Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bruce Adolphe - CONVERGENCE ZONES (Whether in the brain or in Salzburg)

All science connects to art in that thinking about the unknown or unarticulated idea is a creative act, and whether the next step is research and discovery or a piece of music, it is making the abstract real and available. In ancient European music, an early form of richly complex counterpoint was called a ricercare. This word, which means an early type of fugue, literally means research and in this sort of music, the composer researches a subject, which is a musical thoughtWe still use the word subject to mean the main "theme" of a fugue. We have moved away from the idea that music is a science and that science is an art, but we are coming back to it, thankfully. Both serve to illuminate ourselves and our world.

For the past 20 years or so, ever since I met Antonio Damasio at the Aspen Institute, I have occasionally devoted my energies to composing music inspired by concepts in neuroscience, and the most recent work was premiered at the Brain and Creativity Institute this past October, 2014. That work, Musics of Memory, was structured to reflect the way memory works (and doesn't) in the brain. The idea was to present an opening movement for the protagonist solo piano that represents a "lived experience" to be remembered, which is then "mapped" by other instruments (guitar, marimba, harp — all instruments capable of keyboard-like harmonies), and then reassessed and rearranged as it is stored in various ways in the brain; and finally it is re-collected as recollection or memory, and the final piano solo is not quite like the lived experience. We all know what that feels like.

Here is the structure:

I. Lived Experience (piano solo)
II. Mapping (guitar, marimba, harp, and piano commentary)
III. Reassessed, Rearranged (all)
IV. Recollection (all, but primarily piano solo)

This piece, as with my previous neuroscience-inspired works, was performed in public and followed by a discussion provoked by the piece with neuroscientists and the audience about memory. After the premiere at the Brain and Creativity Institute, BCI director Antonio Damasio and Assal Habibi (director of the music and brain team at BCI) joined me onstage to discuss with the audience (lots of participation) issues raised by the piece and also, of course, by people's own experiences of memory and memory loss. 

I dedicated the piece to Nicholas Maw, a dear friend and great composer who died at age 71 after suffering from Alzheimer's for quite a few years. The feeling of memory disintegration was palpable in the music.

My plan for my relationship as a composer to neuroscience is to continue this collaboration, but also to bring something I learned from the Salzburg Global Seminar into focus in designing new research experiments with music. While I am not quite ready to articulate what I learned there — since it is still forming in my mind — I would say that the discussions of improvisation and composition have led me to the brink of a new idea, which I will inform you of when it crystalizes. Perhaps some of you can explain how it is that I am sure I have a new idea and yet do not know yet what it is. It is, for me, a familiar feeling, if unanalyzed. (I do know the experiments that relate to this common phenomenon.)

Several people mentioned to me that they would like to collaborate on projects, and I am hoping that these were not merely comments inspired by free wine or too much coffee. Please, contact me. We will figure it out.

Thank you all for letting loose and not holding back with your presentations, ideas, and comments. It was great fun and unforgettable.

Yours in New York,


Written By Bruce Adolphe


  1. Bruce, I'm going to guess that the relationship you sense between improvisation and composition has to do with the different use of attentional systems. Without exaggerating the difference between these two closely related activities, I would expect the ongoing flow of an improvisation to "control" the focus and division of attention, whereas in the (somewhat) more deliberate act of composition, I would expect more conscious or self-aware control over the use of attention.
    - Harry Ballan

  2. Another thought: prior patterns are the basis of improvisation. In the subtle movement from improvisation to composition, the prior patterns are modified and transformed into new content within the constraints of an (as yet) unspecified fitness function.
    -Harry Ballan