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Jul. 06, 2012

What Does a 'Silent Spring' Sound Like?

by Eli Chen

Click to enlarge images
In 2010, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra approached composer Steven Stucky with a proposal: compose a tribute to Carson's Silent Spring, which cornered its 50th anniversary this year. Having loved the book as a teenager, Stucky willingly accepted the institute's proposal. But he felt daunted by the challenge of communicating science through music.

“It’s not at all obvious what music and science have to say to one another--science is about data and music is not,” said Stucky, who the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra named their Composer of the Year in 2011. “I discovered the meeting point between music and science--let’s call it ‘poetry.’”
 
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Stucky's “Silent Spring” is anything but silent--it’s thunderous, foreboding, and drags the listener up and down at a maniacal pace, like a ship being muscled through tumultuous seas. Like its source of inspiration, it gives the feeling that trouble is not just heading our way--it’s happening right now.

“Music makes space to respond emotionally to things we don’t have adequate language to talk about, like our fears about the planet or ourselves,” said Stucky.

It took Stucky five months to write “Silent Spring.” Most of that time was spent finding the music in Carson’s writing, he says. Instead of focusing on the technical aspects, Stucky drew inspiration from Carson’s lyrical writing style--specifically, four of her titles: The Sea Around Us, Silent Spring, “River of Death” and “The Lost Wood.” (The first two are titles of her books; the latter two titles are chapters within Silent Spring.)

The final piece is 17 minutes long, and is structured into four parts named for those titles. It played for the first time last February in Pittsburgh, the city in which Carson grew up. This October and November, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra plans to perform “Silent Spring” in seven cities across Europe.

“The piece is not science and not propaganda either,” said Stucky. “I don’t mean to send a listener away with a message about toxic chemicals and ecology. I mean to give listeners the feeling that they can have strong views about life, and that’s what ‘Silent Spring’ is about.”
 
 
 
About Eli Chen

Eli Chen is a science and culture writer based in New York City, whose work has appeared in The New York Times and OnEarth Magazine. Her favorite stories often involve scientists putting animals through weird experiments.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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