Brian May – Astrophysics and Street Smarts: The Rise of the New Musici

Since the birth of rock and roll there has been a tendency to stereotype popular musicians as less than intelligent. Comedians from Peter Sellers to Spinal Tap have rolled out the dumb musician syndrome. This archetype has been a long time stuck to the proverbial blanket; maybe the idea goes back to the Middle Ages when the musici (the musical clergy/scholars) looked down with disdain on the cantores (the performers).

So it has been interesting to watch reaction to Brian May, guitarist with Queen, who after some decades of study was finally granted his Doctorate in astrophysics last week. He was awarded his qualification by London’s Imperial College and said submitting his thesis, “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud,” to supervisors was as nerve-racking as any stadium gig.

I remember playing with the Narcs opening for Queen at Ericsson Stadium in the 1980s and the backstage buzz around Freddie Mercury, Brian May and the band reeked of Oxford accents deep in profound conversations (intermingled with moments of lunacy and debauchery). In my experience the further up the ladder of real stardom you go the higher the intellect and the more insightful the artist.

Touring New Zealand with English bluesman and scholar Long John Baldry in 2002 was bloody hilarious and each day brought new moments of profundity. His onstage and house bar story telling was amazing – unrehearsed, totally inspired and always with a twist in the tale.

His crowning Oscar Wild-ish moment was when he appeared onstage in the oak-and- velvet Grand Hall of the Nelson School of Music. Replacing his normal New Orleans undertaker’s top-hat the almost seven foot high Baldry on this evening was wearing a white panama hat. As the band awaited his arrival from side of stage his thespian voice bellowed out to the audience. “I regret to inform you that last night there was a fire in the Rialto Cinema. And whereas last evening there was a panic in a cinema, what you have before you tonight is a cynic in a panama!” We love that stuff.

The mix of street smarts and intellect gives great artists a mystique and charisma which is truly mesmerising. When great musicians take their wisdom to the stage and impart it to their audiences they are performing one of the great roles of being an artist. The trickster and the musician becomes the teacher and the physician.

I have been reading ex-pop musician Dr Daniel Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession. Levitin’s ideas cover a whole lot of issues around popular music including why tunes get stuck in our heads. He reveals that the phenomenon when a fragment of a song creates an endless playing loop in our minds is called an “earworm” (from the German “ohrwurm”). It tends to be a simple song that even non singers can hum without effort. Some people get earworms so badly that they cannot sleep and require antidepressants and anti anxiety drugs. The upside is that some musicians (Neil Young for example) generate their own earworms and have to write them down – the beginnings of song writing.

That Levitin, a musician and academic, is interested enough to investigate this area of artistry is a good example of the intersection of popular music and research and models a new breed of scholar. In New Zealand one of the first popular musicians to be conferred with a doctorate was Dr Graeme Downes – best known as the leader and songwriter for seminal 80s Dunedin band The Verlaines. His field of research for his doctorate was the music of Mahler. From the same era and town, Sneaky Feelings have produced academics as well – among them Dr Matthew Bannister whose doctoral thesis was on gender issues in New Zealand music.

So the game is up on the pointy headed classical music brigade patronisingly mocking the apparently academically challenged popular musician. The potent mix of street smarts and academic study is producing a generation of musician-researchers (the “new musici”) who are rock and roll animals on stage and who trawl their books between sound checks and in hotel rooms after the gig.

In the words of Lowell George reflecting on the educated rock star :”Two degrees in bebop, a PhD in swing, he’s a master of rhythm he’s a rock and roll king”.

Nice one Brian May. Punch the air.

Written by Liam Ryan Wednesday, 12 September 2007

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