Project LENS: First Season Updates

By Ranier Crosett

About Project LENS: Project LENS is a performance collaborative with the mission of revealing connections between music and a wide variety of topics in the world beyond. Led by three core members–all Harvard/NEC affiliates–with backgrounds in music performance and other fields ranging from philosophy to neurobiology and art history, Project LENS inspires conversations on topics as diverse as evolution, 3D printing, humor, law, and birdsong. At each of our events, we weave together two “threads:” a TalkThread, i.e. a presentation of an idea, theory, or story in the style of TED Talks or Radiolab; and a MusicThread spun of selections from the classical repertoire.

In early September, the co-founders of Project LENS – Ariel, Rainer, and Alan – reunited in Boston and embarked on what so far has been a thrilling and incredibly busy opening season. With the help of many mentors, advisors, and friends, and of course, our first speaker, evolutionary biologist Andrew Berry, we presented our debut event to a packed house at Boylston Hall at Harvard on October 9. The program, “Strung Together: Multicellularity and String Quartets,” was the brainchild of Ariel, who is a violinist with a background in neurobiology. But as the team spent many late nights together brainstorming and comparing two (at least partially) parallel evolutions – that of multicellularity and that of the string quartet – we all became deeply fond of our first program. We became convinced that the unique pairing of topics would offer our audiences the chance to think in unconventional ways about both the biology and the music involved, and based on the reactions we got from the debut, we were right! There were over 150 people at the event, and during the reception that followed, people came up to us with tons of wonderful feedback and ideas. The program stimulated conversation about the differences between mechanical and creative processes as related to the division of roles in a group, and provided a sense of perspective for the scale of the process of biological evolution that allowed ultimately for cultural evolution, which has provided, among many other amazing things, the great works of art that we know and celebrate today.

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Project LENS team members Alan Toda-Ambaras, Ariel Mitnick, and Rainer Crosett with evolutionary biologist Andrew Berry of Harvard University. 

With November just around the corner, we’re gearing up for two events back-to-back in just a couple of weeks! We’re thrilled to be working with Samuel Bak, a visual artist and Holocaust survivor whose work is on display currently at The Pucker Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. We’ll be side-by-side with Sam at the gallery on November 13 for an event we’re calling “The Art of Backstory: Shostakovich and Samuel Bak.” The central question we’ll be pursuing regards (surprise!) backstory – how much we need to know before viewing/listening to a work of art? The idea came to us in part because Sam explained that he believes people should know about his personal story before viewing his art, and because we realized that perhaps in music, which is by nature more abstract than most visual art, knowing the backstory of a composer or specific work of art can radically alter the way we engage with the art. As for the music to pair with Sam’s work, Shostakovich came immediately to mind because of his similar personal experience with totalitarianism and his musical reflections on the Holocaust, and because it might seem that knowing Shostakovich’s backstory often radically changes the way we interpret and listen to his works. We’re far from having any answers to the many challenging questions about backstory, and the goal our event is certainly not to provide them, but we’re excited for the conversation and debate that we think the program will inspire!

The second event in November is at a new venue in town, Le Laboratoire Cambridge, on November 19. We’re teaming up with Ani Patel, a psychology professor at Tufts and music cognition expert, to present an event called “Breaking Down the Beat: The Rhythm of Language.” For all the musicians reading this, how many times have you been told that the Hungarian language contains the rhythm “BAH-dum,” and so whenever you see that rhythm in Bartok or Kodaly’s music, you have to play it with the same kind of emphasis? We’ve all certainly heard that a lot. As it turns out, Ani has actually come up with a way to quantify the way that rhythmic patterns in composers’ native languages correlate with rhythms in their music. Interestingly, Ani’s study excludes music like Bartok’s because it’s deliberately based on folk tunes, which are often set to words, so it would be no surprise that they mirror rhythmic patterns in language. He looks at compositions by Ravel and Elgar that do not incorporate folk tunes, though, and shows that nonetheless, the different rhythmic patterns of the French and English languages correlate strongly with the rhythmic patterns in Ravel and Elgar’s music, respectively. Ani will present his research and we’ll explore how this information might relate to our performance decisions, and what related topics might be worth researching in the future.

Amidst all the preparations for these upcoming events, we’ve also been running a Kickstarter, which surpassed its goal of $7,500 in only 15 days, and we’ve set a stretch goal of $10,000 to achieve within the next 9 days. We’ll be using any extra funds raised to support our community outreach partnership with a youth music school called Revolution of Hope in Roxbury, MA. We’d be grateful for any amount of additional support! (

We also have several events in the making for the spring, including an appearance at the Diller-Quaile School of Music in New York City, and more events at Harvard, including an event with acclaimed experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker!

Stay tuned to our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter (@project_lens), and check out our website for more updates.

Rainer Crosett is a co-founder of Project LENS and a fifth-year student in the Harvard-New England Conservatory Joint Program. He received his A.B. in Philosophy magna cum laude from Harvard and is currently completing his M.M. in Cello Performance at NEC, where he studies with Paul Katz. He is particularly interested in the philosophy of human rights and the ways that music can be a force for social change.

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