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The Artist’s Role on a Science and Engineering Campus

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Orit Wolf and Orit Hazzan

Music and science and engineering are seemingly distant disciplines that stand apart as two separate, diverging entities. In recent years, however, a substantial amount of collaborative research has been conducted on aspects of music listening and instrument playing and their effects on the brain. Music is, in fact, a medium of abstract science that stimulates our emotions, expands our horizons, and develops strong motoric, spatial, and communicative skills. The Technion, which ranks among the top 100 universities worldwide, is one of the first science and engineering research universities to value the importance and potential growth of the music and science interface, as described below, creating a platform for such an integration for the first time. Other similar artist-in-residence initiatives in technology-based universities include the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia; Dublin City University, Ireland; University of Minnesota, USA; University of California, Berkeley, USA; and Tennessee Tech University, USA. In addition, Cambridge University has a joint program and a center dedicated to music and science. It is therefore evident that such collaborations are now considered valuable and essential in education and research for the new millennium.

The ‘Music, Science, Inspiration’ Concert Lectures

The Music, Science, Inspiration Series, offered by the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology was born out of a profound vision to create a platform on campus that enables to establish an open dialogue and mutual, meaningful inspiration between scientists, engineers, and artists. Orit Wolf (co-author of this blog) has developed the series as part of her nomination as Artist in Residence in 2022-2023. This fellowship has led her to offer a new platform of collaboration that has not yet been seen on campus.  Each season lasts one year and comprises 4-to-5 concert lectures in which musicians, scientists, and engineers get together on one stage and explore subjects of common interest.

A general concert lecture invites the participants to deepen their listening experience by listening to live musical excerpts performed by musicians on stage and through explanations given by the professional performer on a variety of musical topics: the roots and historical context of the compositions they are listening to, the lives of the composers and their performance practices, and critical thinking about the musical messages underlying the musical patterns. The Technion series adds to this concept, connecting science and engineering to the discourse of each concert lecture through a theme that is shared by the two disciplines, on which the music lecture focuses. It is not merely about musicmaking for scientists, but rather a new opportunity to discuss common issues that reflect the interface between the two disciplines. 

The assumption is that science and engineering and art and music have a lot in common and that each interdisciplinary session and concert lecture not only opens up new horizons of content and knowledge but is a genuine opportunity for new creation and collaboration.

In the case of the Technion series, each concert lecture also includes brief research presentations on science and engineering, an interactive lecture on music, and a live performance presented by faculty members, guest artists, students, and staff. The program of Season #1 , which was presented during the 2022-2023 academic year is presented here; the program of Season #2, which is currently underway is presented here. Table 1 briefly describes each of the five concert lectures of Season #1 and Table 2 presents the professional domains of the presenters: 12 from science and engineering and 12 from the humanities and performing arts. Among the scientists there are two Nobel Prize laurates: Prof. Aharon Ciechanover and Prof. Dan Shechtman, who are faculty members at the Technion. 

Table 1. Music, Science, Inspiration Series:  The five concert lectures of Season #1

Concert lecture #Concert lecture themeDescription
1Touching the Sounds: Manipulation of the SensesCan we physically touch and feel music? Can we transform experiences through our various senses? A session on the power of touching sounds.
2UNPLUGGED! How and Why Music Moves Us: The Challenge of AIWill AI generate and perform our future music with novelty? Will we integrate human and machine performance in an innovative way? Challenges of generating emotions and capturing future audiences using AI.
3Less is More: Turning Mistakes into Opportunities in Art and ScienceOn errors in the lab and errors on stage: Life behind the curtains of musicians in performing arts and of scientists.
4The Psychophysical Lab: Yoga, Philosophy, Medicine, and MusicMind and Body: The “reward center” and the power of a pianist in empowering motoric rehabilitation.
5Perfect Imperfections: Unanswered QuestionsEthics in Science versus Ethics in MusicSerendipity, critical thinking about the creative process, and ethical issues involving AI generation.

Table 2: Music, Science, Inspiration Series: The professional domains of the Season #1 presenters (Total = 24)

Domain: Science and engineeringNumber of presenters Domain: humanities and performing artsNumber of presenters
Physics1Humanities and Arts3
Mechanical Engineering2Music and Art8
Electrical & Computer Engineering2Artistic Director and Pianist – Dr. Orit Wolf1
Computer Science2  
Biomedical Engineering2  
Architecture and Town Planning1  
Medicine2  
 Total Science & Engineering12Total humanities & performing arts12

How are the performing arts and the science-and-engineering communities connected?

