David Soldier: Composer as Scientist
from "Don't Quit Your Day Job"

By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 2000 Originally published in New Music Box / American Music Center


David Behrman | David Soldier | Joan La Barbara | Stephen Vitiello | Morton Subotnick


While putting out queries for this article, I was puzzled when I received an email response from one Dave Sulzer. I thought that I had written to David Soldier, the conceptually-based New York City composer and leader of the Soldier String Quartet, requesting an interview. When I cracked the email, I saw that the right person had indeed responded to me, but it was from his day job, that of a scientist, professor, and lab master of Columbia University's Laboratory of Dopamine Neurotransmission. Yikes, I thought! This guy's a well-recorded and well-known composer - I'd seen him perform so many times over the years and own a half dozen of his CDs. How in the world does he find time do all this stuff and compose??!!

In addition to all this, he's starting his own record label, Mulatta which will be releasing two new pieces of his: a Thai elephant orchestra (he went to Thailand and actually trained a gang of unemployed elephants to improvise on a variety of instruments) and an orchestra of Brooklyn school children doing free improvisation which should be released later this Spring. Mulatta is also working on the first commercial release of Soldier's marvelous collaboration with the zany Russian conceptualist artists Komar and Melamid called The People's Choice Music (based on a survey and resulting in The Most Wanted Song and The Most Unwanted Song).

What does David Soldier really do all day? He explains: "Basically what I do is research into brain function. I'm particularly interested in how synapses change and how that might underlie learning behavior, acquisition of memory, and establishment of memory. A lot of our funding comes because this has of tie-ins with diseases, particularly schizophrenia, drug dependence, Parkinson's and Huntington's Disease. We're particularly working on pre-synaptic plasticity, which basically means that the neurons that are sending the neuro-chemical signal to the receiving neurons are changing. And so we're examining what those changes are at the site of release of the neurotransmitters and how that can be modulated in the brain because it's changing all the time. In particular, we've decided to concentrate on the dopamine neurons which are - and this is a bit of a simplification because there are a lot of ifs, ands, or buts here - but they're basically the neurons which are activated by all the drugs of abuse and dependence: nicotine, alcohol, opiates, cocaine and amphetamines. Tell me when I'm going into too much detail for your purposes..." Whew!

So what does all this have to do with his music? Evidently not too much until the recent projects with the elephants and the children... Soldier feels that these projects are involved with scientific principles of volition and consciousness. And the line of twisted logic needed to set up the recording session with the elephants sounds like a something from the depths of a laboratory: "How can you get elephants to play instruments? What does that entail? Break it down into small parts. What's the anatomy of an elephant? What can they do? What can they not do? And there are other things you have to worry about like: Where are elephants? Where do they live? Well, they're in the jungle. OK. How do you build an instrument that's going to survive in the jungle? It has to survive monsoons and 100-degree temperatures for months at a time. You don't have people there to tune the instruments. You can't use a violin because an elephant can't tune it. So you have to build instruments that stay in tune." I imagined that the entire endeavor might sound something like Spike Jones going apeshit in a zoo. But truth be told, the music sounds nothing like you think it would; it's calm, sedate, sparse; it's got a sort of Eastern-influenced jazz improv feel to it - a jingle here, a rattle there; patches of it are reminiscent of the more cosmic sections of Pharaoh Sanders discs from the 60s; it's almost soothing - until you remember that it's a herd of elephants playing it!

Soldier says that his life in the lab gives him a unique window of perspective not available to other composers: "Since I'm doing so much science, I think the reason these ideas have occurred to me and not to other people in music is simply the influence that science plays in my life: working in laboratories, thinking of models, hypothesis, putting things together, trying to make sense of it all and so forth."

He's got some pretty neat theories about sound, too. For example, he's takes a scientist's approach when dealing with things like microtones and overtones. His string quartet did a stint with Phill Niblock a while back. Niblock works with tones between tones, sounds between sounds. It's mysterious stuff, but Soldier's got a great explanation for it. He claims that "In Phil's music there are lots of notes that you hear that aren't there. This phenomena is usually referred to as 'difference tones,' but nobody knows exactly what that means. You do know if you have a 100 Hz tone and a 600 Hz tone, the difference will be a 500 Hz tone. It's only recently that physiologists have figured out what the real basis of the difference tone is: it's a hallucination based on a excitation of specific hair cells in the ear. A difference tone actually isn't in the air at all - it's actually produced in the cochlea."

And the theorizing doesn't stop there. Soldier feels that his field of science is the place to be right now. He refers to it as a golden age. Dave's a positive fellow and feels the same way about music, but expresses concern that he's the only one who feels that way: "Everyone else is going around complaining that there are no audiences but within the last 3 or 4 years we've come up with a way that everybody can make music using any kind of sound they want. The vocabulary has just stretched in the last few years more than it ever has. I think you can take whole centuries and add them up and we have access to more materials in the past 4 years alone. The other thing that's happened is that we can hear music from everywhere now. It's made an enormous difference in the way we think about music. People used to think of 'the stream of music' starting with Machaut and moving to Bach; and then at its highest echelon it's Mario Davidovsky. Now you can hear Machaut the same way you can hear someone like Elliott Carter. It's funny how Machaut can sound more contemporary than Carter!"

But somewhere in all this positivism is a note of sadness - even nostalgia - for the way things used to be. "While we can make any kind of music we want, our music doesn't have any of the kind of subtlety of, say, Duke Ellington's orchestra," Soldier laments. "Nobody's going to make an orchestra now where you have 5 sax players, each with a completely different sound. There's a richness in the older music that's been forgotten." He should know: his recordings are dripping with savvy, sophisticated arrangements that he writes for the groups that play his music.

With all this going on in the hectic mind of David Soldier, I felt compelled to ask him if he has enough time to pursue all these endeavors. He immediately snapped back, "No I never have enough time to do anything. I don't have enough time to keep up with anything at all in my life. What about you?"


David Behrman | David Soldier | Joan La Barbara | Stephen Vitiello | Morton Subotnick



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