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Once a physicist: Karl Young

11 July 2016

How did you get interested in physics?

Karl Young is a musician who specializes in the Japanese flute, or shakuhachi

I actually started adult life as a jazz saxophone player, but this was in San Francisco in the late 1960s, so it was a very open time intellectually and I had very wide interests. I had read Werner Heisenberg’s book Physics and Philosophy, and when I started spouting all my wild theories on music to the head of the English department at San Francisco State University as I was teaching him to play the saxophone, he told me I should go and get a degree. So I went back to school, and one of my classes – "Physics for Poets" – was taught by a New Yorker who modelled his style on Richard Feynman. He was very entertaining, and I sort of fell under the spell of physics then.

What did you do next?

My path has always been a little bit tortured. My PhD thesis was on nonlinear dynamics – this was during the frenzy about chaos theory in the early 1980s – but I had an interest in particle physics as well, so I took all the requisite classes for that, too. After graduate school I went to work at NASA, which was interested in nonlinear dynamics as they related to orbits, and later I got a job at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center to indulge my particle-physics fantasy. Then, finally, I settled down, applying the techniques I developed in my thesis to the analysis of medical images, and that’s where I spent the bulk of my career.

How did you become interested in the shakuhachi?

My first encounter with the shakuhachi came when I heard a recording by Goro Yamaguchi, who is a living national treasure in Japan. The sound of the shakuhachi is just incredible. It’s in the flute family, but the bore of the shakuhachi is inverse conical – it’s wider at the top – so it gets this spectrum of sound that’s more like that of a clarinet or an oboe than a flute, which has a very strong fundamental tone. Also, a great player like Yamaguchi can bring out a lot more dynamic range than you get with a standard Western flute – it’s a stunning sound, with an almost vocal quality to it. But when I first heard it, I had no idea what a shakuhachi was or how I might learn to play it. A few years later, I encountered a shakuhachi teacher from Japan, and I started studying with him. By that time, I’d given up the professional aspect of music; I had paid my way through my undergraduate degree by playing saxophone in nightclubs and things like that, but when I went on to graduate school I decided that was too much of a distraction. Eventually, though, music took over again, and I retired early from physics to pursue shakuhachi in a semi-professional manner.

What are you working on now?

There’s a great historical tradition (probably a lot of it apocryphal, but that’s part of the fun) that the shakuhachi was originally played by Japanese monks as a form of chanting, so there is a rich repertoire of solo pieces for it. My main interest, originally, was just to learn those pieces and perform them. But as I got more involved in Japanese culture, I started learning some of the folk music. So now as well as my solo work I play as part of an ensemble with taiko (drums) and shamisen (a stringed instrument), which is a very standard configuration for Japanese classical music. Finally, I have some friends from my jazz days who told me to bring the shakuhachi to some jam sessions, and that’s actually gone pretty well, so I’ve recorded a CD of shakuhachi and jazz.

How (if at all) has your background in physics helped or influenced your work as a musician?

It’s funny, but most of the time, I try to keep them fairly separate. There have been times when I have investigated the physics of a particular instrument; for example, I have a friend who makes shakuhachis, and he wanted to learn how he could adjust the instrument to get a better tone quality. So I got some software that did spectrum analysis and we studied the harmonic structure of the shakuhachi in a fairly detailed way. But until that point my physics career hadn’t had much influence on my music. They provide very separate pleasures for me.

Any advice for today’s physics students?

Resist the tendency to specialize. It seems like there’s so much pressure on students to think about their careers – which is not entirely a bad thing; I’m not saying you should completely give it up – but I think that just following your interests isn’t emphasized as much as it should be. When I studied physics, one of the things that saved me was that I was allowed to explore a lot of areas, and I think it’s harder to do that now. So I would advise students to really think about what aspect of physics interests you and really go for that.

You can listen to Young play the shakuhachi via his website, www.karlshak.com