By Drew Messinger-Michaels
Photo by Robert Kozloff

The Chromochord, a new musical instrument invented this year at the University of Chicago, functions as only a UChicago instrument could—through an interdisciplinary approach that leads to deeper insights.

When music composition student Francisco Castillo Trigueros and biochemistry student Josiah Zayner teamed up for their project earlier this year, it wasn’t the first time UChicago students experimented with merging an aesthetic and a scientific perspective to create something quite new. The Arts|Science Initiative has for several years fostered this kind of collaboration and provided the funding for graduate students to develop joint projects.

Castillo Trigueros and Zayner introduced the Chromochord last May, when they revealed their instrument to an audience gathered in the Logan Center for the Arts. With its blinking LEDs and coils of electrical wire snaking outward, the Chromochord could be mistaken for a 1967 Lite-Brite construction built with just-as-dated car parts. The wires connect proteins to a sensor that detects how the proteins absorb light, with variation depending on the proteins’ chemical reactions. The Chromochord then translates these data into sounds that form a novel kind of music.

The data generating the sound originates from 12 wells containing solutions of Avena sativa proteins—selected for their role in the movement of plants toward light. “The Chromochord,” says Castillo Trigueros, “is simply a machine that interfaces data we obtain from the proteins' chemical reactions with the computer and then turns it into sound.”

“Basically, we like to think of it like a piano that plays itself,” says Zayner. He calls the device “a 'musician' in software” that can play the instrument “much better than I or Francisco could.” Zayner built the hardware that reads and interprets the proteins, and Castillo Trigueros built the software that assigns the data “different timbres or sound colors.”

With their varied disciplines and origins, the Chromochord and a forthcoming spring 2014 exhibition project, "Imaging/Imagining: The Human Body," have come to exemplify the mission of the Arts|Science Initiative. Each project fosters curiosity among scientists, artists, and humanists. These endeavors demonstrate that the Initiative is, in the words of its program director and curator, Julie Marie Lemon, “not just about collaboration, but an opening of information” and “an exchange of methodologies.”

Opportunities emerge where arts and sciences meet

University scholars have long been exploring the interface between the two seemingly polar disciplines of arts and science through programs, projects, and competitive experimentations.

The Arts|Science Initiative, founded in 2011 as part of the University’s Arts Initiative of the Office of the Provost and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, has been taking these efforts to the next level. The Initiative is the first campus-wide program that provides both graduate students and faculty members with grants to explore collaborative projects—allowing teams of scholars from the arts and the sciences to create something together that they wouldn't or couldn't have done separately, each enriching the other's work.

Earlier UChicago programs exploring connections between the arts and sciences include the Chicago Materials Research Center’s Sights and Sounds of Science competition launched in 2003, and the 2010 panel discussions of the first program in the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Joint Speaker Series. This year, IME faculty member Nancy Kawalek is beginning to lead an interdisciplinary lab in arts and science, called STAGE (Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration), which will emphasize a theater component.

Zayner says his collaboration with Castillo Trigueros allowed him to understand art and music on a deeper level. “Before we started working together I always tried to reconcile the fact that I do science and engineering, but I view it as art even though most people wouldn't. This Chromochord project allowed me to understand that art, such as music, can be quantitative like biophysics. What this means is that distinguishing between what is science and what is art is not so easy, and instead we should just hope that either is inspiring.”

The Chromochord is one of five graduate student projects to receive a 2013 Graduate Collaboration Grant. It succeeds in revealing otherwise hidden information about the proteins it reads while creating a musical composition. “I wanted it to feel like it was my music,” Castillo Trigueros explains, “not just something that could be done by anyone.”

“Collaborations of the sort experienced by our graduate students are just one example of the impact that the Arts|Science Initiative has had on the arts at the University,” said Larry Zbikowski, associate professor of music theory and deputy provost for the arts. “Over the past three years, Julie Marie has worked closely with colleagues across the University to develop a strong set of programs that show how the arts and scientific research can nourish one another and lead to new areas of inquiry.”

Art and the human anatomy

In addition to fostering graduate student collaborations, Lemon also introduced the Faculty Collaboration Grant. Beyond the grants, she is building an environment that sparks collaborations, such as the project of Brian Callender, Anne Leonard, and Mindy Schwartz, who are examining what Schwartz calls “the intersection between the artistic representation of the body and medical views of the body.” "Imaging/Imagining the Human Body" will encompass three exhibitions: The Body in Art at the Smart Museum, The Body as Text at the University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center, and The Body as Data at the John Crerar Library.

"Imaging/Imagining" explodes more than a few common assumptions—not only about the presumed separation between the arts and the sciences, but also about single authorship, since medical atlases combined the efforts of an anatomist and an illustrator (and frequently also an engraver, working separately from the artist who did the original drawings).

“We think of [medical] imaging today as a figuration of knowledge that originates deep inside the body,” says Schwartz, professor of medicine. But early medical texts “relied much more on the artist's imagination. So the early anatomies were more speculative in that way.”

On a superficial level this meant depicting medical subjects as though they were Greco-Roman statuary, posing in a vaguely Italian countryside. But it also meant taking fanciful, sometimes spectacularly inaccurate liberties with the anatomy itself.

“People think that science is neutral,” says Schwartz. “It's value-neutral. It's pure. It's away from human conventions and social, cultural factors. The history of medicine has taught me the opposite. If anything, we're embedded in a world of culture, and it's only through the past that you can see it.”

“Representing the body or drawing the body has been a concern both of medical students through the ages and also art students through the ages,” says Anne Leonard, curator and associate director of academic initiatives at the Smart Museum of Art and lecturer in art history at UChicago. “So it's kind of a basis of pedagogy in both domains for these different purposes.”

The Smart Museum's collection includes figure drawings, which the team will place in dialogue with medical atlases from the Special Collections Research Center at the University Library.

“It's not just an exploration of what has been, in terms of the relationship between arts and sciences,” says Callender, assistant professor of medicine and assistant director of clinical and education programs at the Center for Global Health, “but also new ways of bringing the arts and sciences together, often by creative and imaginative means.”

Originally published on November 18, 2013.