Works Highlight MSU’s “50 Years of Beam”

Musical compositions a smashing success at MSU’s celebration of nuclear physics.

Mark Sullivan, MSU associate professor of composition, shares the vision of MSU composers with attendees of the “50 Years of Beam at MSU” celebration. Photo by G.L Kohuth, courtesy of MSU.

Three composers with ties to the MSU College of Music fused melody with physics to create seven short contemporary works for “50 Years of Beam at MSU” in early October.

The pieces, says Associate Professor of Composition Mark Sullivan, added a musical highlight to the event that celebrated MSU’s past and future work in nuclear physics. Hosted by the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams Project, the event acknowledged MSU’s half-century of nuclear physics research, and looked ahead to the next frontier with the building of the FRIB.

Sullivan, also leader of the College of Music’s computer music studios, says the unique sound program came about following a conversation last spring when an event organizer asked if he would consider penning a physics-related composition or two.

“I thought about it for a moment then confidently answered ‘maybe,’” he says.

Sullivan thought about it some more. Then he did his homework. He talked with physicists at MSU. He was told about excerpts from “Up from Nothing: The Michigan State University Cyclotron Laboratory” by Laboratory Director Emeritus Sam Austin. He took several tours of the Cyclotron. Eventually, he invited two alumni from MSU’s doctoral program in composition to join his accelerated quest.

“It turns out there are quite a few relationships between the science of sound and music,” Sullivan says. “Not a single physicist I met with asked why I wanted to make a connection between music and physics. They were engaged from the outset.”

In total, Sullivan and alumni Benjamin Fuhrman and Matthew Schoendorff premiered seven electro-acoustical works with names like “Chart of the Nuclides,” “Separation Anxiety,” and “The Atomic Wait.”  The computer-composed pieces averaged two minutes each and were played back through loudspeakers. Composers introduced their works and explained how they interpreted nuclear physics through music to an audience of former and current lab employees, peers and colleagues, and several honored guests.

“We pointed out that this wasn’t really music you would hear on the radio or dance to,” says Sullivan. “We explained how we didn’t want to do artistic impressions or mechanistically convert data from physics. Our goal was to find a balance between artistic impressions and real ideas in physics. For the most part, I think we succeeded.”

Sullivan says plans are under way to write more physics-inspired music—possibly paired with video, animation or dance—then premiere completed works at public or campus-based events.

“We concluded that we could create hundreds of pieces, and that we would never exhaust ideas or concepts,” he says. “There’s such a staggering spectrum of things going with the Cyclotron and the FRIB project. It’s like having several Einsteins in your neighborhood.”

Sullivan added that a CD of electro-acoustic, physics inspired pieces might be in the works.

Listen to the seven pieces composed for “50 Years of the Beam at MSU”

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