When science orchestrates music

18 July 2019
As part of Innovation Week 2019 celebrations, Sydney Conservatorium of Music student, Christine Pan joins the dots between music and science through a new composition influenced by quantum theory.

Innovation Week 2019 celebrates the ground-breaking discoveries and transformative inventions from University of Sydney academics and students. As such, it is the perfect platform to see the realisation of interdisciplinary projects, where great minds come together to unpack complex problems.

Eric Knight, Associate Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research – Enterprise & Engagement) identified this occasion as the perfect opportunity to display the University’s ability to undertake interdisplinary projects. Keen to explore the multi-disciplinary agenda in which science and social science are embodied in unusual ways to explain complex concepts, Associate Professor Knight, invited Sydney Conservatorium of Music student, Christine Pan to compose a piece of music influenced by quantum theory.

“I have really enjoyed Christine’s compositions to date. I was interested to see how she might explore a complex challenge to meld music with science. This is also a chance to celebrate the innovative music-making of the Conservatorium of Music and highlight the extraordinary calibre of the school and its students,” Associate Professor Knight said.

I see both fields, physics and composition, to be infused with complexity and creativity; they share a similar process – concept, development, refinement and definition.
Associate Professor Eric Knight

Inspired by influential composer Philip Glass, whose musical compositions brought American industrialisation to life, Associate Professor Knight challenged Ms Pan to untangle quantum theory and express its dynamic interplay through a musical composition.

Quantum entanglement is the instantaneous correlation between two subatomic particles that is unaffected by distance. So, in a sense, the two particles must be the same and function as one entity. Ms Pan’s composition, A Dyadic Moment, transforms the principles of this hard science into sound structures, a musical language, performed on the violin, cello and piano.

“Much like scientists, I experimented with new extended techniques and attempted to discover what happens when certain rhythms and gestures are superimposed on top of one another,” Ms Pan said.

“I imagined the violin and cello as the entangled quantum particles and the piano as the magic – the things we don’t quite understand about the universe. The violin, cello and piano start as unrelated identities and while slowly syncing, similarities begin to emerge. I was also very interested to introduce the wider audience to some new techniques that are used in contemporary string writing today.” 

The violin and cello are sparsely used in the first half of the composition, quietly performing in their own space. The momentum and energy build towards the second half as they begin to synchronise, driven by the introduction of the piano, culminating in the trio coming together.

Ms Pan was guided by conversations  with Associate Professor Knight, the works of YouTuber Philip Bell, University of Sydney quantum physicist David Reilly (who has also used music to describe the phenomena), and Professor Reilly’s colleague from TU Delft in the Netherlands, Professor Leo Kouwenhoven, who provided insight about the "spooky action at a distance", which is how a sceptical Albert Einstein described quantum entanglement.

A Dyadic Moment will be performed for the first time at the Industry Gala Dinner which brings together researchers, students, entrepreneurs, investors and alumni at the University of Sydney’s McLaurin Hall on 22 August 2019. 

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