Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

How many oratorios begin with a song celebrating biogenesis and conclude with an epilogue advising us to be good caretakers of our four billion year old home? As far as I know, only one and that would be Lifetime: Songs of Life and Evolution by David Haines. Lifetime had its North American premiere at the Kresge Auditorium at MIT last Saturday, April 21.

The oratorio, which celebrates evolution and life on Earth is part of this week’s Cambridge Science Festival. The the great man himself was there all the way from South Devon, UK, to play the piano accompaniment and direct the North Cambridge Festival Chorus, Ms. Sack’s class from the Baldwin School (Cambridge Public Schools/CPS), students from the Linnean Community School, and several members of the Teignmouth Community Choir which Mr. Haines runs. David Bass, director of the North Cambridge Family Opera (NCFO), also conducted and was the executive producer of the performances.

The chorus was a diverse group comprised of little kids around age 5 or so to adults of, well, my age. The set was simple: risers with a slide show for a backdrop that featured drawings by the chorus children pertinent to each song.

Mr. Haines’ music has a jazzy contemporary flavor with complex chord progressions and metrics, which are nonetheless highly accessible and bright. His style has been described as “graceful” and “witty,” both of which are very apt.

The ninety-minute (not including a 10 minute intermission) oratorio flowed along with no slow moments, a critical feature if one is taking young kids to such an event. That was not an issue for me, since I was accompanied by my almost 16 year old daughter, a former NCFO singer, and by a longtime friend/Cantabrigian biotechie so attention span was not an issue here.

The oratorio, as shown below in the program, is divided into six parts. All the songs were eminently listenable, but I had my favorites.

“Mutate” has a zippy melody and clever lyrics. “The Selfish Gene,” and yes, this refers to Professor Dawkins’ posit, is a wonderful a capella number sung as a round by a smaller group of adults from the chorus. “Lake” is an evocative soaring song, nothing less than a hymn to speciation of cichlids in Africa’s great lakes of Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria. “Mr. Darwin, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Matthew is a neat little history of science lesson in song. “Bats” utilized percussion as a reference to echolocation. “Living Light” was a paean to bioluminescence. “Fungi” had a tropical beat (salsa, maybe), and some nifty props for the singers in the form of fly agaric and brown mushroom hats. “Tree” was as elaborate as an ode to the equally complex plants. “Cetacean” was majestic, as appropriate to the mammals it described. And “Homo Sapiens?” Well, what’s not to like?

After the oratorio concluded, my friend, who might just be a little cynical, commented that an oratorio dedicated to evolution has potential to cause a riot and stoning in certain parts of the country. An exaggeration perhaps, but it made me appreciate Cambridge. I expect Lifetime would play well in other part of the US. I also expect it might garner some sort of protest in others.

While listening to Lifetime I thought of Carolyn Porco’s lament, Greatest Story Ever Told, in which she notes science lacks ceremony:

We lack ceremony. We lack ritual. We lack the initiation of baptism, the brotherhood of communal worship…

Imagine a Church of Latter Day Scientists where believers could gather. Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way. Or others rejoicing in the nuclear force that makes possible the sunlight of our star and the starlight of distant suns. And can’t you just hear the hymns sung to the antiquity of the universe, its abiding laws, and the heaven above that ‘we’ will all one day inhabit, together, commingled, spread out like a nebula against a diamond sky?

Lifetime is one of those celebrations of science for which Professor Porco pines. For those Chimp Refuge readers in the Boston area, there are two more performances (see program and the North Cambridge Family Opera link above), and they are FREE! The NCFO also has T-shirts for sale with the evolution of the singer logo. Catch a performance if you can, and sing along with that soaring hymn to cichlid speciation.

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Note: Because Science Blogs has no category for “Art and Science” or even something as general as “Science and Society,” I have no idea where to bin this. So into “Philosophy of Science” it goes. No, no, I should toss this into the “Chatter” wastebasket. Man, this is giving me a headache.

Comments

  1. #1 Amy P.
    April 26, 2007

    That is delightfully geeky.

  2. #2 Stephantasy
    April 27, 2007

    That sounds great. Actually, there should be far more operas and songs and pictures and sculptures celebrating science.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. #3 JimFiore
    April 27, 2007

    “Lifetime is one of those celebrations of science for which Professor Porco pines.”

    Was that on porpoise?

  4. #4 Suesquatch
    April 27, 2007

    I’ll need to hear that. Sounds intriguing.