Arts interview

Is Schrödinger’s cat dead?

The Tech sits down with student composer Dustin R. Katzin ’12 after the MITSO premiere of his physics-inspired piece

Dustin R. Katzin ’12 is a quintessential MIT renaissance scholar, whose impressively diverse achievements are a testament to the remarkable breadth of MIT education and simultaneously set stratospheric standards for the rest of us. A scientist and artist in one, in the four short years of college, Dustin has managed not only to complete a double major in physics and mathematics, dazzle his peers with musical artistry and stay involved in myriad other extracurriculars, but also to have fun while doing it. His crowning artistic achievement is Schrödinger’s Cat: a Musical Journey into the Strange World of Quantum Mechanics, a programmatic orchestral work that was premiered by MITSO last Friday. I sat down with Dustin to talk about music and life at MIT.

The Tech: Now that you’re graduating, how would you rate your overall MIT experience and what are your favorite moments?

Dustin Katzin: This was definitely the perfect place for me because they specialize towards math and physics and science in general. As for favorite moments, the concert from Friday is definitely up there.

TT: Any particular classes that you enjoyed?

DK: I really enjoyed a lot of the physics classes, general relativity, the whole quantum sequence. Actually, it was really funny — at the end of the last quantum class 8.04, they hacked the last lecture. … They made one of the lecturer’s seats into a throne, it was like getting the whole MIT experience.

TT: Speaking of physics, what do physics and music have in common? Which one came first?

DK: Well, the Big Bang happened. So I think physics came first, and if you want to analyze the waves, music fundamentally is physics. The thing that’s interesting about that is that your ear can decompose sound waves so when you listen you can pick out the trumpet and the strings. That’s called Fourier analysis. And you’re doing that before you can add, so you’re already doing calculus, which is pretty awesome! There’s the flip side where I’ve been exploring ways in which physics can influence music and serve as an inspiration for music. There’s definitely also a big mathematical component in terms of what sounds good and what doesn’t; it comes from combinations of chords and adding up frequencies. There’s a class here where you use matrices and other mathematical tools to guide your composition, but I’ve found that the more math you add in artificially, the worse it sounds. To me, fundamentally, music has to sound good.

TT: Let’s talk about your piece Schrödinger’s Cat. How did this piece come about? Where did you get the idea about writing a piece about quantum physics?

DK: I took a class on 20th century composition and on the last day in lecture we listened to music from the early 20th century all the way to now; some of it had random elements like using dart board and throwing darts to decide which note to play. This seemed very complicated. I’m not really sure how the idea formed, but the motivation was that I liked the idea of randomness. Again, the point of music for me is not to be esoteric that you have to decode it but pretty apparent as you’re hearing it. The original idea was the coin flip. Schrödinger’s Cat, coin flip, lives or dies, that was the idea. I was: “Wow, I have to do this.” I was floored the whole day. I started putting down some initial notes. The cat has to be in the box and I had two motifs that I wanted to mix together. But how did the cat get in the box in the first place? It’s going to be a dramatic piece, so let’s have a chase sequence. I didn’t know it was going to be Heisenberg kidnapping the cat until a lot later.

TT: How did you come up with the instruments for the main theme — English horn for the cat and bass clarinet for Heisenberg?

DK: Heisenberg first was on tuba. One of the difficulties about composing now is that most of it is done on the computer so it sounds a lot different [than in real life]. It sounded really nice on the computer, but I didn’t realize how loud the tuba actually is. Towards the later stages I met with the composers on staff here and we talked about ways to flesh out the ideas that I had, which included moving that theme to the bass clarinet, which works well for this cartoon depiction of Heisenberg. As for the cat on the English horn, that wasn’t the original way that motif started. The very first music I had was the beginning of “the cat lives” — the happy ending — with all the strings playing. Then I decided that should also open the piece, to establish that the happy music is the cat.

TT: How long did it take to get to the final version?

DK: It depends what you mean by a final version. There still isn’t a final version. There were some changes we had to put in by hand along the way. The idea came in December of 2009, so the whole process has been about 2.5 years from start to finish. The concert was a really good cap to this.

TT: Was the coin flip real in the concert?

DK: Yes. We tried to find a way to play the happy ending as an encore if the sad ending came up. I’m not sure what would have happened if it was the other way. We had to do justice to the concept. Every day that he flipped the coin in practice it was tails, so I think it was just destined for the cat to die.

TT: It’s no secret that young audiences don’t enjoy classical music as much, especially the contemporary music. As a composer, why do you think that is, and what do you think you can do about that?

DK: For why that is, I think it’s been a long trend of moving to simpler music with simple chord progressions. This gives the audience the freedom to just enjoy the lyrics. I’m not saying one’s worse or better than the other. On what to do about that … well, I’m not going to be marketing myself to compete with Justin Bieber. I want my music to make a statement, like making physics more accessible. So many concepts in physics are cool and I want to convey that excitement to the layperson, through music. I feel that’s a pretty worthy pursuit.

TT: If you had the opportunity to write film music, would you be interested?

DK: That is the dream, if I didn’t have to worry about anything else. Well, let me rephrase this. If Steven Spielberg came up to me and asked me to do a movie, I would drop everything. The one limitation of film music is that you’re limited to one interpretation of it. If you write programmatic music without the visuals already there, the audience can visualize it themselves. People came to me after the concert to tell me how they understood the characters in the piece — and it was different than what I had in mind. But that’s great because people formed their own ideas about what the music meant to them.

TT: Finally, do you have a cat?

DK: Oh, I’m allergic. I’m a dog person. At first, I was thinking of reversing the endings, happy music when the cat dies. … Just kidding.

TT: I guess cat owners would relate differently …

DK: Yeah, I spoke to some cat owners and they said they would stay far away from this concert. The whole concept, of flipping the coin, even if the cat dies, it’s still a joke. I think it’s a little bit of what Schrödinger had in mind. The experiment in itself is absurd to think about.

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Emily Yau ’15 also contributed to this article.