Mixing musicians with meteorologists: UW’s new SoundWaves series offers audiences an intellectual smorgasbord

"Sinister Resonance," in rehearsal
“Sinister Resonance,” in rehearsal

So this is a big university, with all sorts of smart people learning all kinds of fascinating stuff and sharing all that great knowledge with lots of others. Right?

Well, sometimes, yes, sometimes no. The truth is, it’s all too easy to remain in our silos and not trumpet what we do. Somebody will ask, eventually, right?

Maybe. But we also are learning that if we bring disparate disciplines together in attractive locations to mingle, chat, and (preferably)  eat and drink a little, amazing things will likely occur. Friendships will develop. Collaboration may ensue.

That’s the case with SoundWaves, which had its roots in a small idea between UW horn professor Dan Grabois and a few others on the UW campus: to combine science talks with concert performances. One thing led to another, and before you could blow the next note, Dan was curating a series of ten-minute talks by intellectual people, always on a theme, followed by live music provided by faculty at the UW School of Music. It was a way to bridge the streets and avenues and roads and alleys that separate people on this campus. And by all accounts, it’s been a success.

Next Friday, May 10, at 7 pm, at the Town Center at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St., the public is invited to the final SoundWaves event of the 2012-2013 academic year. (And you can have dinner beforehand, at the in-house restaurant, Steenbock’s on Orchard.) This months’s theme:

Getting the Job Done: Humans and the Tools We Use

Electricity? What is it really and how does it work? (John Booske, engineering)
Can we connect emotionally with our robot helpers? (Bilge Mutlu, computer science)
Do musical instruments help create musical styles?  (Dan Grabois, music)
How can a computer link animal sounds to linguistics? (Michael Coen, biostatistician)

Helping to answer the third question will be music from a new band called “Sinister Resonance,” comprised of Mark Hetzler (trombone and electronics), Vincent Fuh (piano), Nick Moran (doublebass) and Todd Hammes (drums/percussion). Sinister Resonance will not sound like any music any of us have ever heard before. We promise. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on that topic.

Here’s the scoop on how SoundWaves got started, from Dan Grabois:

“SoundWaves started as a small idea: what if we had an evening where we had some science lectures and some live classical music? I love learning about science, and UW-Madison is filled with scientists doing fascinating stuff. Also, I like learning about how everyday stuff works; once, meeting a civil engineer at a party, I began peppering her with questions about road construction. What is tar? What is asphalt? I don’t know much about the world I live in, and I’d love to learn more. I figured there must be other people like me, who are interested in learning science and are equally interested in hearing great music. It seemed like a good way to stitch together two very separate areas of the university, and a good way to increase the audience for each area.

“I brought the idea to [School of Music director] John Stevens, who thought it interesting enough to suggest I bring it to the Arts Institute. The Arts Institute thought it interesting enough to suggest I bring it to the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. I made an appointment to speak with Laura Heisler, who is the program pirector for WARF (if you are getting confused, so was I, but here’s an explanation: the Arts Institute is in charge of managing development for all the arts on campus. WID is the fancy new building on University Avenue right before it meets up with Johnson. WARF is the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. WARF operates WID, and WARF is the organization that provides research funding for the university).

“Preparing to meet Laura, I thought my original idea lacked punch. Bringing science and music together was nice, but we needed to do it thematically, to explore an issue from different sides. I came up with some possible themes and wrote them up. I pitched them to Laura, expecting her to say either NO or to agree to try one of them. Instead, she said we would do them all and see where it went (thank you, Laura!).

“We decided to start with the theme of sound itself, and our first SoundWaves event was entitled Music to Our Ears. I found a physicist to talk about the structure of sound, a hearing specialist to talk about how the ear works, a neuroscientist to talk about how the brain processes the signal from the ear, and a psychologist to talk about how our emotions transform brain signals into feelings. Then I performed the Brahms Horn Trio with my colleagues Felicia Moye and Kit Taylor. We held this debut event at the Science Festival, and it was a big success, with a great audience.

“After that, we didn’t have the benefit of the Science Festival’s built-in audience, and we didn’t know what to expect. But our next project, The Consequences of Sequences, had an overflow audience. For the third project, Inch By Inch, Measure for Measure (about, what else, measurement), we moved to the largest space in the WID building, and we had an audience of over 250 people. Our final event of the year takes place on May 10. Entitled Getting the Job Done: Humans and the Tools We Use, we’ll have Mark Hetzler and his band Sinister Resonance performing two pieces, plus talks by Mark himself and by electrical engineer John Booske (I always wondered how electricity works), computer scientist Bilge Mutlu (with his robots!), and biostatistician Michael Coen (he uses the computer to analyze animal vocalizations in order to understand them linguistically – he’s basically a one-man university). I’ll be speaking about how musicians’ tools, their instruments, have a two-way relationship with style, both influencing stylistic evolution and being influenced by the demands new styles put on players.

“One other thing: I am grateful to the Kemper K. Knapp Bequest Committee for awarding a generous grant to SoundWaves. We’ll be holding eight SoundWaves events next year. And we have sponsored a student logo design competition – the winning design will be revealed on May 10. As of that date, we will have brought over fifteen science departments into the SoundWaves fold, and heard a lot of great music, too.”

Listen to Dan Grabois and Mark Hetzler discuss SoundWaves with WORT radio’s Rich Samuels, May 9th, about 7 am,  89.9 FM.

Website for Rich Samuels’ show on WORT-FM radio

For more info about SoundWaves:

SoundWaves website


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