It should have been that the most offensive thing I did for the World Science Festival was to write a blog criticizing the Templeton Foundation, and the invitation of Francis Collins (http://my.technologyreview.com/mytr/social/blog/post.aspx?wuid=121430&bpid=746). Though I don’t really feel much differently about the fact that a religious fundamentalist should not be the most powerful government funder of science, I do think that I may have been too hard on the science festival. I went to the Collins event “Our Genomes, Ourselves”, and thought it was thought-provoking, and completely scientific. Collins did not appear to be an extremist. What I really regret though is that even though this year’s festival was so wonderful, and my family was involved in a number of ways, I still managed to be on the obnoxious side at the Jazz Party that my wife and I were hosting. The issue was that our featured band “Wake Up!” who I consider the best live band in New York was well-liked, but several people complained that the music was too loud. Instead of being a gracious host I said things like “if you don’t want to stay, no one is forcing you.” I did this for two reasons, as inexcusable as they may be. The first is that the music is so important to me that I wanted to share it with the World Science Festival which is also very important to me. It made me think that these people who wanted it quieter did not appreciate the brilliance of the band, and that frustrated me for artistic reasons. The other reason is more unreasonable, which is that I think music should be loud.
My visceral response to loud/quality music is certainly not unique to me. The desire to create music which has a level which physically alters the surrounding through power and volume goes at least as far back as Vivaldi and Bach. At St. Thomas in Leipzig Germany where Bach was the music director for much of his life, he spent a great deal of time raising the funds for large pipes for the organ. The purpose of large pipes is similar to the purpose of large sub woofers that people put in their cars. It is so that you feel the low tones. Bach combined this with as many pipes of various sizes as possible in order to have such a sound that the “Passions” were truly passionate. The floors, walls and ceiling of St. Thomas shook with beautiful, stunning and yes…loud music.
I do want to make it clear that I don’t think Bach was equivalent to a car stereo system. There is something moving about the live experience. I also think this is true of “Wake Up!” which played unamplified at this party. I also don’t think that Bach or “Wake Up!” wanted to inflict pain. If the experience is actually painful, as it may have been for some, then that is a problem. Instead it is more a question of focus. While a party is about being with other people, if music is the centerpiece of that party it must also be the most present participant in the room.
Another example of having music which is felt, rather than just heard comes from the inventor of the phonograph. Thomas Edison had very poor hearing to begin with, yet he was able to go to concerts and hear the music. Just hearing it was not enough for him. Once he invented the phonograph, he would literary bite down on the frame of the machine in order to feel the sound. As strange as this sounds, we know that the human ear in its present form is a rather recent evolutionary development. Mammals used to do much of their hearing though interpretations of vibrations in their bones, eventually (like Edison) in their jaws. This was naturally a survival mechanism at the time, as mammals needed to hear dangers coming from nocturnal predators. Since early instruments came so early to humans, it is likely that music has always been both felt and heard.
This doesn’t excuse my rudeness, but it does explain my priorities a bit. The World Science Festival is successful because of its highly engaging blend of arts and sciences, and its ability to do this without dumbing down either the science or the art. Furthermore the audiences really do come from various backgrounds, unlike most conferences. At the Armitage Dance Event associated with the Festival, the moderator of the science discussion Steve Mirsky following the performance took an informal poll of the audience, asking who comes from the arts, and who from science. The audience appeared almost equally divided. This is such an inspiring and hopeful sign. My desire for people to feel the power of a new form of musical expression comes from the same place as my desire for people to hear Stephen Hawking, or watch Armitage’s dance. Like those two things it is important, and can’t be done quietly.