The Music of Science Reply

2017-02-15_APL_Video_Recording-4675When composition master’s student KokJun Phang submitted his portfolio for a composition competition suggested by faculty artist Kevin Puts, he had no idea that the commissioning organization was a Johns Hopkins affiliate responsible for research and advancements over the last 75 years in biomedicine, ballistic missile testing, satellite technology, radar tracking, satellite oceanography, defense satellite communications, prosthetics, and planetary exploration.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), on the other hand, realized in looking over their history that Peabody was the only division of Johns Hopkins with whom they had not previously collaborated.

APL’s invitation to Peabody composers to write a theme for their 75th anniversary forged a new connection between the two historic institutions and offered learning opportunities on both sides.

“The most challenging part of this project was understanding what they wanted,” said KokJun, noting that the APL had outlined only the slimmest of parameters, leaving a great deal of artistic freedom to the student composers. He decided to work with the notion that many of the scientists at APL are inspired about working for the advancement of science and technology, while being mindful of the potential for these developments to be used for harmful purposes.

His first version of the score attempted to capture that dilemma in a theme and variations, with a change of mood from major to minor, resolving back to a celebratory major key at the end of the last variation. After several iterations and some re-working to fit a short historical video, the form had changed but the musical ideas remained. Conducting graduate student Alan Buxbaum helped assemble a student mini-orchestra in Friedberg Hall and led the recording of the work, which is now set to a series of black-and-white images recounting some of the many defining innovations accomplished at the lab over its history.

The video was unveiled before a standing-room crowd in the APL’s Kossiakoff Center auditorium at a March 10 university-wide event to launch the anniversary celebration, following remarks by five-term U.S. Senator and now Johns Hopkins Professor of Public Policy Barbara Mikulski, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, JHU President Ron Daniels, and APL Director Ralph Semmel.

Asked about his reaction to having his music played for such a gathering, KokJun replied that he is “just happy they found something they thought was suitable for the lab.”

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