The Symphony of Science: An Interview With John Boswell

Photo courtesy of John Boswell.

“We are star dust
In the highest exalted way
Called by the universe
Reaching out to the universe

We are star dust
In the highest exalted way
Reaching out to the universe
With these methods and tools of science.”-Neil deGrasse Tyson

The brilliant, Washington-based electronic musician John Boswell describes his music project The Symphony of Science as seeking to “spread scientific knowledge and philosophy through musical remixes.” Using pitch-corrected audio and video samples from television programs featuring popular scientists and educators, the audio and video clips are mixed into digital mashups and scored with Boswell’s original compositions. The audio and video is sampled from popular science television shows including Cosmos, The Universe, Stephen Hawking’s Universe and The Elegant Universe.

Unruly Media, a viral video tracking service, first charted “A Glorious Dawn” on September 21, 2009.  Barely a month later, the video had received more than a million views and was ranked in the music category on YouTube as one of the top rated videos of all time. On November 9, 2009, Third Man Records released a 7-inch single of “A Glorious Dawn” for the 75th anniversary of the birth of the late scientific luminary Carl Sagan.

Since its inception in September 2009, the Symphony of Science has caught the attention and praise of a world wide audience of listeners, among them many of the leading figures in both the music and science communities.  Musician Carrie Brownstein described it as “quite beautiful and amazing in both its sincerity and aims.”  Writer Nick Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, was impressed with “A Glorious Dawn”, giving it a favorable review and stamp of approval.  Sagan noted: “John Boswell over at Colorpulse Music is a mad genius, sampling both Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s Universe series into three minutes and thirty-four seconds of pure, concentrated awesomeness… Love it, love it, love it. Dad would have loved it, too.”

Columnist Franklin Harris argues that Boswell’s videos show that science can arouse the minds of artists just as much as religion and mythology have in the past. Harris calls the videos “art for the Information Age, inspired by science.”

New Music Transmission, a podcast who featured Symphony of Science in 2009, gave “A Glorious Dawn” positive reviews and called Symphony of Science as “A thinking man’s Pogo”, referring to the Australian electro artist who was featured 2 weeks before.

From his home in the Northwestern United States, John Boswell sat for an exclusive interview for LA Beat’s readers.  Shy and reclusive, Boswell rarely grants interviews to the press or the media.  Here is what he had to say about Symphony of Science, as well as his other fascinating, ongoing musical projects.

How did this project “Symphony of Science” get started?

The Symphony of Science project began in spirit in September 2009, when I released the first track, “A Glorious Dawn”.  At the time, having little to no following online, I didn’t expect much attention to it beyond some die-hard Carl Sagan fans.  A month and a million views later, and at the call of many fans of the piece, I decided to expand into a full-fledged music project.  Given the experimental nature of the original, the fun I had making it, and the potential for expansion, it was an easy transition into making more music videos covering various other subjects and scientists.

What/who is a primary inspiration for this musical project?

Inspiration came primarily from two sources.  One was the Gregory Brothers, who pioneered the use of auto-tune on spoken word; the other was Carl Sagan, whose charisma and intellect had a huge influence on my love for science.  Carl was the second source I turned to for my own auto-tune experiments, which worked out very well.

Is the project a solo venture, or do you collaborate with others?

The project is largely a solo venture; the only form of collaboration comes with consulting with friends about the musical direction of the various songs.  I compose and perform the instrumentals, tune the vocals and do the video editing myself.  This is done in order to maintain consistency throughout all the pieces, and so I can edit any one piece of the final product on a whim if needed.

What has been the most challenging aspect so far in the creation of this musical project/series?

The most challenging aspect of the series is what gives it its unique nature: selecting the appropriate quotes from a broad array of science  documentaries (the most time consuming part) and tuning/syncing those quotes so that they fit in with the music.  A lot of the quotes chosen don’t work when they go though musical metamorphosis, so a large number of quotes must be distilled from the original sources to make each song.

One of the most unique aspects of this project is that the lyrics are the actual spoken words of many of the leading lights within the scientific community past to present.   Since you are in essence composing the music around this spoken dialogue, what technique do you employ to accomplish this?  Do you first compose the music, then look for snippets of dialogue from various sources that formats to that music?  Do you first select what dialogue you wish to use as “lyrics” then compose the music around that dialogue?

I typically start with creating an instrumental track and a concept for a song (e.g. evolution).  After picking a number of quotes from various sources, I will begin the process of shaping the vocal parts to fit the song.  The first step is quantizing (syncing) the voice flow to the tempo of the underlying track.  Many quotes will be thrown out at this phase if they don’t fit the tempo well.  After this is done, I do the tuning, carefully choosing each note to transpose to, respecting the flow of the original speech.

How does the use of auto-tune assist you in composing the music?

Auto-tune (or more realistically, manual-tune) is what gives the series its unique sound.  It takes the traditional spoken word remix to the next level, creating a potentially catchy melody and fitting in with the music more naturally.  The use of auto-tune is where it turns from just speech on top of music into something much more memorable.

Which was your first musical episode in this series, and what is your latest?

