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On May 3, the American Museum of Natural History in New York hosts an unusual premiere, combining music, neuroscience and giant images of the brain.
Self Comes To Mind is a collaboration between composer Bruce Adolphe and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, known for his research and writing on the evolution of human consciousness.
"My view is that we evolved mind first, in a very broad sense," Damasio explains. "And eventually we also evolved the possibility of knowing that we have a mind. That is a process that begins with the construction of the self ... and it is out of that which comes our sense of discovery — of our own existence, of our surroundings, and eventually of our own condition."
Damasio rewrote some of his material at Adolphe's request, gearing it toward the idea of music and composing. Adolphe took some of Damasio's ideas and translated them into what he calls "compositional techniques."
"For instance, the idea that memory is not stored as little photographs or audio clips, but needs to be reconstituted in what are called 'convergence zones' — so there would be a passage of music which would continue to return, as a memory might, but each time, I reconstructed it differently, it was reconstituted. So the whole structure of the piece was as if you are trying to get at some true vision of the basic material, but there isn't one."
Damasio also crafted a poem from some of his work. This excerpt was particularly inspiring for Adolphe:
But no one knew that minds existed, least of all the beings within whom minds had now emerged. Unannounced and undetected, minds had entered life. Once minds began blooming, nothing was ever the same. But who would know that the universe had changed. No one, nothing could yet be known.
"The first movement of Self Comes To Mind takes its idea from the idea of blooming," Adolphe says. "From silence, and, at first, fragmented, elusive, mysterious and quiet music, which becomes slowly more cohesive, and ideas become slightly more energized, and eventually they really start to spin."
Adolphe has often linked science and music, with pieces such as Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concerto (for Chicago's Field Museum) and Oceanophony (for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography), but he says the landscape of the brain can provide almost limitless inspiration.
"I think the topic of neuroscience," Adolphe says, "is like nature has been in a more traditional way — like the inspiration of mountains or looking at the sky full of stars — and that the new frontier of neuroscience and looking at the brain is really a fantastic inspiration for the arts."
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with his insatiable musical curiosity, performs the premiere of Self Comes To Mind, along with a pair of percussionists, at the AMNH's LeFrak Theater. The colorful images of the brain (to be projected on a screen) come courtesy of Damasio's wife, Hanna Damasio, internationally respected for her brain imaging atlas.