Seeing Music, Hearing Art
By Leigh Brown Perkins
Imagine being offered a spot in an honors class with no precedent, one so multifaceted it requires four professors and four-hour blocks of class time, plus a final project so daunting it will take a whole year to complete.
“Surprisingly, we actually got eight people to take it,” said Thom Moore, professor of physics, who team-taught Seeing Music, Hearing Art with Associate Professor of Art Rachel Simmons ’97, Associate Professor of Music Daniel Crozier, and Professor of Philosophy Tom Cook. “It was an experiment, designed to get the students intimately involved in original scholarship, with the only parameter being a final project that required them to deterministically turn a piece of music into a visual art work, one that could be transformed back into music.”
• Student-to-teacher ratio: 2:1
• Percentage of population who experience synesthesia, the involuntary response of one sense when another is stimulated, which was studied in the course: 10 percent
• Years it took to develop the course: 8
• Number of students who failed the course: 0
Emma Broming ’12 admits the course was rough, even for a junior with a double major in music and physics. Along with partner David van den Berg ’11, Broming’s final project had her writing code with binary numbers that correlated to the notes of a song (“Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles), which in turn correlated to colored pixels, creating a visual pattern beautiful enough to be called art.
Aditya Mahara ’12, a junior physics major, created a video installation that relied on running a song repeatedly through a recording box, assigning a color to each frequency, then filtering it down to a single frequency and a corresponding single color. “It was so abstract,” he said. “That was hard for me, to have that kind of freedom, with such a vague assignment and no background in art. But it was a cool project.”
At each session, one professor led the discussion in his or her area of expertise, and the other three professors became students. So the physics professor found himself in the unfamiliar territory of an easel and the music professor learned something new about sound waves. “I loved that aspect of it,” Broming said. “Even though music is a second language for me, hearing an artist or a philosopher talk about music taught me things I had never thought of.”
Not only did the students have to learn the physics of music, come to understand what makes art art, and study how the body processes both audio and visual art, they had to have their final projects ready by the end of the term to be displayed at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. “Some of them had never experienced stress of that level before, with that deadline looming,” Moore said. “But the students learned more about themselves and how to do scholarship than I have ever seen at any other time.”
Moore said such scholarship is possible only when there is a campus culture that offers unreserved support of out-of-the-box teaching. “Let’s be honest, it costs money to do this kind of thing,” he said. “The administration provided a budget to have two professors and we volunteered that two of us would teach for free, that’s how committed we were to it. I’m not sure how many other colleges would support something so experimental. But Rollins did.”
“Funding this project was an easy decision because it helped create an intellectually vibrant, interdisciplinary learning community of students and faculty, which is a hallmark of a Rollins education,” said Interim Provost Laurie Joyner. “The faculty inspired my confidence that the end result of this collaborative effort would be high-quality work worthy of exhibition in our Cornell Fine Arts Museum. Of course, our students and faculty exceeded all my expectations.”