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Sounds of Science

A mashup of arts and technology provokes and entertains

A Rubens tube lights up a recent Science & Art Cabaret in Buffalo. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“The end of each cabaret, for me, always has a nice lingering effect ... because we’ve filled the air with the whiff of speculation and dreams.”
John Massier, Hallwalls curator

The buzzing audience hushed as bass lines and the earthy tones of a marimba resonated from the small basement stage at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. Bill Louden (BA ’13), lead vocalist for the self-described “science nerd” group Inverse Square Trio (IST), manned a keyboard and drum kit as he recited spoken-word lyrics—“And speaking of genetic nomenclature…”—as part of a “quasi-improvisational homage” to Frank Zappa called “3834 Zappafrank.”

Anything goes at the Science & Art Cabaret, and this performance in March was no exception. Usually held at Hallwalls, the free event series brings creative and scientific experts together every few months to explore a common theme.

Since its launch in 2009 by UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Buffalo Museum of Science and Hallwalls, the cabaret has featured a dizzying array of experts—physicists, painters, neurosurgeons—discussing everything from brains to black holes. Says John Massier, Hallwalls curator and one of the cabaret’s founders along with UB physicist Will Kinney and Gary Nickard of the Department of Art, “Sometimes it’s not about answers, but about lots and lots of questions.”

The theme of the March event was sound. IST makes music with typical instruments as well as wacky contraptions straight out of the lab, including dry ice, “wave drivers” (loudspeakers) and an antique physics apparatus called a Rubens tube, whose propane-fueled jets of flame jump to different acoustic wave modulations. Earlier that evening, Buffalo DJ and musician Dave Gutierrez gave tips on how to curate a vinyl record collection, shocking the audience by smashing a rare Pink Floyd record into shards (it turned out to be a copy).

Two UB professors of communication disorders and sciences, Jeff Higginbotham and Elaine Stathopoulos, discussed human vocal chords and speech pathologies, showing You Tube videos shot down the throats of opera singers and rock stars. New York City sound mixer and recording industry veteran Allen Farmelo gave a treatise on the “future of music in the 21st century,” explaining that stereo—the foundation of all musical recordings—is “totally wrong”; future recording technologies, he pronounced, must be designed around the anatomy of the human head.

Massier’s online notes summed up the evening perfectly: “The end of each cabaret, for me, always has a nice lingering effect, not because anything has necessarily been figured out, but because we’ve filled the air with the whiff of speculation and dreams.”