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The Visceral Commonality of IAS

Perspectives from composer Derek Bermel and physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed

By Derek Bermel and Nima Arkani-Hamed Published 2013

Derek Bermel, the Institute’s Artist-in-Residence since 2009, organized the Edward T. Cone Concert Series as well as dozens of conversations with poets, writers, composers, and musicians during his appoint­ment, which ended in June. These included perform­ances in Wolfensohn Hall by violinist Midori, pianist Jeremy Denk, inventive groups like eighth blackbird and the Borromeo String Quartet, as well as a reading by Broadway actors of his musical Golden Motors. He created a new series of Writers Conversations that probed the nature of creativity and collaboration with artists, poets, directors, and writers, including Steve Bodow, producer and writer for the Daily Show, poet Tracy K. Smith shortly before she won the Pulitzer Prize, and composer Stephen Sondheim who called art “a kind of puzzle.”

While at the Institute, Bermel collaborated with Helmut Hofer, Professor in the School of Mathematics, on a musical piece inspired by symplectic dy­namics, a mathematical theory of dynamical systems. In Feb­ruary, the JACK Quartet performed Derek’s clarinet quintet “A Short History of the Universe (as related by Nima Arkani-Hamed),” inspired by lectures he attended by Arkani-Hamed, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences.


What was your approach when you first started as the Institute’s Artist-in-Residence?

I’d say my approach has been fairly consistent. I’ve always been interested to make contact with people here. I only wish that I could have gone to more lectures, seen more presentations, participated even more. The Institute is a very rich place. There’s quite a bit below the surface, and it was clear to me right from the beginning that the Faculty and Members here were all working on fascinating projects; some of them I could only grasp skeletally, nonetheless it was well worth the effort.

One of the really special things about the Institute is the abstract quality of the work being realized here. It’s one thing to be at a place where everybody is working on a cure for cancer—and, in fact, folks here are working on cures for cancer!—but the majority are working on projects that can be hard to quantify, hard to articulate and make clear to those who are not specialists in their field.

The public and those who support the Institute have to embrace the central premise that this is theoretical work whose implications may be profound and wide-ranging, that there may be potent ramifications, but that the work itself may not easily be made understandable to the general population, or even to others here.

There are many overlaps between my artistic process and that of scientists, mathematicians, and scholars. I tend to look for points of intersection, and sometimes that requires following what appear to be tangents. Some might prefer the term leaps of faith, but I would just call them leaps, because points of intersection between things that don’t seem obviously connected may turn out to be places where something quite startling or unusual occurs. It’s true in the arts as well as in scholarly work and in the sciences.

The late Marston Morse, Professor in the School of Mathematics, wrote an essay about mathematics and the arts and the common role of intuition. He suggested a psychological and spiritual affinity between the types of explorations pursued by the lone individual who “chooses one pattern for beauty’s sake, and pulls it down to earth, no one knows how. Afterwards the logic of words and of forms sets the pattern right. Only then can one tell someone else. The first pattern remains in the shadows of the mind.”

Yes, and then one must work backwards and try to tie that intuition to something solid. Sometimes I have the intuition, and then I work toward trying to make it real, but often I make a discovery through action, through doing. I encounter a stumbling block, a dead end that keeps giving me a disappointing result. Then I decide, “Well, if I keep ending up here, my initial premise—the way that I’ve begun this composition or this piece—must be wrong.” Then I have to start from the disappointing place and ask, “Now, how can I reimagine it in a way that allows that truth to be manifest?” Looking for truths, which are not always convenient truths, not necessarily the truth I had been seeking, is what writing music is about for me.

There are glimpses of truths that don’t immediately make sense, that are puzzles, that we see only vaguely from a distance, or that we can see just one facet of, and they may remain puzzles for our lifetimes and several more after; we may only catch a dim impression, a shadow of what they imply.

Will you talk a little bit about the piece that was inspired by Nima?

