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Forces of Nature

Celebrating the intersection of art, music, and science.

Fe Nunn '80, IC professor Michelle Courtney Berry, and Chris White, M.M. '87, perform at this year's festival
Fe Nunn '80, IC professor Michelle Courtney Berry, and Chris White, M.M. '87, perform at this year's festival.

“What we do as individuals is so specialized,” says Read Gainsford. “We focus on our own thing—music, art, or science—and develop tunnel vision. Light in Winter takes the blinders off.”

Gainsford is talking about Light in Winter, a weekend-long festival in downtown Ithaca that celebrated its third year in January. The popularity of the festival—which connects the spheres of art, music, and science, indicates that it will be celebrating many more anniversaries. Audiences are treated to intriguing collaborations, such as an oceanographer sharing the stage with classical musicians, a poet and musicians jointly creating pieces based on natural phenomena, and machines providing a film score.

“The barriers between the disciplines are artificial,” says festival founder and artistic director Barbara Mink, “and this is an opportunity for the performers and the audiences to be exposed to things they are not familiar with, and to look at the familiar in a new way.”

About eight years ago Mink and a group of local visionaries, including IC School of Music dean Arthur Ostrander and Gainsford, who was an Ithaca College piano professor from 1997 to 2005, developed the concept of an event celebrating the intersections among the arts and sciences. Ithaca College has played, and continues to play, an integral role in the festival as a supporter, venue provider, and source for talent.

In 2004, the festival’s inaugural year, Gainsford, cellist Heidi Hoffman, and flutist Claudia Anderson played a composition by George Crumb, “Voice of the Whale,” for a performance at Museum of the Earth, just outside Ithaca. Oceanographer Chris Clark joined them on stage. “We used the sounds of the whale, and Clark shared with the audience how music connects with those sounds,” Gainsford explains.

During the second festival Gainsford performed with the local group Ensemble X, composed of musicians from Ithaca College and Cornell University, who performed George Antheil’s “Ballet Mechanique” during the showing of the 1927 film of the same name by Fernand Leger.

“We have been able to connect the dots between music and science that previously had not been connected, and that’s stimulating,” says Gainsford, who now teaches at Florida State University.

Jeff Claus, associate professor of education at Ithaca as well as a professional musician, offers a similar take. “The idea of combining art and science is a brilliant concept, both clever and deep,” he says. “There is an interface between the two that most people are not aware of.” Claus is a composer as well as guitarist for the alternative folk/rock band the Horse Flies and front man for another Ithaca band called Boy with a Fish; the latter played at this year’s festival grand finale.

Performance artist and IC assistant professor of television-radio Michelle Courtney Berry also finds inspiration in the festival. “People typically divide themselves between art and science, and [Light in Winter] bridges the gap in some unique ways,” she says. “The interaction of people in the arts, sciences, and politics has changed the structure of my writing.”

IC's Frank Campos on trumpet
IC's Frank Campos on trumpet.

Berry herself bridges many gaps, as performer and professor as well as an elected representative to the Common Council (the city of Ithaca’s legislature) and the current Tompkins County poet laureate. In helping kick off this year’s event, tied to the theme “Forces of Nature,” Berry delivered a ballad she’d written about Hurricane Katrina and the actions of Andrew Sartin, who helped rescue hundreds of stranded New Orleans residents. The accompanying jazz-blues music was composed by Fe Nunn ’80, who played piano behind Berry; they were joined by Chris White, M.M. ’87, on cello. “Such cross-discipline collaborations bring together people who normally [might] not work together, and the result is that they create new art forms,” says White.

Sharing creative ideas with other artists and scientists has an attraction for Nunn, a songwriter, composer, performer, and teacher. “As an avant-garde artist I am familiar with many different types of music—jazz, funk, hip-hop—which have a lot in common but are expressed in different fashions,” he says. “Adding poetry and science to music is appealing to me as an educator as well, because it reinforces the connections of different fields of study.” That, in turn, Nunn believes, affects the local community by leading to discussions of religion, politics, and difference. “People talk about diversity,” Nunn says, “but Light in Winter brings that idea to the fore.”

Claus, too, recognizes the potential influence of Light in Winter’s philosophy in education. “In our schools we need to integrate the arts and sciences, which tend to separate the manual skills from the mental,” he says. “Most scientists operate in a spiritual or philosophical place, even if they are not performing, and they understand that art is an effective method for expressing ideas.”

Boy with a Fish provided the musical side of a collaboration with Charles Trautmann, a geologist and director of Ithaca’s Sciencenter museum, and filmmakers Phil Wilde and Ann Michel of Insights International, a production company based in Ithaca and New York City. The electric finale was a multimedia exploration of hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes.

The festival continues to grow and evolve, Mink says. “I don’t foresee a change in the basic vision. We will continue to explore the places where music, art, and science connect.” Mink wants to maintain a balance between local and visiting professional performers. Light in Winter is already high-profile enough to have nabbed high-profile acts like the Kronos Quartet (in 2005) and Laurie Anderson, who extended her recent tour to include a sold-out performance at this year’s festival.

“Ithaca is uniquely set up for this type of festival,” Gainsford says. “The community has a wealth of talent in so many areas, and Light in Winter is an opportunity to bring together people whose worlds are distinctly different yet overlap. As a performer, I find that exciting.”

- with Maura Stephens

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