Monty Harper's More Songs from the Science Frontier

Transient

Project:  More Songs from the Science Frontier

Creator:  Monty Harper

Description:  I've been reviewing music from the Oklahoma-based Harper for a number of years now -- I've always thought he's been more skilled than most folks at weaving together the educational into the musical (not an easy task, and one that I have little patience for when done poorly).  Harper's also been forward thinking -- this Kickstarter for a new album of science-themed songs (produced by Sugar Free Allstars' Chris Wiser) is actually his second; he turned to the site more than 3 years ago to help fund this album's predecessor.

Harper's set himself a tight turnaround time to meet his $10,000 goal, but he kindly answered a few questions about the project, about science, and the nature of love (really!)...

Zooglobble: How were the song subjects selected for this new CD?

Monty Harper: As you can tell from the working title, More Songs From the Science Frontier, this CD will be about science!

One song is called "Fizz Boom Read," to match the science theme public libraries across the U.S. are using for their reading programs this summer, and it celebrates reading about science, of course!

The other songs were inspired by current scientific research happening here in Oklahoma. The topics are based on the research projects of scientists who have volunteered for my "Born to Do Science" programs, where I help them explain their work to an audience of 3rd-8th grade students. I use the songs to introduce the topics and motivate questions from the kids. The writing process is important for me, too, as a way of boiling each research project down to the essentials. Why is this interesting? Why would a person devote his or her life to this study?

Most of the research projects I write about are not the highly visible sort you'd see on Nova or hear of on Science Friday. The scientists I present are quietly working away at "every day" science. When I first started doing these I was a little worried I might run into a subject that just wouldn't inspire a song. To the contrary! Even though the scientists are somewhat randomly selected (I work with whomever wants to participate), I've found all of their research to be engaging, important, and most definitely song-worthy! I believe I have found my muse!

Songs lined up for the new CD address brain science, psychology, zoology, ecotoxicology, algae, fungus, gardening, vaccination, particle physics, photosynthesis, evolution, and the nature of love. As a group they also about the process of science, how and why we explore the world around us. There are seventeen possible titles, but only ten slots to fill. I've been performing them on my video blog, and my Kickstarter backers will get to help choose which songs actually end up on the CD.

How do you go about learning about the science (and scientists) behind each song?

I start with a preliminary conversation with the scientist to narrow down the topic we'll be addressing. Often I have to do a little convincing to get them over the hump of not wanting to talk about their own research. The perception is that the kids either won't understand it or won't be interested. But they usually warm to the idea when they see how genuine my own interest is.

Then we set up a face to face interview. I ask a lot of questions and try my best to understand what problem is being addressed, why it's interesting or difficult, and how the tools and methods used can help find answers. Often I'll take a tour of the lab so I get to see what's going on for myself! At home I type up the recorded interview and look for a focus that will become a song. Once I have an idea what the song will be about I read the scientist's published papers or visit recommended websites for any additional information I may need.

When I think the song is done I ask for feedback from the scientist. I do want to make sure the details are correct!

What are the particular challenges of fitting particularly informational-rich lyrics into a song?

Good question - if I were writing a book about songwriting a complete answer could fill a chapter at least!

The technical challenges have to do with fitting big unfamiliar words naturally into a song so that they rhyme, scan well, and don't throw the listener off the main idea. It's like working a puzzle. Often it's best to start with the most important, most awkward words, and build rhythms, melody, and even song structure around them.

Perhaps the bigger challenge is sorting through a ton of detailed information to extract a song-worthy idea. It's tempting to want to put in all the big words and cool facts. But a song is about one thing. It needs focus and a particular emotional angle to hook the listener. Those don't fall naturally out of a list of details; they must be discovered and drawn out.

For example when writing about why prairie voles are monogamous, I learned an entire process that happens in the voles' brains which bonds a male and female together with many steps and many fancy chemical names. All those details are cool and interesting but they don't tell a compelling story on their own. What drew me in the most about prairie vole pair bonding is that prairie voles are often used as models for human behavior, which brings up certain questions: Is love just a chemical reaction in the brain? If so, does it matter?

In the song ("My One and Only Vole") I used a few carefully selected details out of that long list of chemical processes ("My dopamine receptors go insane") in order to frame and support the real question at hand. The result is an uplifting love song from a vole to his mate. At the climax he solves the paradox for himself: "Science says our bond is made with chemistry / Oxytocin's all it's fashioned of / I just know that you're the only vole for me / And chemicals don't mean I'm not in love!"

Were you always interested in science, or have projects like this sharpened that interest (or both)?

Both!

I was a total science geek as a kid. I would stay in from recess in second grade to copy dinosaur facts off of a set of cards we had in the classroom. Then I made a huge chart of them that I hung on my wall at home. I went through a phase where all I wanted to read was science books. I think it's natural for kids to be intensely curious about the world around them and how everything works.

But like a lot of kids, I lost interest in science sometime during high school. Our esteemed educational system left me with the impression that all the tractable questions of science had been answered over the past two hundred years, and that those answers were located "in the back of the book." Any open questions were way too difficult for me to comprehend and I didn't see myself as a possible contributor. I guess I thought scientists were mostly either teachers or TV personalities.

At some point as an adult I picked up a Discover magazine and discovered that science is in fact still happening! The more I read the more I realized that there has been enormous progress made since I was in high school in all kinds of areas from cellular biology to brain science to materials science to astronomy, and on and on... This sense that science is a living, breathing, advancing, changing body of knowledge that actual normal human beings contribute to every day is almost totally missing in the way science is usually presented to kids.

That is the void I set out to help fill with my songs. Talking with scientists and writing about their work continues to intensify my desire to share all this awesome information with the world. Welcome to the frontiers of human knowledge, baby! This is where it's at!

You Kickstart-ed this album's predecessor 3 years ago before Kickstarter really took off -- have you noticed any differences this time around, either in the system itself or on how your fans react to it?

Nobody has asked me what Kickstarter is this time around! I guess that's the main difference. In the first campaign half my effort went to educating people about crowd funding and Kickstarter. This time around I'm mostly talking about science and songs.

I did have to adjust to one change in policy at Kickstarter. Last time I allowed people to buy a CD which I delivered to a school on their behalf with a card recognizing the backer as the donor.

This time I wanted to do the same for public libraries, since they will be able to use science themed music for their reading programs this summer. But Kickstarter had me redesign my page before I could launch. They view this sort of thing as "contributing to a cause" which is no longer allowed as part of your rewards system.

What I'm doing instead is offering a two-CD deal, "one for yourself and one you can give to your local public library." Under this plan I'm really just making a suggestion. Backers will be responsible for the actual giving.