I went to a number of Nima’s lectures on modified gravity. Gravity is something at once so mundane and so abstract. We feel it in our bones, yet its nature still remains elusive, like music. My piece is a musical illustration of various manifestations of gravity. I constructed the melodic/harmonic material based on notes being pulled in a particular direction, relative to other notes. One of the many things I enjoyed about Nima’s lectures is that he linked so many different aspects of the universe, from the vast to the miniscule, painting a coherent picture.

I went to many lectures by other professors while I was here. Even when I didn’t fully comprehend a given topic, I encountered a familiar seesaw way of thinking, sometimes methodical and sometimes intuitive. It’s very similar to the way I work, veering between the two approaches.  I often begin with a system of pitch, of rhythm, of timbre—or something else—and then, at some point I find that I need to abandon, or at the very least change, the system to accommodate what feels intuitively correct. That’s always a very dangerous moment, simultaneously frustrating and exciting, because the implications are large. Ripples are formed that reverberate throughout the piece, throughout the world that I’m creating and defining.

The actual experience of writing is, for me, quite rigorous, and I don’t think rigor by definition excludes spontaneity or creativity—on the contrary, it needs to incorporate them. For me, a piece of music must have a coherent logic to it, and it must ultimately feel inevitable, like it could not have evolved any other way. All the music I love has that quality of inevitability, and I strive for that in my own work. In other words, even though I might have encountered a crossroads while writing a work, a place where it was possible to move in one of several different directions, it should never be evident to the listener where that crossroads occurred.

How did you arrive at your program of concerts and writers conversations?

Well, I have to thank Peter Goddard for helping to engender them, and Robbert Dijkgraaf for continuing to support them. In fact, the theme of the talks was: “Artists Derek knows.” The only commonality was that they were all good. Artists offer their work, and what the audience takes away is up to them. That’s a precious thing about making art, and it’s one of the things that I think scientists or mathematicians or scholars instinctively understand. I tried to find artists who present their work with a sense of openness, who don’t ascribe to it an exact meaning; I enjoy hearing from artists who like to ask questions, not provide answers. There are so many ways in which one’s work can be interpreted, and as an artist you don’t have control over that. Just like as a scientist or scholar, you can’t dictate what people do with the information you put out there. It really has its own life, for better or worse. 

For you, what is the purpose of knowledge?

I don’t know that knowledge as such exists, because knowledge is relative for every user. What’s considered knowledge? What’s considered to be in the canon of knowledge? What’s considered “true”? If the canon of knowledge is the set of all things that we consider to be true, then I suppose the purpose of knowledge is to ask more and better questions.

But for you personally, what is its purpose?

It’s fun. Knowledge is a game. It helps me make sense of life and offers me different perspectives on what is happening around me. I’d say there’s nothing more stimulating than gaining a new perspective on something familiar, or at least getting a window into that different perspective, then incorporating that new slice into my understanding of the universe.

What is the question that you most want answered?

What was around before the Big Bang, if anything? I’m wary of “why” questions. I think “what” and “how” are really good questions, but the answers to “why” tend to be unsatisfying. If they’re approached in a simplistic or sloppy way, they can lead to bad places. Human beings make things up to satisfy that continual urge, the desire to feel that we know why, just in order to keep going. The rush to answer why is like the rush to tell someone what something means as opposed to letting them figure out what it means. There’s a difference between art and dogma. Dogma dictates exactly what everything’s purpose is; it is designed to influence our minds in this or that direction. But art by its very nature is elusive and cannot be explained. It’s meant to stimulate the brain to come up with its own adventure. Derek Bermel, Artist-in-Residence


An Immediate and More Visceral Commonality 

On May 8, Derek Bermel organized an IAS community concert featuring performances by scholars and family. The concert was followed by a farewell reception in the Common Room of Fuld Hall that celebrated Bermel’s many contributions to Institute life and wished him well in his future endeavors as he was concluding his four-year term as Artist-in-Residence. Following are the remarks given by Nima Arkani-Hamed, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences and a member of the Faculty Music Committee, who spoke about Bermel as a grand unifier, a fellow wanderer, and a continued inspiration.

