Science and music: Seeing past the noise with Robin Woywitka and Paul Farrant

Robin Woywitka and Paul Farrant at the Artery in Edmonton, July 2011

“I can see that you won’t marry me, you hear the rock dust in my lungs.”

A lyric only an archaeologist (or maybe geologist) could write? Maybe. It’s the opening line of Robin Woywitka’s new album The Impossible Address and even though he doesn’t write songs about science, his work as an archaeologist is never far too from the music that he makes. Well, to be fair, that’s putting words in his mouth for now. I saw the connections as soon as I listened to the album, but what does he think? In anticipation of the official release tonight, and because I’m a fan, Robin and bassist Paul Farrant (a mechanical engineer) agreed to answer that question and hang out for an afternoon to talk science and music.

Both Robin and Paul identify themselves strongly as musicians. They’ve both been playing and writing songs since high school and unlike most 15 year olds who pick up a guitar, they’ve stuck with it through university, grad school, and jobs that take them all over the province. For both, it was there before an interest in science or engineering, forged by strong influences in their families. A cool older brother made music an indelible part of Robin’s childhood.

“To me it’s never left” he explains, “I can never stop the reaction that I get when I listen to music, that particular rush or whatever it is and I like that feeling. But I think lots of people react to music that way but don’t stick with actually making it and suffering through being a grown man and having people think you still have stupid teenage rock star dreams, which is not what you have. You have actual dedication to music.”[i]

So, I wonder, is that where the science connection is? The phrase “stupid teenage science dreams” isn’t common, but making it through the science career pipeline takes considerable dedication to science. It’s one thing to be interested at 15 and take a high school science course and quite another to make it through many years of education and apprenticeship and into a career. To mangle someone else’s analogy, science is like a hall of wonders but we make students struggle through a very dark kitchen to get there.

I wanted to ask about that connection, but when I turned the subject to work the enthusiasm left Robin’s voice for a moment. He described his job to me in the way we all do to relatives and strangers at parties – a straight, simplified factual account of his title as a government archaeologist working to assist developers in adhering to the Alberta Historical Resources Act. Paul too gave me the elevator talk. He’s a professional engineer working for a refrigeration company, designing systems and selecting equipment for large industrial cooling in the food industry, hockey rinks, and curling rinks (how Canadian). Were I meeting both of them at a party I would have probably replied “Oh, that’s nice. Good for you.” And so there was a brief pause and stare down while I tried to think about how to get past the standard script.

Paul relented first and shared his enthusiasm for the community of musicians that he’s found in engineering. He got his first job through someone who played in a band with his dad. As an undergraduate, finding a group of engineer-musician friends and enthusiastic audience members in the dorm room was an important part of surviving the challenging academic program.

Robin and Paul, Haven Social Club, Edmonton

A support system is important but is that all music is to him as an engineer, an escape? Of course, it turns out that there’s more. Paul is also a painter and almost choose an art career instead of one in engineering. As a first year student he tried to keep up both interests, painting in his spare time, but in the end it didn’t work. “I maintained painting for the first year or two of university but engineering effectively destroyed my visual ability to paint or draw anymore,” Paul explained. “You get to a point where you’re doing so much AutoCAD and drafting and linear design work. You’re doing linear equations all the time, thinking in Fourier transforms and Laplace transforms. You start thinking so logically that I couldn’t visualize anymore and paint the way that I used to be able to. But somehow music just flourished under that environment. Something that’s inherent in music somehow worked. I ended up realizing that I could express myself more easily through music than I could through art.”

Both Paul and Robin saw an element of technical expertise that might have contributed to music becoming the more comfortable outlet. With enthusiasm, Paul explained the value of really understanding acoustic and wave theories, how to balance elements in an aural spectrum both from the connoisseurship of an experienced artist and the scientific understanding of an engineer. Most of the album was expertly recorded and mixed in studios in Mississippi and Edmonton, but the title track required something a little different. It was recorded at Robin’s home with Paul providing the engineering and mixing. Robin candidly confirmed what Paul’s engineering background brought to table: “Almost every musician these days has access to all of these recording tools. And you know what? They don’t know how to use them and it still sounds like crap. There’s a science to it and that’s what he just described. It shows big time in the home recordings that we’ve done.”

