Interview with Matt Russo: Science that is inextricable from an artistic process


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Matt Russo is a Toronto-native, an astrophysicist, musician and astro-musician. After attending the Etobicoke School for the Arts with an focus on music, he attended the University of Toronto, completing a B.A. in Music, and a B.Sc., M. Sc. and PhD in Astrophysics. During his postdoctoral research at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, he founded SYSTEM SOUND, a science-art outreach project that translates the rhythm and harmony of the cosmos into music and sound He has created a sound-based planetarium show at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics -- where he will be hosting an event as part of Nuit Blanche 2018. 

You can find out lots more about him at https://www.astromattrusso.com/

But more importantly you should our vibrant interview below....

LR: You went to Etobicoke School of the Arts. My son’s teacher last year was such a believer in ESA that she made sure all three of her children went there. None of them are artists, but she just believed so much in the integration of the arts and the “regular subjects” to make them in to great human beings.

MR: Just being around passionate people too. It makes such a difference. The school next door – I knew kids that went there – and it had prison-like atmosphere. Night and day between our schools.

LR: The willingness to put in the hard work is the manifestation of that passion. I keep encouraging my kid to notice the things he doesn’t mind working hard at. Or things that don’t feel like hard work. Then you’ve found what you can do with your life. Like math – he always prefers doing math homework to any other kind because he just figures it out in his head in some mysterious way. I don’t understand it, but his way always gets him to the right answer so I’m not going to mess with that.

MR: Yes, I’ve encountered a lot of students like that. It’s ok until about grade 11 and then if they don’t have the systematic method they run into trouble. But you still need the creative side!

LR: He’s willing to put a lot time and energy into LEGO....making his own designs and really trying to accomplish specific things with them. He’s just got to find something that feels like that to do for a job – because LEGO designer jobs are few and far between.

MR: I spent a lot of time with LEGO. Making my own designs, my own blueprints. I went nuts.

LR: I love to hear that. Makes me hopeful for the possibilities for my kid in the future.

I thought I’d tell you a bit about why I’m doing all these interviews. It’s been 12 years I’ve been exploring ideas from science through dance but I’m on a new quest to put it into words what the intersection of art and science means to me.

It feels like there’s a deep  interest from both sides to develop this intersection. Knowledge gives you the how, art gives it the meaning. When they work together, it’s synergistic. It can inspire people to act for the good of the planet.

I want to talk to scientists about creativity and creative process. I think artists do themselves a disservice when we set ourselves aside. And separate because of our “process”. We are doing the same thing as everyone else but with a different skill set.  Most jobs and professions have creativity flowing through them, but it seems science and art have a 3-dimensional reach that wraps around towards each other.

So, I’m interviewing scientists of all kinds, to investigate the intersection of art and science.

As a choreographer and dancer, I find the language of science so evocative. In my work we ask ourselves how we can embody this language and turn into a performance that might make people care more about what’s happening on our planet as well as beyond it?

That’s my soapbox speech.

One of my dancers sent me an article about you last year, because he knows I’m an astrophysics nerd. So that’s why we’re here. Thanks Sky!!

 Photo of Sky Fairchild-Waller, Blue Ceiling dance artistic associate and performer in "dead reckoning"
Photo by Omer Yukseker

How did your two undergraduate degrees – music and physics --come about?

MR: I always had some background interest in science and physics. My dad was a math teacher and I was always fascinated by science, but I didn’t realize I was so into it. As an angsty teen I got really into music and I didn’t want to go to college. Just play rock music. Then I got to grade 11 physics – then I started to understand the universe. There were simple things you could write on your hand the tell you how the planet moved. It diverted some e of my music attention back to that.

At the end of high school you have to make a choice. Teachers couldn’t tell me the right thing to do.

So I did my music degree first, because I realized I could take physics courses for electives. I still had no idea what path I would take but over time the physics got more and more stimulating and exciting. Every physics class was a window in a new pocket of the universe. Music by that point was not like that so much. By that point I’d mastered the skills and plateaued.

LR: Your music degree is in performance?

Rvnners, Matt Russo's band!

MR: Jazz performance, yes.  And then the pressures took over and I did my astrophysics degree and formed a band on the side. They were always parallel but always in conflict. Both time-wise and also conceptually. There was no connection for 10 or 15 years. I was on the knife blade that whole period trying to decide what path to take.

I was finishing my post-doc last year and didn’t have anything else lined up, and then they discovered the Trappist planetary system. I sat on it for a few days, I saw the musicality of it. I was at my window gazing out over U of T, and for some reason the person before me in my office left a globe of the celestial sphere in one corner and a bust of Beethoven in the other --in the astronomy department, we have no explanation -- and I was in between those two things and I got the idea to convert Trappist system into music in a certain way and from there, I got so much more of an emotional connection and response from people with the combination of astronomy and music than I did with either one separately. So it was pretty quick, about a week or so, and my life changed. I knew from then on I had to do this.

