Blog: MCA DNA

The Geometry of Thinking

By Teddy Rankin-ParkerGene Coleman

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Tonight Teddy Rankin-Parker (touring cellist for Primus and Iron & Wine) presents a sneak peek of a new commission from composer Gene Coleman titled "The Geometry of Thinking." The piece features a new set of bowing techniques inspired by recent neuroscience models of how the brain functions. Below, both Rankin-Parker and Coleman reflect on the development of the work. The performance begins at 6 pm.

Teddy Rankin-Parker on “The Geometry of Thinking”

Since 2011, I have had the extreme pleasure of performing in Ensemble N_JP, a group that composer Gene Coleman founded in 2001 as a vehicle for his ongoing work with musicians from Japan. Immediately taken by the experience, I fell in love with Gene’s work as both an improviser and a composer. I have always thought about music as a field of exploration and discovery. As such, I am constantly seeking out collaborations with artists whose musical investigations are a cross-pollination of interdisciplinary ideas, who also allow me to push the bounds of contemporary cello technique. Gene felt like a fellow musical expeditionary. When we met, he was already thinking outside of the traditional “artist” realm, incorporating ideas from science and technology into his music by way of vast and beautiful multimedia performances. Moreover, his scores eloquently call for the use of innovative notation and extreme extended techniques, encouraging me to push deeper into unknown modes of expression, testing the physical limits of my instrument—the dream of any avant-garde musician! From very early on in our collaboration, I hoped that Gene might someday consider writing a piece for the solo cello.

“The Geometry of Thinking” evolved naturally over the past couple of years through countless emails, phone calls, videoconferences, and intensive work sessions in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago. I have quite literally broken a couple of cellos along the way. For me, the piece took my interest and commitment for making interdisciplinary artwork to the next level: putting the intelligence of sound directly at the heart of scientific inquiry, enabling music to help us more deeply explore the science of the mind, and affirming that through the convergence of different fields we are expanding our exploration of the nature of reality.

The work is the first of a series of new works that I have commissioned for solo cello. The full project, titled Some Other Fields, features additional works by Jim O'Rourke, Glenn Kotche, and Michael Beharie, and will be released in 2017.

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Gene Coleman on “The Geometry of Thinking”

This composition is part of a new direction in my work, where ideas from science and technology lead to new forms of musical thought and expression. I have worked on the development of these ideas with Teddy Rankin-Parker over the last two years, and I am very grateful for our collaboration.

On one hand, the work continues my interest in the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and connections between new music and architecture. On the other hand, it is an exploration of recent neuroscience research that suggests geometrically based models for brain function.

The composition explores a series of new bowing techniques, each of which reveals the sonic potential of different geometric forms that are “drawn” on the strings at different speeds, scales, and intensities. These forms are placed in a structure modeled on the ear, the auditory nerves, and maps of the brain indicating where different functions occur. Very important here is the pioneering work of Lloyd Watts (see image above) on the auditory pathway of the brain and the concept of geometric synapse function, from the book Dynamic Systems in Neuroscience by Eugene M. Izhikevich (see image below).

Each bow pattern creates a unique sonic and rhythmic profile, which can be subject to many types of variations. Because of the different angles of the bow in creating the patterns, the sound is one that combines noise and tone within unified gestures, something I have been interested in doing for many years.

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