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'Self Comes To Mind': Your Brain On Music

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."

Mark Kosower, cello

John Ferrari and Ayano Kataoka, percussion

(published by The Learning Maestros)

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Let's take a fantastic voyage now to the brain, not with surgery or meditation or even a microscopic submarine. What powers this journey through the brain is music. It's Science Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Composer Bruce Adolphe met neuroscientist Antonio Damasio 16 years ago at a conference on science and creativity. Adolphe was so taken by the scientist's ideas about the brain that he composed several pieces based on Damasio's writings and books, such as "Descartes' Error."

Tomorrow, the scientist and the composer unveil a new collaboration. Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma will play, and Damasio will read while colorful images of brain scans flash on a giant screen at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

I spoke to Bruce Adolphe and Antonio Damasio about that piece and Adolphe's earlier, imaginative brain compositions, including this one.

(Soundbite of song "Memories of a Possible Future")

LYDEN: It's performed here by the Miami String Quartet, and it's called "Memories of a Possible Future."

Antonio Damasio explains that title.

Mr. ANTONIO DAMASIO (Neuroscientist): Every day, you for example, or ourselves here, have plans that we are making for tonight, for tomorrow, for days and months in the future, and those plans are being committed to memory as much as the things that have already occurred in our minds. So that's the idea that we are constantly in this intermediate position between the lived past and the imagined, anticipated future.

LYDEN: It's an absolutely beautiful composition, Bruce.

Mr. BRUCE ADOLPHE (Composer): Thank you.

LYDEN: Where do you start with something like this? How did you turn that very intriguing idea into a piece of music?

Mr. ADOLPHE: The whole structure of the piece was as if you're trying to get at some true vision of the basic material, but there really isn't one.

Mr. DAMASIO: Right, and that, by the way, chimes very nicely with reality because our memory is not a perfect replication of what really happened. When we recall, when we try to reconstitute some event from our past, we very often make mistakes.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Let's turn to the piece that's premiering Sunday, "Self Comes to Mind." Bruce Adolphe, how does a composer collaborate with a scientist? A writer? I think I could understand more naturally, but a scientist might be more challenging.

Mr. ADOLPHE: Well, luckily, Antonio is a writer as well as a scientist, and that's basically the approach. So I called him up and suggested a possibility of his writing a new text that would really be made for me to work from as a composer.

LYDEN: Antonio, maybe you would read some of that? I understand you've written a poem?

Mr. DAMASIO: It's really about the emergence of the process of mind long before consciousness made its appearance.

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.

(Soundbite of song, "Self Comes to Mind")

LYDEN: This work will be played tomorrow night by Yo-Yo Ma, but at the moment, we're hearing a recording by a different cellist named Mark Kosower.

Mr. ADOLPHE: That's right.

LYDEN: What are you hearing in this phrasing, Bruce, of your own composition?

Mr. ADOLPHE: Well, the first movement takes its idea from the idea of blooming, from silence and at first fragmented, elusive, mysterious and quiet music, which becomes slowly more cohesive, and ideas become slightly more energized, and also, it begins to make more sense in terms of how the notes are organized, and that sense has to do with the idea of becoming a mind.

(Soundbite of song "Self Comes to Mind")

LYDEN: You have dedicated this to the idea of the evolution of consciousness. Can you give us an understanding of what you mean by that?

Mr. DAMASIO: My view is that we evolved mind first, in the very broad sense, mind being the possibility of having images about the world and about ourselves inside our brain, and eventually we also evolved the possibility of knowing that we have a mind, and it is out of that that comes our sense of discovery

Mr. ADOLPHE: I think the topic of neuroscience is like nature has been, in other ways, in a more traditional way, like the inspiration of mountains or looking at the sky full of stars or a beautiful lake and that the new frontier of nature, of neuroscience, and looking at the brain is really a fantastic inspiration for the arts.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Well, it's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you both and to listen to this, and thanks very, very much for joining us.

Mr. ADOLPHE: Thank you.

Mr. DAMASIO: Thank you.

LYDEN: Composer Bruce Adolphe and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Their first collaboration, "Self Comes to Mind," premiers tomorrow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and you can hear a complete recording of that piece on our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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