By Michelle Rapaport
Photo by Chris Strong

It may seem like a leap from biopsychology to the big screen, but to University PhD student David Bashwiner, music, the mind, and movies meld into a logically orchestrated whole. “Music is, in some ways, the most powerful variable that shapes your perceptions and feelings. ”

That premise first sparked Bashwiner’s collaboration with members of the University’s Fire Escape Films, an ongoing co-curricular program that provides resources and financial support for student filmmakers.

In 2005, Bashwiner teamed with seven Chicago students-turned filmmakers to create Crime Fiction. The full-length feature earned many accolades—a rare feat for a low-budget, grassroots project. Crime Fiction premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2007, was well-received at film festivals nationwide, and was released on DVD in February 2008. Variety magazine gave Bashwiner’s music complimentary reviews.

Now, he and the Crime Fiction team are working on a new film: Tennis with Jesus, the story of a fallen tennis star whose struggling career is revived through divine intervention. Bashwiner again will write the score for a film that will feature a script, producer, and director that are uniquely Chicago.

In Perfect Harmony

The interplay of music and emotions stands at the core of Bashwiner’s thesis work on musical neuropsychology—what he calls “the musical brain.” At Chicago, Bashwiner found a forum to combine his former studies in biopsychology and music composition for a new exploration of music history and theory.

Barbara Stafford, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in Art History, has been a major influence on Bashwiner’s work. Stafford examines the relationship between visual arts and the brain, a pursuit she has named “neuronal aesthetics. ”

“She is a leader in opening doors for people in neurosciences to work with humanities people. She has succeeded in getting these typically parallel paths to cross, ” says Bashwiner.

Music’s Emotive Quality

A story of murder, betrayal, and outrageous artistic fortune, Crime Fiction follows the trail of a frustrated journalist whose girlfriend is killed. It’s just the story he needs—his “fiction of crime ” becomes a literary success.

Bashwiner’s music takes center stage in shaping viewers’ opinions of this journalist-turned-killer-turned-best-selling author. “It’s very subtle, but the type of music has a huge effect on how you feel about a character or situation, even though you don’t consciously notice it, ” Bashwiner says. “You can take one scene and put two different types of music behind it, and you’ll drastically change the feelings that emerge when people watch the film. ” His Crime Fiction music embraces varied styles to elicit conflicting emotions of empathy and detestation toward the main character.

With a $60,000 budget and professional and amateur actors, Crime Fiction was written, directed, and produced by Chicago students, with Bashwiner composing the score. The University Symphony Orchestra, led by Barbara Schubert, Senior Lecturer in Music, donated talent and time: two hours to rehearse and record Bashwiner’s orchestral music. Bashwiner created additional background music on the guitar, piano, synthesizer and through his “synth-pop party band, ” Immanuel Won’t.

Infusing Pop Music with Kant

Whether composing for movies or his band, Bashwiner relishes the unconventional. Far from standard pop-chart hits, Bashwiner’s lyrics contemplate the writings of groundbreaking philosophers and theorists. E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) inspired “Non-Species-Specific Communication. ”

“It’s written to be speakable by any member of a species to any other member of the same species at any point in evolutionary history, ” Bashwiner says.

“Immanuel Won’t ” is based on Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful, ” from the third Critique. “An Ascetic Rising Up, ” which Wilson inspired, betrays a Foucauldian influence. Each song demonstrates the depth of Bashwiner’s engagement with these great thinkers. More importantly, his songs—like his thesis pursuit—showcase the ingenuity of this typically atypical Chicago student, who merges the science of the mind with the creative arts.

“Immanuel Won’t ”
Don’t say Immanuel Kant,
He Kann too.
Don’t say Immanuel wants,
He wants you, he wants to Enlighten you.

Don’t say Immanuel won’t,
He will too.
Don’t say, Immanuel’s above you,
He loves you, he loves to Enlighten you.

By Michelle Rapaport