A delicate balance

HOUGHTON – Scientists, researchers and artists work daily at Michigan Technological University but do not often come together. In an effort to bridge the gap between two disciplines, faculty and staff gathered for a panel discussion Tuesday featuring composer John Luther Adams, who was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music Monday.

“In a lot of his writing he talks about what art and science have to say to one another and I thought, since we are a school that has both, it would be an interesting topic for conversation,” said Libby Meyer, instructor of visual and performing arts at Tech.

“The reason I wanted to come here – besides the fact that I’ve always wanted to see the U.P. ‘eh’ – was that you have something special going on here with the dialogue between the institute of art and the institute of science. That’s where I work and where I want to be,” Adams said.

That dialogue was facilitated by a panel including representatives from science and humanities disciplines, with John Vucetich, associate professor in the school of forest resources and environmental science; Amy Schrank, research assistant professor in the school of forest resources and environmental sciences; Chris Plummer, associate professor in visual and performing arts; M. Bartley Seigel, associate professor of creative writing and diverse literatures; and Evan McDonald, executive director of the Keweenaw Land Trust.

Bringing diverse educational and professional backgrounds to the table, panelists discussed the relationship between the arts and science. Adams shared some aspects of his work in composing and how important the concept of place is to his pieces.

“Place has been a perennial obsession with me and I’ve tried to understand and give voice to that obsession in many ways,” he said. “Somewhere along the way I stumbled on a description of sonic geography and I don’t always know what that might mean – I still don’t – but it’s the idea that each place has a sound. We listen to that sound and understand where we are and we get a better understanding of who we are and how we fit into the larger world.”

Using art to connect with places could be a valuable tool for scientists, said Schrank.

“What appeals to me about sound or art in science is you can take that and bring a place to someone who doesn’t have access to that place. I think we don’t use art well in science. Think of people who grow up in an urban environment and don’t have access to natural places, you could put them in a room with a soundscapeand let them have some of that experience,” she said.

While the panelists agreed that there should be a connection between art and science, they also acknowledged the difficulty of establishing cooperation in an educational system where specialty is emphasized.

“We’ve spent the last 150 years trying to keep these two as far apart as possible and so I think it’s a mystery to know what the relationship between science and art is. You have to discover it on your own and it’s hard to find,” said Vucetich. “One (relationship) that occurs to me the most is not so much that science can serve art or art can serve science but rather I think the important purpose in life is to understand the world around us and science is just one magical way to understand the world around us and art is a different magical way to understand the world around us.”

Using art and science in conjunction may help both scientists and artists better understand the world around them, the panelists agreed.

“First and foremost, I’m an artist. I’m a composer. I believe in the intrinsic value, the imperative for music in the world – music as the embodiment of creative thought and music as a mode of awareness and helping people understand. I often say music is not what I do, it’s how I understand the world,” Adams said.

Adams also held a lecture on his work Tuesday evening. The discussion was held as part of the Ecology and Arts Lecture Series at Michigan Tech. For more information on Adams, visit johnlutheradams.com.