Walker has dreamt of integrating chemistry and music since he was in eighth grade. It wasn’t until he took an electronic music class in the Jacobs School that he realized how he would do it, and that it would involve wearing an Einstein wig.
“In electronic music you’re really working with the nitty-gritty details of sound, and you have to know a certain amount of physics to understand how acoustics work,” he says. “Learning about that stuff in my courses and getting more exposure to some concepts in mathematics, I’ve been able to integrate things from chemistry - for example, making a composition where all the sounds come from molecules.”
He began by generating music from Python, the popular coding language, and producing MIDI notes with it. This then morphed into coding waveforms. Some physics aside, he says, “Working in Python allowed me to start with the simplest possible sound - a sine wave (or, in other words, a pure tone), and combine large numbers of them to make a much more complex and interesting sound. Really, all music is just a bunch of sine waves added together.” After trial and error and discovery, Walker learned that he could take a molecule’s frequency distribution, convert it into a waveform in Python, and from there, find the waveform (also called a signal) of the molecule - and that’s the “sound” it makes.
He used a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) to create his piece, “The Sound of Molecules.” Every sound used in the composition is the “signal” or sound of a molecule when analyzed with the NMR technique.
Walker is not the first person to use molecules in this way and create sounds, but he does believe that his composition represents something new to the genre.
“People have done this before, turned NMR data into sounds, and other people have also written pieces for acoustic instruments in which some aspect of the compositional planning is somehow reflective of the molecule’s spectrum,” he says.
But Walker’s approach to the piece is unique because it goes beyond finding a way to use sounds to represent molecules. Instead, his is a full-fledged artistic and educational endeavor in which every sound generated comes from molecules. “I was taking the audience through the molecular world and making them feel like they were an atom floating around, bonding with other atoms,” Walker explains.
“The Sound of Molecules” premiered in Auer Hall to an audience of chemistry and music students, as well as faculty and others who got the word that the concert was happening.
“As soon as I walked out on stage with the lab coat and Einstein wig,” says Walker, “I think people realized that it’s okay to laugh. I got so many awesome comments afterwards from both chemistry people and music people that were able to make it.”
The concert was a resounding success for Walker, a carefully crafted performance of sound and humor that informed and entertained.