Background Music

March 23, 2011, 3:12 PM ·

It's distressing when months go by without blogging.  

You get a little hole in that list of blogs by your name.  2011: Jan . . . Mar . . . ?

Work has gotten very busy for me in the early part of this year, and I think that Brückner and Rimsky-Korsakov may be conspiring (together with Borodin) to kick my orchestral butt, just in time for the Russian Easter.

So, it's time for something completely different!  When I'm not playing the violin (which is, alas, most of the time), I am in charge of communications and grant development for an academic biomedical research lab affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Recently a biological animator from Harvard, Dr. Janet Iwasa, came to lecture to our lab members and students of a course my boss is teaching.  She showed, among other things, this video:

Okay, admit it, you probably stopped watching it before the 1:05 mark, when the music starts.  I have a PhD in a biological discipline, and I was at the lecture, but even in that situation my mind started to wander a bit until the music came on and I perked up and paid more attention.

If you keep with it, you will see clathrin-mediated endocytosis of transferrin receptors to the tune of "Flight of the Bumblebee."  Iwasa said during the lecture that it was her coworker who chose the music.  This kind of video, one that animates biological processes, is a new frontier in biology education, in illustrating mechanisms, and in generating new hypotheses for testing. 

Another video from the excellent group of biological animators at Harvard is this one, called "The Inner Life of the Cell":

I've heard this described as mesmerizing.  My boss uses it, with permission, in some of her course lectures, and for that purpose, I have had to edit it into a shorter version while still keeping the music and transitions intact and smooth.  While I was working on that project, sometimes I felt like I was in the cell myself, crawling along the cytoskeleton, buffeted by the Brownian molecular winds.  I'd ride my bike home from work, my feet unconsciously pedaling to the rhythm of that insistent Bachian arpeggio.  I'd need a good dose of the Amazing Race when I got home to get my mind out of that space. 

And then I start to wonder, after a day of this, what "real" musicians would think of this music.  Would it mesmerize and enthrall them the way it does me, drawing me into the cell's inner life?  Or would its sheer simplicity and repetition crash into the banal all too soon?

The folks who made this video, below, do not have to worry about banal background music.  For our last concert with the Arlington Philharmonic, we played Holst's "Mars."  One of the members of the cello section found this video and posted it to the orchestra's facebook page:  the Mars Rover set to "Mars" by Holst.  It is amazing how well the video and audio fit together.

Playing this piece for the first time also had the salutary effect on me, of taking John Williams down a peg or two in my mind.  When I first heard the music to Star Wars, particularly the Imperial March, back in 1977-8, I became convinced that John Williams was a genius.  And, maybe he still is.  But so is Holst, and he did it first.

Viewing these two videos side by side, I am struck by their similarities as much as by their differences.  One landscape is unimaginably small, one is unimaginably large.  Yet in both cases the viewer is brought into the new world, in part, by music.

A project that I've been working on, that is closer to what I do than the others above, is this last one.  This video is a profile of my boss, Susan Lindquist, a Professor of Biology at MIT who won the National Medal of Science last November for her work on protein folding.  My part in the video was very small:  I researched and provided some of the pictures and other materials to the media company and helped coordinate their transfer.  I took two of the pictures with my own camera, and my handwriting is visible on the whiteboard in one scene.  The video was shown at the White House for the National Medals Ceremony.  What actual music there is is meant to be unobtrusive background music.  Susan's metaphor of DNA as audiotape with the proteins it encodes folding into a symphony still speaks to me and thrills me--but will it speak to a generation who has never known audio or video tape?

These are the kinds of presentations that got me excited about science when I was younger.  I hope that the new technology can inspire another generation.


March 23, 2011 at 11:30 PM ·

 Wow, a picture (accompanied by cool music) is worth a thousand words! 

March 24, 2011 at 02:39 PM ·

What a timely post. My next gig includes the Planets & a Star Wars medley. There are some seriously killer bits in the Holst. I cut & paste extracts from the 16 page part into 3 pages that have been the main feature on my music stand for the past 2 weeks. Thanks for that great Mars video.

March 24, 2011 at 03:29 PM ·

Christina, you're right, the Holst is tough!  We only played Mars,  it was part of our annual Family Concert, with the theme of "Musical Colors."  Mars represented the Red Planet, with the other pieces being Fantasia on Greensleeves, Goldfinger, the Pink Panther, Over the Rainbow, the Blue Danube, and the Stars and Stripes Forever.  It was a fun concert.  We have yet to play Star Wars or Harry Potter at POPS while I've been in the orchestra, but I'm hoping . . .

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