BY SARAH FABER
We started off talking about peer review, and now we’re into art. The last time we spoke, it was about conveying your chosen masterpiece to the adoring public, but what about the content of masterpiece itself? The scene is a volcano-top lair. I am petting a fluffy white cat and musing that “you and I are not so different, Dr Bond” (for some reason, I am always the villain with the cat in this scenario). Art and science are the same. Bold move, I know, but stay with me. I’m going to talk about music because that’s what I know, but rest assured, artists in general are included here most enthusiastically.
Welcome to Part III: In Which Many Comparisons Between Science and Art are Made and No One Dies or is Secretly a Countess, Like in Opera.
When you think of music, what do you think of? For me, it’s a complex question because most of my life has been spent studying music, first as a performer, then as a music therapist, and now as a scientist. Music is, simply, everything. But physically, it’s sound. Culturally, it’s sound organized in a certain way for a certain purpose; be it exploring the mystery of love, acknowledging and protesting injustice, honouring lost loved ones, making sure you can keep your 20 children in sensible, Lutheran footwear, or communicating your opium-fuelled hallucinations to the general public. And many, many other things in between. But at its root, it’s an idea made into sound.
The sound can be written, it can be learned aurally, but unless you’re out of your gourd on opium (hey, Hector Berlioz), sound does not have a visual component that the naked eye can pick up (I know, I know. You CAN see sound moving things, associate sounds with the things that make the sound, you can feel sound, and some people associate sound with other non-sound things, like colours (if you’re interested in this, look up “synesthesia”). When something is intangible, like an idea or a sound, it relies on other modalities, including people, to exist outside the idea-haver’s head. This might sound bizarre and esoteric, but it’s not uncommon. Stories live in books, music lives in scores and CDs, recipes live on egg-crusted scraps of paper crammed into a Tupperware box with a busted lid in everyone’s kitchen cupboard.
Music and science rely on communicating ideas through a careful application of well-practiced technique and both have been used to describe the mysteries of the universe. Musicians and scientists go through years of training to gain the tools to illuminate their chosen mystery, and both will spend many hours in a variety of poorly-insulated buildings surrounded by exceedingly expensive equipment in pursuit of it.
[As a historical aside, it doesn’t always work out well. In Europe in the middle ages, the church denounced the tritone (the augmented 4th/diminished 5th interval you hear at the beginning of ‘The Simpsons’ theme song) as the Devil’s Interval (which sounds pretty badass) and banned it from use. Many scientists were proclaimed heretical for various reasons resulting in one of my favourite paintings: Galileo at the exact moment he realizes he can’t science his way out of the Roman Inquisition:
On the flipside, music and science (and the musicians and scientists behind or in front of them) have been instruments (Hah! Pun!) of censorship and propaganda themselves.]
If there’s one difference, it’s that musicians are taught to be comfortable with a little magic (or madness, the choice is yours) driving the machine whereas scientists, in my experience, aren’t. Musicians dissect and analyze a piece of music, and put it back together with enough glitter to be seen from the cheap seats at the back. In a good performance, there’s an extra piece that appears during reassembly. This is the artistry, the thing that stays with the audience after the performance is over. The magic. Every musician knows what this is, and we talk about it openly (ask your favourite musician about a time they were completely in the groove, then get ready for a long story that inevitably ends with “well I guess you just had to be there”). It has nothing to do with technique and everything to do with communication. Transmitting the idea, not to technical perfection, but to artistic perfection to an audience who is on the same page. In science, a paper can be utterly magical, and a scientist can be completely in the groove presenting a study to an audience that is really getting it, but artistry isn’t given the same openness, the same priority that it is in music. The stumbling block here might be the modality. Words and numbers are precise, music isn’t, but communication is crucial to both. Whether the setting is a concert or a conference, you’ll find the same amount of technical precision, and the same drive to be understood.
So what in the hell does this all have to do with peer review and/or masterclass? Musicians and scientists are people trying to express ideas. These ideas may not make complete sense to the person having the idea, and an exhaustive process of developing, testing, breaking (so much breaking), and re-developing is needed before that idea is ready to present to the public. The finished idea is meant to be shiny, functional, and to communicate the essence of the original idea to the public. All the failed attempts that were painstakingly developed are kept backstage and the relevant pieces are neatly explained/presented as a performance/publication/presentation. But when you spend so much time with an idea, you might lose perspective on what belongs in the backstage junk pile, and what makes it to the audience. Peer review and masterclass is inviting another person behind the curtain to rummage through the whole junk pile. At best, you have everything arranged perfectly and it makes perfect sense. At worst, you have thrown out all the priceless gems and stuck a bunch of junk on stage. But, most importantly, you have the opportunity to talk through it.
This process isn’t always cordial, it isn’t always fun, and, like opera, it isn’t always without intrigue, bloodshed, and wailing. But the goal is the same: sublime presentations of brilliant ideas. And so, Dr Bond. You and I are not so different after all.