It was a ‘rehearsal circus’ this week for violinist Merel Vercammen (33). And for the first time not only with performances in which she plays herself, but with performances that she curates herself. Her first festival sees the light of day on Saturday: SNAAR, a festival at the intersection of music and science.
The whole afternoon in TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht you can experience large and small performances that revolve around experiments and tests. Do you perform better when you listen to your favorite music? Does music make you smarter? Is there a link between your personality and your music taste? What tiny movements do you make when you hear music? The results will actually be used by Leiden University scientists in their research. In addition, there is also a performance about the ‘string theory‘, and a literal reprise of a benefit concert that Albert Einstein organized in New York in 1934 for his colleagues who stayed behind in Nazi Germany. And in her new composition Dear professor Einstein, composer Mathilde Wantenaar commemorates that Einstein received the Nobel Prize a hundred (one) years ago.
Photo Bram Petraeus
Vercammen is absolutely no stranger to science. In addition to her violin studies in Utrecht and London, she studied mathematics and obtained a master’s degree in ‘Music, Mind & Brain’ and a master’s degree in cultural economics. For twelve years she had already had the idea for a festival that combines her two worlds. “When I was studying in London, I walked every day on the Exhibition Road to the conservatory. Then you first walk past the National History Museum, then the Science Museum and then the Imperial College technical university. Then comes the Conservatory and the Royal Albert Hall. Suddenly I thought: how strange that they never do anything together. While science and music are so close to each other for me.”
Vercammen has history with it. Pythagoras made a mathematical study of music and harmony in ancient times. In the Middle Ages ‘musica’ was one of the university math subjects in the so-called ‘quadrivium‘, in addition to arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. So it’s an exact science. Vercammen also wants to teach its festival visitors more about this old approach to musicology.
In her contemporary master’s degree, Vercammen studied music cognition: how does music work in our brain? “By thinking exactly, I started to play Bach better, I think. And more modern pieces, pieces that require analytical skills, I have come to understand them better. But when I rehearse I am not consciously ‘scientifically’ busy. I am not cognitively manipulating people.”
Yet she is hesitant to put her scientific background in program booklets at concerts, afraid that people will listen differently. „In the music field you notice that a contrast is often seen between the so-called ’emotional world’ of music and the ‘concrete world’ of science. But I see a lot of similarities.”
Vercammen gets the same amount of inspiration from both. “Many people see science as something dry, but good science starts with a dream or an idea of someone, someone who thinks outside the box. A lot of music comes from the same dream.” She wants to show that with her new festival.
Even though she does not participate in every performance, Vercammen is there at every rehearsal. She is the interpreter between the musicians and the scientists, and feels as if something works for a festival audience that only understands one of the two disciplines. “Scientists, for example, are very used to first presenting each test subject with an extensive consent form. That is of course not possible if you have performances of 45 minutes. I have to find a solution for something like that.”
Also read this interview with James Oesi, one of the guest musicians at the festival: ‘How a double bass player learned from a skater†
If Vercammen could already know the outcome of one future musicological study, what would she choose? “Then I would like to better understand the magic of music. We can analyze chords and stuff, but that doesn’t explain why a magical moment sometimes arises out of nowhere on stage. Such a rare moment when everything is right. Why is it like that?”
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A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 27, 2022