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5-23-17

Editor's note: Eliza Rubenstein is the editor of "Cantate," the print newsletter for the California Chapter of ACDA. Occasionally one finds writing that is so eloquent that the reaction to it is almost like that upon being overwhelmed by the beauty of a new piece of music. This, to me at least, is one of those! It's reprinted by permission on our website.

Letter from the Editor: the Joyful Science
Eliza Rubenstein
Originally published in the Spring, 2017 issue of Cantate (California ACDA magazine)

I write this column on Earth Day. As I’m typing these words, tens of thousands of people around the country are marching in support of science, many of them waving gleefully nerdy signs (“More mitosis, less division!”). If not for a busy day, I’d be out there with them.

Science was never my passion—my scientific career peaked in tenth grade, when I lucked into a chemistry teacher who accepted test answers in limerick form—but, like many of us, I’m sure, I’ve always been fascinated by its revelations, grateful for its advances, and protective of its role in our society.

Nevertheless, I get testy when science and the other “STEM” fields (technology, engineering, math) are lauded as the most important subjects for today’s students to learn. I don’t like the distinction between “hard” and “soft” areas of study. I don’t care to read any more studies about how learning music will make our kids better at algebra and biology—you know, their real classes.

The urge to pit one valuable and worthwhile subject against another is a sad by-product of an undernourished educational system, not a reflection of any inherent dissonance between music and science. Both are fueled by curiosity, imagination, and the search for meaning amid seeming chaos. Both proceed through observation, interpretation, experimentation, trial and error, and a great deal of painstaking, detail-oriented work behind every lofty idea or breakthrough. Both broaden the scope of what we can understand, and what we can dream of.

The late evolutionary biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould was also an avid amateur choral singer. One of my favorites of his essays is “The First Day of the Rest of our Life,” a reflection on his experience of performing Haydn’s Creation with the Boston Cecilia on January 1, 2000. How was it, he asked, that a man who had devoted most of his career to exploring and explicating the mysteries of evolution should be so moved by a musical retelling of the myth of creation?

He finds his answer in the Enlightenment-era values that informed both the text and the music of The Creation—the optimism that reason will lead us toward knowledge and truth, and the faith that morality will compel us to use the answers we find for good. Knowledge and wonder, truth and beauty: These are not rivals, but deeply interdependent sources of inspiration and motivation as we move through a complicated world. “Art and science,” Gould concludes, “provide different and legitimate takes on the same set of saving subjects, and we need both approaches.”

Gustav Mahler—never one to avoid diving into the thorny questions of philosophy and epistemology—packed his Symphony No. 3 full of meditations on creation and being, alongside folk poetry, sounds of nature, and the “bimm, bamm” of church bells from the chorus.

In his original draft of the work, he gave the symphony the subtitle “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft”: “The Joyful Science.” He borrowed the phrase from Nietzsche, who, like Mahler, understood “Wissenschaft” to mean not merely the family of biological, chemical, and physical disciplines we explore in the laboratory or the field, but the boundless pursuit of knowing that occupies our minds and spirits throughout our lives. That’s a definition broad enough to embrace all of us: the STEM folks, the artists and writers, the historians, the social scientists, the theologians.

We may compete for attention and respect, but we are (we need to be) united in our search for truth and our rejection of those who would stand in its way. The Joyful Science—all of it—deserves our advocacy.

One of my favorite signs at the March for Science said “I’d rather have questions I can’t answer than answers I can’t question.” When we stage a March for Music, I may just have to steal that.



 

 
 
Eliza Rubenstein
is Director of Choral and Vocal Activities at Orange Coast College, and the Artistic Director of the Orange County Women's Chorus and the Long Beach Chorale and Chamber Orchestra. She hold degrees from Oberlin College and UC-Irvine, and she is a former animal-shelter supervisor and the co-author of a book about dog adoption. Eliza lives with a yellow Labrador named Dayton and a cat named Wilbur, and she's passionate about grammar, Thai food, photography, and the St. Louis Cardinals. She can be reached at: erubenstein@occ.cccd.edu