LR: That’s quick.

MR: I wasn’t sleeping. It was so fascinating to me, I couldn’t’ stop doing it. So I knew it meant something. It wasn’t just me. Other people were responding to it. I knew it could help. It could help communicate science., to help the visually impaired. It made so much sense for me.

It was a huge relief for me to bring together these two words that I’d artificially kept separate. And they weren’t working so well like that. It’s been almost a year since that day my life changed. It’s been a whirlwind.

More and more opportunities are coming and more and more ideas flowing. More and more collaborations.

Trappist Sounds as arranged by Matt Russo

LR: It’s a clue you’re on to something... like that idea of working hard at something that doesn’t feel like hard work…I really do believe that when anybody finds that it probably means you’re on to something.

One of the things I try to ask everybody and seems very apparent here, is how the creative process is embedded in your scientific process…Well for you they are kind of one and the same.

MR: They are intertwined now. I’m using music to gain a deeper understanding of astronomical systems. In the past I would have read the papers and listened to the talks. And now I have this other lens to filter the most musical systems.  I get to do a deep dive in each of these systems and really understand what makes them work. And there’s no division for me between the musical side and the physics. To a deep level music is physics.  I don’t even think that I’m switching over anymore.

LR: And when you say it being a different lens…do you feel it’s a more embodied lens?

MR: In most cases what I’m doing is about the rhythms of the universe. There’s rhythm and pitch in music and what most people don’t realize is that they are the same thing. If you speed up a rhythm it becomes a pitch, your brain just switches over. So, it’s all just cycles in time.

With the most natural sonifications I do, I’m not really changing the data. I’m looking for systems that are rhythmic or harmonious, in exactly the way that music is.  I’m just speeding them up to make them audible. The connection with dance is pretty apparent. It’s rhythms and motion.

LR: It’s translation That’s the way I think of dance.  You take something in one language and translate it into another so that the original “something” can be perceived in a different way. I have two undergraduate degrees as well, music and dance – I think those two art forms go straight to the gut, there’s a really visceral reaction to both music and dance. Probably visual art does this as well. But literature and theatre kind of go up here in the brain first and then down to the gut. But with dance it goes to the gut first, bypassing some of our defences. The guards we can put up with our intellect aren’t activated.

MR: That’s a nice way to think about it. For the last six years at the plantetarium, I’ve been doing the regular shows, completely visual and informational. No music. It was exciting for the presenters, and the visuals were are amazing. But now I’ve integrated the music into it – I’m kind of hitting audiences from both angles. They respond emotionally to it. There’s information, but there’s also an emotional connection to what they’re learning. It’s a completely different experience incorporating those two.

Dance, music  and theatre because they are happening in time, they synchronize people’s experiences.

LR: There was a study done recently – I’m not sure how they did this, probably with heart monitors on an audience – but the researchers tracked heart beats and after a certain point in the duration of a performance – dance, theatre, music, whatever – they found the audience members’ heart beats started to synchronize.

MR: That would be a good thing to sonify or resonify!

LR: We need to send this information to the powers that be in government –  if you want a harmonious society you need to support these activities. Or at least a more harmonious society. You need some disharmony to know what harmony is.

MR: That word, harmony, isn’t just a metaphor.

LR: This is what I find fascinating about learning about the universe. No matter how far you go, there’s always a new edge of the unknown. I’m not a religious person whatsoever but I will say that when my parents died, in both cases I turned to reading Carl Sagan and Darwin. There was no way for me to make sense of what had happened but to learn about the mystery. To learn about what we know, but also that there’s still so much to know. There always will be.

MR: Sagan was all about the cosmic perspective. Seeing things from the outside, not as yourself. The potential in perspective change.

LR:  Reading about cosmology and evolution serves a similar purpose for me that religion must serve for other people. To find something bigger than myself.

MR: There’s enough spirituality and wonder in science, you don’t need to invent things to make you feel connected. You are already connected. That’s kind of the whole basis behind what I’m doing. It’s really hard to experience something like Saturn’s rings.  They are on such a different scale in time and size and distance and qualities and everything is so foreign to what we deal with on a day to day basis. I think what people are responding to when I’ve converted it into music is that it’s very direct and at home. And it’s not a lie. You’re really getting a deeper understanding of something you have no personal contact with.