“A Glorious Dawn” was the first episode in the series.  It was created before I knew that an entire series of songs was feasible or desirable to make.  My latest at this time is “We Are Star Dust” which is the 15th Symphony of Science video and features Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman and Lawrence Krauss.

Materials used are from:
Cosmic Quandaries with Neil deGrasse Tyson
10 Questions for Neil deGrasse Tyson
Beyond Belief 2006 with Neil deGrasse Tyson
The Most Astounding Fact
A Universe from Nothing – Lawrence Krauss
Feynman “Fun to Imagine” Interviews
Journey to the Edge of the Universe
Finding Life Beyond Earth (NOVA)
Wonders of the Universe (BBC)
Sunshine
Do you have a favorite episode, and if yes, then why is it your favorite?

My favorite is still probably “Ode to the Brain”, which features a variety of speakers sharing amazing facts about the human mind and what it is capable of.  The music, especially the chorus, sticks out to me as one of the more catchy and interesting pieces of the series.

Which episode appears to be your audience’s favorite, so far?

The audience favorite is still the first episode in the series, “A Glorious Dawn”.  It was a really fun piece to create, and the novelty of the idea I think is what made it the most popular.  It has inspired a lot of people to look at science and scientists in a cool and interesting way, rather than just a boring subject they hated in high school.

Of the various scientists whom you have featured so far, which appears to be the favorite among your audience?

Carl Sagan is certainly the most popular figurehead in the series, although each fan has his/her favorite.  Not only is Sagan one of the most charismatic figures in science, but his voice fits the auto-tuning process extremely well, making him the audience favorite by far.  The rights to use him further have been put on hold for the time being so he will not be appearing in the next few videos, unfortunately.

Tell the readers about your project “Colorpulse” (http://colorpulsemusic.com). I understand that-like Symphony of Science-it consists of original electronic music and video remixes.

Colorpulse is the name of my electronica project, which includes a lot of instrumental music as well as other SoS-style remixes. Any remixes that aren’t science related are usually considered part of Colorpulse (or melodysheep, the name of my Youtube channel).

Tell the readers about Hudson (http://hudson-band.com) You’ve described it as an “indie/Folk pop collaboration”.

Hudson is a collaboration between myself and good friend Will Crowley, who is a great musician and singer.  Acoustic/rock is another genre I am active in exploring, and Hudson is the result of our skills put together to form something fun and experimental.  We focus on creating concept albums in which each song tells part of a story.  We also record exclusively during one week marathon sessions in order to strengthen cohesiveness of the music.

How did you come to form a musical collaboration with Will Crowley?

I have known Will for years, and Hudson is the byproduct of a number of musical experiments we have undertaken together.

Of your three concurrent projects, which has been your most satisfying, and why?

Each project of mine has been satisfying in its own right.  Symphony of Science has given me the popularity necessary to promote the other projects and has been an amazing venture; Hudson helps keep me grounded in acoustic music and is a great counterbalance to the electronic music I create; Colorpulse is a huge amount of fun to work on and working on comedic remixes will never get old.

Currently, your channel (“Melodysheep”) featuring your Symphony of Science series, is rated as the number one most popular channel on Youtube!  Considering the astounding number of channels that Youtube consists of (channels from all over the world) did this news come as a surprise to you?   What was your reaction when you found this out?

I would have to see proof that melodysheep is rated #1 most popular on youtube to believe it.

How important a role do you feel that Youtube played in bringing your music to the attention of a world-wide audience?

Youtube was essential in spreading my works to audiences around the globe.  I started with piano covers of the Gregory Brothers, and it has now grown into something I spend a huge amount of time on and have gained international recognition for.  It is truly an amazing platform that is changing the way the music world functions.

With the continuing success of Symphony of Science, and your musical collaborations with Will Crowley in
Hudson, can your fans be expecting to see you on tour in the near future?

I have no immediate plans for a tour of any kind, but it has been a burning desire of mine for some time.  I would have to spend a lot of time planning to get it right.  You can keep up with news of my projects at youtube.com/melodysheep or at symphonyofscience.com

“A Glorious Dawn”

“We Are All Connected”

“Ode to the Brain!”

“Onward to the Edge!”

“We Are Star Dust”

 

Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Pena began her career as a music journalist over a decade ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes:the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Pena has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them:Goldmine, American Songwriter, the Fresno Examiner, The Blacklisted Journalist and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Pena loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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4 Responses to The Symphony of Science: An Interview With John Boswell

  1. Another insightful review by Ms. Pena. I had never heard of the Symphony of Science – now I want to find out all about it!

  2. Lucy Duhon says:

    I love “A Glorious Dawn.” Nice subject for an interview. Not run-of-the-mill!

  3. Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

    THANKS Lucy and Jeffrey!
    I guarantee you that the next two artists to be featured are anything BUT run-of-the-mill:Amy Allison and the outrageous John Otway! I hope you enjoy reading what they have to say;I know I sure enjoyed chatting with them!

  4. Pingback: Science songster interview #13: John Boswell | Sing About Science & Math

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