The Noble Experiment

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

I used to have frequent doubts about whether music was ultimately worth so much of my time, and I considered being a scientist. This rarely got much further than idle thoughts and occasional blanket pronouncements, even though at some point I actually bought a telescope and microscope and tried to convince less than enthusiastic artsy types into experiencing the sky or the water we drink in a new way.

While it’s funny that I thought discovering a new asteroid might do more to change the world than writing a string quartet—it won’t—the real issue is how strangely connected composing music and being a scientist are in some ways, both in terms of basic philosophy and practical methodology. If you want to create something that’s new, you are somehow always experimenting. And if something doesn’t work, after a few tries, you try something else. Like scientists, composers keep accurate records of their experiments to insure that the information will not be lost and that others can replicate their finds. And perhaps it’s only the most egotistical among composers who think they’re inventing things rather than discovering them.

Perhaps no one embodies the composer as scientist better than Alvin Lucier whose every composition seems to be the working out of a different acoustic experiment. Ironically, when I spoke with him, Lucier admitted to being a bad science student and defined a clear boundary between science and art, although he describes himself as an “experimental composer” and acknowledged that most of the inspiration for his music comes from scientific phenomena rather than from pre-existing music. Other composers whose music is indebted to scientific inquiry have a wide range of opinions about how important science is to their music with some shying away from any prerequisite technical knowledge as others gleefully describe every scientific detail meticulously. We opted not to shy away from the technical knowledge ourselves and asked a respected psychoacoustician, Dr. Chris Plack from the Psychology Department at the University of Essex, England, to scientifically explain how human beings are actually hearing music of any type. His explanations might prove somewhat sobering to anyone interested in creating “experimental music.” We ask you to consider how you listen and what impact that has on what you are hearing.

For me, listening is much like composing: both are processes of discovery. And while I’ve given up on having an asteroid named after me, I doubt I will ever tire of hearing something new or trying to find something new in music on my own. But I recently got my telescope back from a friend who had been storing it for me for the past five years, so maybe there’s still hope.