The professional community of the performing arts in general, and of classical music in particular, shares many characteristics with the community of the exact sciences and engineering, including the following, to name a few:

  • Both professional communities have a feeling of elitism, of being part of a milieu, and both communities have clear rules on how the community can be joined and how to interact with its members;
  • Each of the two communities has a code of behavior and rituals that conceal the hard work and thousands of hours of practice invested in preparation for a formal presentation in order to achieve a high level of performance. Just like pure science is expected to be delivered in a formal and polished manner, concealing the hard work, the futile attempts, and the frustration experienced before it was possible to present a specific finding, classical music events have rigid rules and a set code of behavior: No applause, no talking, and no explanations between movements, the entire musical composition must be played, As soloist players, looking at the musical notes is not allowed, mistakes and blacking out while performing should be ignored;
  • In both communities and domains it is unacceptable to breach the code of behavior and such behavior may lead to professional isolation (see the case of Professor Dan Shechtman, the 2011 Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, who presented in the first lecture in Season #2).
  • Just like the exact sciences and engineering are inaccessible to a large population and many young children are concerned about their ability to cope with their science studies, so are the performing arts and classical music less accessible to the common public and remain the domain of the social elite. Unlike science and engineering, in the case of the performing arts, this unfortunately has to do with a lack of proper education in the field, whereby almost no hours are allocated in the curriculum for music and the arts. These fields are still considered a “bonus” or a luxury rather than an essential tool for fostering creativity and attempts to make these domains accessible to a wider population are not always respected. Nevertheless, both of the communities continue to initiate and to engage in many outreach activities and programs.

Following the above analysis of the characteristics common to the communities of performing arts and science and engineering, the Music, Science, Inspiration concert lecture series offers a glimpse of the potential of bringing the two fields together, opens up the discourse about these domains to wider communities beyond the classic (pun intended!) ones and attempts to breach their strict professional rules of communication. Specifically, the series involves explanations, talks, and discourse among the presenters and with the audience; compositions are played only in part to highlight specific messages, and mistakes, blackouts and failures are admitted. The main messages of the Music, Science, Inspiration Series are:

  • The importance, central role, and inevitable spirit of interdisciplinarity in the new era. Consider, for example, the application of generative AI in the music industry. On the one hand, this interdisciplinary era requires professionalism, and on the other hand, it offers a platform that is based on familiarity with other domains that enrich our imagination by analogies and metaphors;
  • Encouraging discourse between scientists and artists in a way that not only combines content and experience but also inspires and engages the audience in interdisciplinary context; Science communication and music communication have a lot in common and can mutually enrich each other;
  • Many scientists also play various musical instruments and both mental activities require many abilities such as imagination, innovation, persistence, abstraction skills and attention to details, critical thinking, persistence, breaking conventions, analysis of different versions of the same idea, interdisciplinarity, and coping with (what are considered) failures but which are in fact opportunities for learning.

Conclusion

Despite the close relationship between the two disciplines—performing arts and music, and science and engineering—no academic programs are yet known to officially bring the two together. In an interdisciplinary era that encourages joint research and collaboration, promoting such valuable programs would be only reasonable. In addition to the advantages of such an integration as described here, such a program has the potential to increase the diversity of students, authors, and talents in both domains, as well as to foster collaboration and creativity among practitioners in both fields.

We conclude with an answer given by one of the Season #1 presenters to the question “What are the main messages of the series for you?”, which appeared on a questionnaire distributed to Season #1 presenters: “That there is much science in music, and that the distance between music and science is not as great as it seems.” We genuinely believe that this discourse between scientists and artists fosters collaborations that will, in turn, reveal the full and vast potential of integrating the two disciplines.

Orit Wolf is an international concert pianist, composer, and interdisciplinary Artist in Residence at the Technion. Her research focuses on music communication in general, and specifically in the context of science and engineering education. Additional details about Wolf’s professional work can be found on her website.  Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering, and data science education. Additional details about Hazzan’s professional work can be found on her website.  

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