I have known Derek for a number of years now, and came to recognize him as, first and foremost, a brilliant and sensitive composer and musician. Being in the presence of stellar talent in so many different fields, even and especially fields far removed from one’s own areas of interest, is one of the privileges and joys of life at the Institute, and we are all very grateful to Derek for spending part of his meteoric musical trajectory in our little neck of the woods.

Derek’s contributions and importance to our intellectual life at the Institute extend far beyond this. Most obviously, to borrow a favorite physicist’s term, Derek has been a grand unifier of our activities here. We all think about a huge number of disparate things, and there are wide gulfs between the ideas and methods we use in our work. But music is famously a universal language and brings us all together. (Not least because many of us, including those brave enough to perform earlier today, have had or continue to have musical aspirations!) Derek took this raw material, our natural enthusiasm for music, and not only engaged it through his wonderful concerts, but used it to push many of us into listening to and coming to appreciate exciting new music, in a way that has permanently affected our musical lives. I am likely more of a musical philistine than most of you, but I must say, if it wasn’t for Derek, I would never have fallen in love with the music of György Ligeti. Nor would I have ever heard of Nico Muhly.

Of course, continuing to speak a little more personally, if it wasn’t for Derek, there wouldn’t be a wonderful piece of music with my name associated with it, and I wouldn’t be able to show off to my friends. Even more importantly, there wouldn’t be a frantic movement for strings and clarinet with the simply awesome title of  “twistor scattering.” The only people more thrilled by that than me were the disciples of Roger Penrose, inventor of twistor theory. So, thanks, Derek, for taking the pedestrian struggles of a physicist to convey something about what we know of the world to a general audience and using the power of music to turn it into something a little more transcendent.

This brings me to what I feel is the most important quality Derek brought to the Institute. While all of us here work on totally different subjects, we are all united by a common, fundamental experience. I‘m not talking about what one normally refers to as the commonality of academic discourse, involving abstract things like “creative research pushing back the frontiers of knowledge” or similarly earnest endeavors. I am talking about something more immediate and more visceral. Almost every day, day after day, we all get up in the morning, start working very hard, sometimes through to the wee hours of the next morning, and our strenuous efforts are rewarded with failure. Again and again, we fail. What makes the failure all the more brutal, and what keeps us banging our heads against the wall again and again, is that we have some idea of what success looks like, and it is very hard to fool yourself when you aren’t there. Whether in physics and mathematics or in the humanities, when something finally really works, it has a certain perfection to it, a feeling of inevitability, like it was so completely obvious all along, and it couldn’t be any other way. Artists, musicians, and especially composers (and also novelists of a certain variety) are familiar, as are academics, with the feeling of continually falling short of that perfect something that they know is there. I recently stumbled across a fantastic series of YouTube videos of lectures given by Leonard Bernstein, where he explained precisely this process in the context of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He found all sorts of alternative passages that Beet­ho­ven had conceived, put them back in the symphony, and they were simply terrible. Bernstein referred over and over to the sort of perfection, inevitability, and complete harmony with an inner logical structure that Beethoven finally achieved, not by a flash of inspired genius, but by struggling through darkness and noise and confusion, not resting until he got it completely right.

So while we do completely different things, we are mostly wandering around in a distraught state of coping with yet another failure. We may not all be Einsteins or Beethovens, but they are our heros, and their exam­ple is never far from our minds. In this state, it is a deep and genuine pleasure to run into a fellow traveler on the same path in a totally different realm. Like Derek. We meet up at lunch or over cookies and tea, and talk about how things are going. Of course, we are rarely so explicit about these things—“You failing today?” “Yup!” “Same here!” But the sort of casual conversations we have in all settings, over all topics, are all touched by this important common experience in an essential way. We are energized by each other’s rare successes (which are more common for Derek than for me!). It takes someone experiencing fundamentally the same struggles to deeply understand our own, and through conversations and interactions, short and long, to be a continued source of inspiration to keep going. For that too, Derek, I am sure that all of us are deeply grateful for the time you spent with us.

We are going to miss you immensely, but at the same time, we’re all extremely excited to see and hear the spectacular things you are certain to do in the coming years. Please come back and visit us every chance you get. You will forever be welcome here, not just by great admirers, but also by good friends. 

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2013