Princeton Weekly Bulletin, April 20, 1998

April 18 celebration of 10-year anniversary

A break from equations

By Caroline Moseley

What do pianist Donald Priour, violinist David Relyea, saxophonist Mark van Raamsdonk and Gershwin-singer Steven Gubser have in common?

Obviously, an interest in music. That they're all physics graduate students is less obvious. Yet these physicist-musicians and eight others, both undergraduate and graduate students, perform on April 18 in one of Princeton's most popular musical events: the annual Physics Department Concert. The venue is Taplin Auditorium.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the concert is the brainchild of Laurel Lerner, the department's assistant to the director of graduate studies. A singer and piano teacher herself, she conceived the idea of a departmental concert while chatting with several graduate students.

"We were commenting on how much musical talent there was in the department, and someone said, 'Why not have a talent show?' We dragooned some performers, put out a flyer and ended up with an SRO crowd in the recital room in Woolworth."

Ten music-filled years later, the concert has become "a very pleasant annual event in the department," according to department chair A.J. Stewart Smith, Class of 1909 Professor of Physics. Crediting Lerner with being the recital's "focal point and driving force," he says, "Undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff all enjoy participating in the concert by playing or by coming to listen."

A break from equations

By popular demand, Vijay Balasub-ramanian is master of ceremonies. A featured classical guitarist, Balasub-ramanian received his PhD in 1997 and is now a junior member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. The MC "tries to make the audience laugh," he says. "It's a captive audience -- too good to pass up."

This year's program also includes classical guitarist Homer Reid '98; pianists Sibel Bayrackci, Steven Phelps, Donald Priour and Karl Westerberg (in his eighth Physics Concert performance); violinist David Relyea; Akakii Melikidze, who plays a Yamaha PSR-220 synthesizer; saxophonist Mark van Raamsdonk performing with Phelps; and duo pianists Oyvind Tafjord and Eric Torbet.

Those on the program range from experienced college performers to those for whom music is "just a hobby." Whatever their level of training and experience, all find that in recent years the study of physics has superseded the study of music. Gubser, for instance, sings Gershwin songs for friends but performs "infrequently." And he occasionally takes piano lessons -- "more occasionally than usual nowa days, since I'm writing my dissertation."

The impetus to perform varies among the performers. Melikidze, who will play a composition of his own, says, "My friends told me I definitely have to play, and I trust my friends." Violinist David Relyea welcomes the concert because "Princeton hasn't many opportunities for chamber music or solo performance, at least not for people who aren't in the orchestra." To pianist Phelps, "It's a chance for us all to take a break from the equations and appreciate another expression of the human spirit."

Symmetry and beauty

Given that the department can field so much musical talent, one wonders if there is something about physics that produces musicians.

Says Matt Gordon '98 (a veteran of the concert not performing this year), "I think the study of physics is very often taken up by people who have not just an intellectual but an aesthetic appreciation for the symmetry and beauty of the physical world. This is a type of beauty that is well reflected in music."

Guitarist Reid believes that "Music is the most mathematical of the arts, and thus people who tend to think mathematically tend naturally to be interested in music. Physics is largely about uncovering the beauty of nature, and people who work in physics are perhaps more sensitive -- even if subconsciously -- to aesthetics."

Or perhaps there's something special about the department.

Says Gubser, "What's special is two words: Laurel Lerner. There is a lot of musical talent here, but it takes someone with Laurel's energy and enthusiasm to keep it going. We're all thankful to her for the effort."