LR: That makes a lot of sense Last year I was involved in two shows that used sounds of space in their scores. One was my company’s show Animal Vegetable Mineral and the other was Theatre Rusticle’s production of Our Town. I used NASA’s recording of the sound of the earth rotating from the International Space Station. Theatre Rusticle used the sound of Jupiter.

MR: The radio waves.

LR:  Yes. The audience had such a strong response to these sounds in both shows. The sounds were under the action, rather than a rhythmic score echoed by our movements. It percolated in the background, the way I think a desire is percolating in the general public to know more about the universe.

MR: All sorts of art/science organizations are popping up.

LR: And the reboot of Cosmos. It makes me teary. That I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos with my parents and now my son is watching it with me.

MR: And Neil Degrasse Tyson talks about Carl Sagan’s influence on him in the reboot. It’s quite moving.

LR: One thing I appreciate about Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the role he has taken on in a broader way now. He’s a very political figure. He doesn’t really have an option. But he’s speaking out to defend and support scientific research against the forces that want to silence or subvert it.

MR: He’s more effective than Bill Nye.

LR: Ah. Bill Nye. Love him.

MR: I love him too.
LR:  But he just doesn’t have the same kind of swagger, does he?

The threat to art and science funding by the current political climate, is really ramping up my desire to speak to our capacity to change what’s wrong here, with our planet. For instance, I don’t think we should be investing all this time and money in colonizing Mars. I feel like there’s a group of people who are just ready to pull the chute on this planet. But there’s still time to fix things!

MR: I agree.

LR: I appreciate the efforts and the research and innovation…Like Elon Musk. He’s getting amazing things accomplished just by being this crazy guy with a lot of money.

MR: But you can’t put a price on inspiration. You can’t just do inspiration for its own sake and damn the planet.

LR: Right!? I thought everyone saw WALL-E – didn’t that movie teach us all not to abandon this planet?

MR: I haven’t seen it.

LR: Maybe it should be mandatory viewing.

When I was looking into your music videos and files, I found you’d adapted the solar system’s sound into “True Love Waits”, a Radiohead song. I have a little inside joke in all my choreographies: there’s bit of a Radiohead song embedded in each one, in one way or another. How did you translate the universe into a Radiohead song?

Radiohead "True Love Waits"


MR: A lot of chance involved. With the Trappist sound we wrote a program that could apply to any system– you tell it what system, the starting note and tempo you want, and it plays the system. After Trappist, everyone wants to know what the universe sounds like. It’s actually an old idea, it goes back to Keppler. The music of the spheres. We put it through our algorithm. We decided to work with the inner solar system and it just so happened that the way it came out of our program was very close to True Love Waits. 

Like all the projects I do there’s got to be a creative spark. There has to be a basic emotional connection to what the sound system is. It took me eight months to put the pieces together. It’s a weird connection and it meant a lot to me.

I fell in love with the project. There’s something so haunting about the planets hanging in the solar system telling each other not to leave.

Matt Russo's System Sound covers True Love Waits


LR: When it gets put together that way and with that meaning, suddenly it gives a deeper understanding of what’s going on out there, even if there are no words for it. You just sort of get it.

MR: The other way to think of it – and it might be trivial to artists like you – part of what drives art is constraints, limitations. It was a really fruitful set of constraints knowing I had to work with astronomical data and communicate something that was congruous with that system and mean something for people. It’s not like when I would sit with my guitar and wait for a song to come. I have a really clear starting point with this.

LR: I feel the more constraints the better, especially as I get older. Youthful angst can’t fuel me anymore. There are so many possibilities of what I could research and explore so if I eliminate a whole bunch of them by setting constraints on my creation, then the way through is going to be a lot more interesting for me and for the audience

MR: And you’ll surprise yourself.

LR: The question of whether this is good or not goes out the window because you’re attending to the task at hand which gets more and more specific as you add constraints.

From my limited experience of high school science, this seems close to scientific experimental method. You have to put many controls and constraints on your experiment in order to get a really specific result and prove or disprove a thesis, find results that will be meaningful in developing a theory.

Ha! One of the questions I wrote down to ask you is “how do constraints support your research?”

MR: Research is a separate thing. I don’t do research any more, but it really was like doing science. It didn’t feel so different from creating an artistic piece. You develop your own world. You’re creating the model and you hope it maps onto reality, but you have to keep adding gears and switches and elements. And in the end, you don’t know if you’re following your own imagination – it’s a logical, mathematical world, but it’s all your own creation and you just don’t know if it maps on to reality.

LR: That’s how I feel choreographing. An absolute internal logic, that maybe even my dancers don’t understand. I know it is a true mapping of my head, my curiosity on a particular theme, but does it touch the audience, the reality?

MR: In order to do that you have to explore first and then test it in reality.

LR: Exactly. That’s art!

