list to learn about future performances and other news. To learn more about Gioia’s theater work, and her solo show, Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through M.I.T.’s Male Math Maze,” people can visit her website at unexpectedtheatre.org.

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John Olson is a guitarist, research scientist, and President of the New York City Classical Guitar Society. As a guitarist, he has performed across the United States, recently performing an unprecedented all-Bach recital in which he performed in three capacities: as guitar soloist, as organist, and as song accompanist. As a scientist, John has performed research in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries for fifteen years. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to receive his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. John has published research in Science and other leading publications and is a frequent speaker at scientific conferences. He currently leads a research group using genomics technologies in drug discovery for cancer, diabetes and respiratory diseases.

The passionately eclectic Gioia De Cari is an actress, playwright, classical singer and “recovering mathematician.” She began her performance career in avant garde opera while a teaching fellow in mathematical logic at Harvard. Since then, she has played numerous leading acting roles in theater, commercials and films, including the multi-award-winning film Lower East Side Stories, which screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Slamdance, and many festivals in the United States and internationally. Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze, an autobiographical story of her past life as a mathematician, was recently awarded a Puffin Foundation grant and played in the New York International Fringe Festival in August, 2009, winning a FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award and enthusiastic reviews.

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  1. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    […] Collision of Science, Music and Theater – the Olson and De Cari duo use science as an inspiration for their music composition and play writing […]

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