What have I learned?
Laboratories at MIT, Rockefeller University, Harvard and Yale. Design teams at Apple and Pentagram. Music training crucibles at Tanglewood, Curtis and in Munich. These are places where I have had the privilege to work with brilliant, optimistic, driven people. They all have had a common outlook: They don’t see the world as it is, but as the possibility of what could be. That possibility animates their lives.
At Rockefeller University, I worked with scientists who thought, “I wonder if we can know exactly how DNA is transcribed,” (Robert Roeder) and “it should be possible to see how an ion channel works” (Rod McKinnon). At the MIT AI Lab we thought “maybe we can uncover abstract rules for musical phrasing” (Jonathan Amsterdam) and “what would a real piano sound like with 8,000 dynamic levels?” (Michael Hawley). Some of these questions were bold, some led nowhere, and some were astounding. But in the world’s best laboratories, music studios and design shops, I learned that great people are willing to put all of their time and effort into ideas because they understand that possibility becomes reality.
At Rockefeller University I witnessed Rod McKinnon, a scientist who had devoted his life to figuring out how ion channels actually work, win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003. It was considered impossible until he did it—and now his work is taught in high school biology classes. He patiently explained it all to me so I could tell the story to the public with our team of artists and writers.
I met Mac McCarty, a scientist whose lab proved (in the 1940s) that DNA is actually the substance that carries genetic information. Before that, many thought it was impossible for such a simple molecule, DNA, to encode the genetic plans for an entire organism. Was Mac McCarty a genius? He told me he simply believed he and his colleagues were right, and that their hypotheses had not yet been ruled out. He had the tools, determination and cleverness to see it through. He saw what could be and pursued it until it was. The result was that he and his team paved the way for Watson and Crick, ushering in the entire genetic era.
Some of the musical masters I had the fortune to learn from, like the scientists, created reproducible methods and testable hypotheses. They had the tenacity and drive to figure out how to unlock the potential in written musical scores. And some even had the wherewithal to convey their insights to impervious students like me. They, too, were not satisfied with the world they inherited and chased opportunities to do better.
Sergiu Celibidache taught me that when all the aspects of musical sound are functioning in alignment with each other and with structures of harmony, rhythm and line, the composer’s vision is much more likely to become intelligible, and thus lead to transcendent musical experiences. His greatest contribution was showing me how this approach can be learned and practiced.
Leonard Bernstein showed me that music is not something “out there” in the sounds, but that it is in us. A seemingly trite observation, for aren’t all perceptions, sights, sounds, and smells only existing as such in the mind of a perceiver? Yet, when music in us becomes the guidepost, the goalpost, intense focus and elimination of the inessential becomes grounded. And those big hugs he sometimes gave me for making even slight progress toward understanding helped make me believe anyone could do what he did, which is true, by the way.
Markand Thakar taught me that a kind, nurturing insistence on each person’s ability to understand musical energy and line, and their responsibility to contribute to music-making is essential to musical success. He also showed me how to connect physical motion and gesture to musical sound.
And what from the world of technology can be brought to bear on music-making? The approach to product development that centers on delivering a “core value” to customers to “delight” them is, of course, central to creating music, too. But at the highest levels, at Apple and Pentagram, I witnessed first-hand the trust and belief that people can attain something better when they focus on simplicity, directness, and emotion. Going beyond just saying that these things are important requires focus, skill, collaboration and an unsentimental willingness to nix anything that gets in the way of that vision. With the help of Apple’s design team our startup created an app for musicians that became a “best new app” in over twenty countries.
As a musician and technology entrepreneur, I have spent many years testing, honing, repeating and learning. I have used technology and AI to explore ideas and approaches to musical performance. I even once wired up Wii controllers, Macs, and the world’s best speakers to create the world’s first live digital orchestra performance of a Beethoven symphony. So, what now? After decades, it’s clear to me that repeating the cycle of imagining, believing, trying, hoping, and learning is what it’s all about. Amazing results? Cool, if they happen. But if not, no worries … just share what I learn, and keep on keepin’ on!
Now a new opportunity arises: Combine the learning from music’s greatest’s maestros with the focus and methods of designers, scientists and creators in a setting where people who care—who want to make music at the highest level, and who want to go beyond dutifully carrying out the orders of “do-it-for-me” conductors—can come together to create the conditions under which great musical experiences might occur. To learn and understand what that takes. And to share what we discover. That’s the purpose of this new symphonic laboratory.