Field Notes, Vol. 3, no. 3: A Virtual Trip to Vienna
May 18, 2021
It was 1:00 am and my body did not appreciate the chiming of my alarm waking me up out of a deep sleep. I’d gone to bed as early as I could (aided by a cosmopolitan that was decidedly pale in color), in hopes that rousing myself in the middle of the night wouldn’t be too disruptive.
I was mistaken.
I rolled myself out of bed, contemplated a cup of coffee but decided that would only make it harder to eventually go back to sleep, and instead went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my head. In deciding wardrobe, I knew I didn’t need to get fancy: the folks at this conference are not exactly fashionistas. I threw on a sweater, ran a comb through my bed-head, and fumbled my way into my studio to log into my session.
My conference destination was the European Geosciences Union, originally slated to take place in Vienna, Austria. In a pre-pandemic world, I’d have been in that magical city already, probably scheduling some extra time for a concert or two and consuming as many pastries and schnitzels as I could (washed down by fine espresso or a crisp lager, depending on the context). While my waistline would benefit from the change in plans, my soul felt deprived: Vienna is one of my favorite cities in the world. I tried to pretend I was actually in Vienna and that it was 9 a.m., but it was cold, wet, and dark outside, and despite my sleep deprivation my brain wasn’t fooled.
Now, what was this musician doing presenting at the European Geosciences Union? Some of you no doubt remember that in 2013 my geologic symphony, Formations, was premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic. Commissioned by the Geological Society of America in celebration of their 125th Anniversary, the piece was performed again a month later at the GSA’s annual meeting, a convention of nearly 8,000 geoscientists from throughout the Americas. As a composer with a bachelors degree in geology, I’d dreamed for years about writing a large-scale work depicting not just landscapes, but the geologic processes that created those landscapes. (If you want to listen to the symphony or learn more about the project, you can check out this dedicated page on my website: http://jeffreynytch.com/formations.)
My EGU presentation was actually the fourth time I’d presented my work to a geosciences conference (something that I must admit produces a giddy mix of pride and excitement): a session on the symphony itself and the geology it depicted was presented at the GSA’s meeting in 2013; a couple years later, in New Orleans, I presented at the largest geosciences meeting in the world, the American Geophysical Union, where I talked about how application of certain geologic principles shaped the musical ideas within the symphony. That in turn resulted in an invitation to speak at the Royal Meteorological Society during my sabbatical trip to the U.K., where I lectured on how weather had been depicted in classical music through the ages, and how it was depicted in the third movement of Formations. And at the EGU, my topic was how the various community-based initiatives undertaken in conjunction with the Formations premiere offer a model for how music can be a channel for community engagement and education.
I’m not sure if this is the norm at scientific conventions, but both the AGU and EGU have standing “interest groups” centered on the intersection between geosciences and the arts. But I noticed a stark difference between the AGU session in New Orleans and this year’s EGU session in virtual-Vienna. The American session was almost entirely made up of geoscientists for whom music was a passion, a hobby, presenting fun little side projects that may or may not have been related to their research. But by and large, the results were just that: fun musical-scientific bon bons.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against bon bons. In fact, I love bon bons. (Indulgence of food and drink seems to be recurring theme in this essay…)
But my point here is that none of the stuff being presented would be considered substantive research, something with broader implications for the discipline. This felt a little strange to me, because my thing did have broader implications for my discipline: exploring how natural processes can inform musical material is a recurring theme in my creative work, and how that work is shared with communities and audiences is central to my work in entrepreneurship. Everyone loved my AGU talk, but it was still a bit of let-down. (I did, however, make a wonderful connection with an atmospheric scientist from the U.K. named Paul Williams; Paul was the one who arranged for me to speak at the Royal Meteorological Society. Also, Fun Fact: If you’ve heard reports in the media of research demonstrating that transatlantic airliners can save significant time – and thus fuel – if they ride that day’s atmospheric currents rather than stick to standard, pre-determined routes, that’s Paul. He and his team are making a huge impact on air travel that will resonate for years to come.)
Anyway, I digress. So how was the EGU session different? This group was hard-core: it included a vibrant diversity of projects and presenters from throughout Europe and the U.K. (plus me and another lone American). Some projects were collaborations between artists and scientists, others were undertaken by individual “sciartists” (emphasis on the first syllable, just as in “scientist”). In the case of the solo sciartists, most were professional scientists with advanced skills/knowledge on the artistic side; but there also professional artists with advanced skills/knowledge on the scientific side. And everyone was fusing their knowledge and interests together to create meaningful work with real-world impact.
Sciartists. My people.
Some of the EGU conference sessions that really resonated with me:
An illustrated children’s book explaining how the earth works, to be used in remote areas of developing nations, where science teachers are scarce.
A collaboration between a percussionist/composer and a coastal wave expert to create a composition reflecting the behavior of coastal “rogue” waves, as part of a regional effort to promote understanding of how such waves behave and how to respond to them when they show up.
A participatory theatre piece to help indigenous people process the grief and disruption resulting from volcanic eruptions.
These sessions, along with several more, illustrated something I’ve been asserting for a long time but which is disappointingly rare in the U.S.: the arts have a powerful role to play in teaching people about science, promoting awareness and understanding of important issues to a population, and helping people find healing and community in face of tragedy and loss. Moreover, these projects were great examples of the entrepreneurial principle of opportunity recognition: each one addressed a particular problem or need in the targeted community. These were not fun bon bons; these were substantive bodies of work occupying the very center of these scholars’ activity.
In contrast, here in the U.S. we seem fixated on the idea that the arts belong in their own hermetically-sealed container: music over here, theatre over there, visual art over there. And while the boundaries between artistic genres are quickly dissolving away (something that can’t happen soon enough, in my view), the arts as a whole remain relegated to their own space. This, in turn, is a big part of why most American performing artists lack even an ounce of opportunity recognition: they simply don’t see the world around them as bursting with situations ripe for incorporation of their artistic work in some form or fashion. (Classical musicians are particularly lacking in this skill.)
But the folks at the EGU were having none of this: they recognize that the arts are a unique and powerful force for community-focused work intended to have impact beyond the arts. Rather than seeing the arts as an end in themselves, these sciartists see the arts as a means to a broader end: helping to make humanity kinder, more humane, more knowledgeable, more eco-friendly, and more in wonder of our earthly home. I can’t think of a higher calling.
Once my session was over, I was wide awake. As tired as I was, I lay in bed unable to sleep until the light started to seep through the blinds and announce a new day. But that was okay: I’d spent some time with my tribe, basking in the wonders of humans at their most creative. Maybe next year I can do it in person