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Festival Of New American Music Performance Explores The Intersection Of Music And Science

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Composer and bandleader Graham Reynolds. Photo by Mark Poucher

The Festival of New American Music is now underway at Sacramento State University, and one of this year’s headlining acts is exploring something a little unusual with his performance: the intersection of music and science.

The concert is called “The Sound of Science,” and it’s the brainchild of Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds. All of the pieces for this project were inspired by scientific research, something Reynolds has long been fascinated with.

“In 7th grade, I had a fantastic science teacher and for that one year I thought I wanted to be a scientist,” Reynolds explains.

While Reynolds ultimately opted for a career in music, his love of science was reignited by a quarterly concert series he holds at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin.

“We do a science show every January and it’s an audience favorite and it’s one of my favorites and it made me want to dig further,” he said.

He wanted to spend time with scientists and see their work, and he was curious if there were other composers who wanted to do the same, Reynolds said. That’s how “The Sound of Science” was born.

In order to get ”The Sound of Science” on its feet, Reynolds enlisted the help of cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, formerly of the Kronos Quartet. Zeigler is the lone performer on the project. Once he was on board, Zeigler and Reynolds made a wish list of composers they wanted to work with and put out the call for new pieces.

“We gave each of the composers no parameters as far as scientists, and we were very lucky because every single composer we asked said yes,” Zeigler said.

Each musician found their scientific muse in their own way. Reynolds, for instance, took to the internet.

“With gender balance in mind and also with wanting someone local to Austin, I did a Google search: ‘female scientist, Austin,” Reynolds said.

The result of this Google search was Dr. Kristen Harris, a professor of Neuroscience at the University of Texas.

Reynolds says she got back to him right away and that she was actually looking to put her work to music.

“I didn’t know that scientists had thought about putting their work to music, so it was amazing that she was actually actively looking for a composer,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds visited Harris in the lab to see the work in progress. She remarked that it was an important part of the process for him to sit next to her and watch her work with the data and to be able to witness that struggle.

As the only person on stage during the performance, Zeigler has to do a lot of multitasking. He says it’s almost like a full-body workout.

“When I perform this program, I feel like in another lifetime I must have been an organ player,” Zeigler said. “On each side of the instrument, I am using both feet for various audio effects but also to trigger different sounds using my laptop.”

Harris said she was thrilled with the final product.

“Oh I was just ecstatic,” she exclaimed. “I just couldn’t believe what a good job it was. Honestly. The first time I heard it, I went ‘Oh my God, there is not one note I would change.’”

The Sound of Science will be performed at the 42nd annual Festival of New American Music on Wednesday night, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at Capistrano Hall on the Sacramento State campus.

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