By Susan Scheuer
The Rock-it Science concert, an event held in conjunction with the Sensation and Emotion Network that took place under pink, blue and yellow strobe lights at the Highline Ballroom on Tuesday, March 3rd, gave neuroscientists, geneticists, and PhD students in Systems Biology, among others, the chance to "get down." Four of the rock bands in the long line-up of performers featured well-known scientists who, in the words of music producer Tim Sommer, “pursue music on a level that’s a little higher than that of a hobby.” It was difficult to know, for the most part, which of the performers were actually scientists --except, of course, when guest artist Rufus Wainwright announced unashamedly that ”I failed every science course I ever took.” The event was designed, in part, as a celebration of the interface between art and science and the musicians’ bios tell us what the concert did not. Pardis Sabetti, for example, the tall, and lanky, lead vocalist of the Boston-based alternative rock band “ Thousand Days,” has a formidable career offstage. A Rhodes scholar, Dr. Sabetti is the third woman ever to graduate summa cum laude from Harvard Medical School and she is now an Assistant Professor in the Center for Systems Biology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
To further explore that nexus between music and science, I spoke to some of the performers, like Dr. Joseph LeDoux, guitarist, singer and songwriter for The Amygdaloids (named for the “amygdala”, the almond-like structure in the brain’s temporal lobe involved with emotional behavior). He is also Professor and Chair of the Center for Neural Science at New York University, author of two books on how the brain works, and the one whose idea it was to produce the Rock-it Science concert. Many of his lyrics have to do with mental disorders, as his songs titles suggest (Mind Body Problem, Memory Pill, and An Emotional Brain, to name a few ). His theory on why so many scientists play in rock bands? “Maybe all kids want to be musicians. Academics haven’t gotten over that very well.”
I also spoke to Dave Soldier, guitarist with “The Spinozas,” a group that performed soulful Flamenco-influenced songs in Hebrew, Arabic and Medieval Spanish. He is David Sulzer, Ph.D. in his non-performing life, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry-Neuroscience and Pharmacology at Columbia University. Musing briefly on the difference between musical composition and scientific discovery, Dr. Sulzer is convinced that, where John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Beethoven, and Mozart, Dr. Sulzer are concerned, “you can’t do it better than those people did it.” Not so, he believes, in the realm of science. “In science it’s the best we can do for right now, but it will be superseded. Your discoveries aren’t forgotten, but are no longer associated with you--you’re a building block”. And what about the similarities between musicians and scientists? “Their personalities are similar. They are insecure, driven and worried.” Well, world-class scientists performing on the Highline Ballroom stage, inspired by subjects as wide-ranging as Andalusian poetry, and the intricate workings of the brain, could shed what worries they may have had for just a few hours, and really let loose.