Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why Scientists like Artists

It is often said that Nashvillians possess two lives. One is spent on a day job to make a living. The other unfolds during the off hours, when we pursue our musical aspirations. If the music works out, we will quit our day job. I was once privileged to meet someone who was about to make this lucky transition. She was recording her first CD. Because I had never witnessed a recording session, I asked her whether I could not tag along to experience what it was like. She graciously agreed, and I ended up visiting a recording studio.

It was different from what I had expected. The location was somewhere in the countryside a forty-minute drive from Nashville. The producer worked out of his basement. Below the keyboards and mixers, I saw plenty computer equipment. The music could be heavily computer-generated. Essentially, this man was able to produce the sounds of all instruments in a band by himself, except the steel guitar. I was told that this was one rare instrument whose sound could not be synthesized to satisfaction yet. On my day, the soundtrack for the steel guitar was recorded. After that my friend sang. She was cooped up in a sound-insulated booth that doubled as the closet for the washer and the drier on other days. All afternoon, my friend repeated the same line until her voice almost broke and she needed a lolly pop to continue singing.

The producer was working with a man who possessed the golden finger that came down on a button exactly at the point in time when the line had to be spliced into the song. My friend had to sing the line precisely the way the man with the golden finger demanded. What he asked for was so nuanced, I could hardly hear the difference. He was profoundly insistent and perfectionist about the process. My friend gave her best to deliver. After three hours, I myself imagined hearing what the man with the golden finger was aiming at. The day went by like a breeze. My friend told me afterwards that she had spent many weeks like this and was not quite finished yet. Her hard work eventually paid off with a collection of beautiful songs, opening the way into the Bluebird Cafe. In Nashville, music means business!

I am not musically versed in any respect. I am a research scientist. What struck me most about the production process was its similarity to the work I know. The beginning of any research study is an idea, that is the hypothesis. The scientist shapes the hypothesis and designs the experiments to prove or disprove it. The results provide new insights. Things may turn out different from expectation. The hypothesis will change and experimentation proceeds until a break-through is achieved.

Watching my friend at work that day, I learned that making a song adheres to the same procedure. The singer/songwriters and producers shape the tune and the lyrics of the song until they fit perfectly together and all aspects fall in place. Eventually a new song is born. In this process as much as in scientific research, experience is essential for the design of a flawless product, pure and free of contradiction. As many scientists teach, my friend became a councilor. She published a collection of interviews with successful singer/songwriters, giving advice to those who wish to pursue this career. Today, she coaches young talent to get started. You may visit her here.

  • When we listen to Bob Boilen's segment on NPR's All Things Considered entitled "Moby: One Song, Two Days, Three Versions" broadcast today, we grasp immediately that artists and scientists are striving in the same fashion to perfect a product shaped countless times in their imagination. In that sense humans seem unique. No other creature we know is able to accomplish such act of creation (05/04/10).
  • It is fascinating how similar the creative process in the arts and the sciences can be. The eminent pharmacologist Otto Loewi had the idea for the experiment that would prove the existence of neurotransmitters and win him the Nobel Prize in his dreams. Keith Richards had the fundamental idea for "I can't get no satisfaction", one of The Rolling Stones' signature songs, in his dreams as well. Loewy needed to scribble notes down on a pad that he had placed on his bed stand. He had had the dream of the experiment on a prior night, but had nothing to write it down with at that time, and forgotten the details when he awoke. When the dream re-occurred, he was prepared with pad and pencil, finding his notes next morning. Richards habitually took his guitar hooked up to a tape recorder to bed and woke up one morning, finding the basic tune for the fabled Stones song recorded on the tape. Listen to this, at times mildly strained, interview with Terry Gross broadcast on National Public Radio's Fresh Air under the title "The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards Looks Back At 'Life'" today in context with Richard's just-published memoir entitled "Life" (10/25/10).

No comments:

Post a Comment