MR: In theoretical physics it’s not so much about testing things that exist but about making a new model and comparing it to what we experience afterwards.

LR: I love reading about theoretical physics and I’m so grateful for those writers who can write books in ways that I can understand. The world of theoretical physics is so interesting to me. Like the quantum guys – the basic building block of matter is sound waves?

MR: The idea behind string theory. 

LR: String theory as much as I’ve been able to absorb it – mostly seems too mystical for me. But the idea of sound building matter from something we don’t think of as having matter. It makes my brain bend, in a good way.

One night last summer, my kid – he had just turned 8 -- was falling asleep and stumbled onto talking about parallel universes and kept talking his way through it until he said “What if every cell of our body is a parallel universe? So, matter is parallel universes.”

MR: He’s a little like me. But I don’t think I got that far in my thinking when I was his age.

LR: He’d be mortified to know I told you. He wouldn’t even let me tell his dad – which I did anyway.  I wasn’t thinking of cool things like that when I was his age, and I had a pretty vivid and overactive imagination. It’s amazing he’s thinking these things.

MR: He’s very in line with things Lee Smolin is writing

LR: The world needs crazy ideas like this. Try it and see what happens. It obviously has some footing in reality if people are having a response to it.

To go off on another tack: I really responded to some of the research areas listed on your website: Magnetized astrophysical flows…That’s such an amazing phrase. What is that?

MR: The vast majority of the universe is plasma. Fire is an example of plasma – it just means the electrons and protons are not attached anymore, they are free floating. Most empty space is a version of that. When you have a bunch of free charges they respond to magnetic fields. The universe is permeated by magnetic fields and charged particles The fields make the particles move a certain way. The particles effect the magnetic fields. The universe is magnetic fields interacting with plasma – it effects a lot of things.

LR: During the creation of my last project Animal Vegetable Mineral, we got talking about magnetic fields and how birds use them etc. and also about how our organs have magnetic fields. That has transcended into all the performance I do now. Thinking of the overlapping and meeting of our magnetic fields creates relationships and tensions between performers.

But using that image, we are really just tapping into what’s constantly there.

MR: On all scales too. A single atom has a magnetic field and the largest scale possible – the whole universe.

The other thing I love about magnetic fields is that we don’t notice them, but they are really the reason we’re alive. The magnetic field protects us from solar particles. Mars once had oceans, but it doesn’t have a magnetic field, and it was stripped it of its oceans. Our magnetic field is our life support.

LR: That’s cool. Well, not cool for Mars. Poor Mars.

In rehearsal one of my dancers was talking about how the magnetic fields protect us. That’s how I know I’ve got a good team, when they research this stuff on their own. I’ve got all my dancers following NASA on Instagram. They post such beautiful images. It’s art, and emotional response.

MR: You’ve got to wonder what makes us respond to things that are beautiful, things that we have no access to for most of our history.

LR: At some point in our evolution looking up became a thing. We look up to find the sunlight. The longing for the sunlight, to tilt the face up there. It must have served a purpose and became a search for beauty. And mystery.

MR: You’ve heard the Voyager recording? From 2013 – when it finally left the solar system? That’s in my planetarium show too…. it’s like a squeal. And then silence.

LR: It’s heartbreaking. That Voyager moment is an embodiment or a metaphor for mortality. You just keep going on, but we can’t hear you anymore.

MR: With Voyager there was the golden record, a piece of its history that would always be with it.

LR: That was Sagan right?

MR: Yes. He commissioned it. His son is the first human voice in the recordings on it.

LR: I find that funny that we thought that whatever might encounter the record would know how to use it.

MR: There’s instructions on how to build the record player and play the record. But I can’t even follow it.

LR: I guess it could be like LEGO instructions –no words just pictures of the pieces and where they go. But even then, there are times that the drawing’s depiction of the 3-D is really challenging to see properly….so we’re even assuming that some intelligent life out there would have 3-dimensional perception on a 2-dimensional surface. I mean our eyes are really complicated mechanisms and they kind of don’t make sense.

My last question is where do you hope your art and your science to go? What’s your dream for it?

MR: I haven’t really thought about it.

LR: Well it’s still very new.

MR: There’s no defined end goal. I just want to reach as many people as possible. I want to reach the visually impaired community. It’s a huge gap in astronomy outreach. Astronomy is a very visually oriented field. Even if it’s not a huge community, I can help out a lot with my work and I get a great the response.

It’s the trifecta: you want to find something that you’re good at, something you are passionate about and that helps people.



Experience Matt Russo and SYSTEM SOUND 
as part of Nuit Blanche 2018
At the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics
University of Toronto
50 St. George Street
Toronto
7pm-7am September 29/30th, 



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