With Paul’s understanding that his scientific life provides valuable technical expertise now out on the table, Robin was still a tougher one to figure out. Archaeology doesn’t have the same direct relationship with the practice of making music.

Before Paul arrived, Robin had talked about some field work he’d done recently. I pressed him for some details and his voice brightened beyond the elevator talk I’d gotten before. “One of the big parts of my job,” he explained, “is creating models to find archaeological sites in the forest, because as you can imagine they’re really hard to find there because of the trees, the remoteness, and the fact that they’re not well preserved in the forest either. So it’s a real needle in a haystack kind of thing. I use computers to make models to help find these things and then we go in the field to test it and see if we’re right. Test the areas that we think will have them and test the areas that we think won’t have them. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t so we’ll go back and do another iteration of the model to see what we can improve upon.”

“Cool” I thought, forgetting for a moment that I was supposed to be finding connections to music. Predicting where artifacts of human life might be found sounds challenging and fascinating. The social scientist in me just had to find out more. “So you’re basically looking for factors to predict where the sites might be even if you can’t see any evidence on the surface?” I asked, eyes wide with curiosity.

Robin, Haven Social Club, Edmonton

A kind and patient communicator, Robin corrected me that it isn’t really about prediction. “Well actually, that’s a really standard statistical thing where you come up with multivariate models but it doesn’t really work that well when you’re dealing with humans. People try to do that a lot with environmental variables and use regression to do this but nobody finds archaeological sites better than an archaeologist who’s worked for forty years in an area. The reason they’re good at it is that when they’re in a landscape, they become a part of it and they visualize it like a human being. That brings in culture, that brings in the logistics of subsistence but it brings in a lot of intangibles that you can’t see in maps and you can’t see in ecological data. So our focus is to try to take how an archaeologist sees a map or perceives a landscape and mimic that in a computer environment, which is not easy.”

Not easy indeed. “So,” I wondered again, “any connection between what you do as a scientist and as a musician?” And for a second I thought the spell was gone. It’s probably a question he’s been asked a hundred times and he responded with what’s probably the usual answer. “The stuff I go through in the field and the people I meet in the field and the stories that I hear in the field are always sources for songs, all the time. You go out there and you meet really interesting people and they have really great stories. So that happens but it’s really not all that science related. I’d never really write something about a model.”

And then a light went on, Robin paused and looked up for a second to think. “Well,” he said tentatively, “there’s one thing that I do take. When you’re doing science, you always want to eradicate noise. You want to get the noise out of your data. And I think a really good song writer does the same thing. You get rid of the noise out of the subject that you’re talking about. You don’t want to have a song that’s just all this detail. You want to find the trend underneath. Those are the songs that people connect to the most. That’s what a good folk song is, that’s what a good country song is and what a great rock and roll song is. It gets the trend at the heart of the matter and doesn’t have all the noise. I think a lot of song writers fall into the noise, like the words as opposed to their point. And that’s the one big thing that I think most recently I’ve learned. Finding the trend at the heart of something, that’s what we do. That’s the big connection between actual science methods as translated into song writing.” Then he added with a laugh, “So whenever I have something that feels noisy, I’ve got to change it. I’ve got to apply some sort of regression.”

So I wasn’t wrong at the start, he really does make music as a scientist, and maybe even do science like a song writer. They are really both about doing the same thing: seeing through the noise to the meaning below.

Robin and Paul along with guitarist Craig Kowalchuk and drummer Victoria Orton will be celebrating the CD release tonight (September 16) at the Haven Social Club in Edmonton (15120 Stony Plain Road). www.thehavensocialclub.com

Updated September 18, 2011 with photos from the CD release.

Information about the album The Impossible Address can be found at www.robinwoywitka.com.

Coincidentally posted on the same day as this very cool article about Bjork and her science connections.


[i] Quotes were transcribed verbatim from a recording of our interview but they have been edited slightly to improve readability and clarity

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3 Comments

  1. Great article. Paul’s brother here, another science / musician guy – a geological engineer in fact. As a singer, luckily I don’t have the rock dust in my lungs – and if I was going to write the lyric I’d have to call it “construction site dust”. Yuck.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for reading Mark! I’m not sure what I might get stuck in my lungs in my lab. Given the age of most of the equipment, it wouldn’t be good!🙂

    Reply
  1. First post as DJ at The Finch and Pea « Boundary Vision

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