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Once a physicist: Alan Pierson

4 August 2016

How did you first get into physics?

I don’t think I was ever not into physics. I’ve always had an enormous fascination for the universe – planets, stars and galaxies – and wanted to know how things work. As a kid I was a science-fiction fan and used to write stories and dream up ways of building faster-than-light spaceships. I actually convinced myself that some of them would work.

Did you also have an interest in music?

Yes, like physics, I don’t ever remember not being into music. My parents sent me to the People’s Music School in Chicago, which gives free music education and is aimed at low-income kids. My mom wanted me to connect with diverse kids, and so she sent me there to learn music. (My family wasn’t low income but we donated to the school.) I played the piano, sang in the choir, studied music theory and took lessons in music composition, which I got very excited about.

So what about your interest in conducting – when did that start?

I was probably about 15 or 16 and began mainly as a way to guide performances of my own compositions. I think I was also drawn to conducting because I liked bringing people together for exciting projects.

You did degrees in physics and music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): how did that work out?

I did the two degrees in parallel and it was really tough. I remember picking the more theoretical physics track in my freshman year because I wanted a challenge and was drawn to theory. But I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself in to! In high school, I felt like a science whizz; then at MIT, I quickly found myself in the deep end.

Do you see any parallels between physics and conducting?

I was drawn to physics by a fascination with how things are put together, and that same fascination permeates my interest in music. When I sit down and look at a composer’s score for the first time, I’m searching for patterns and I’m trying to understand the composition’s structure. I want to know at a deep level what the music is about and how it functions. So now it’s a composer’s musical world I’m trying to understand not the physical world, but it’s the same basic drive.

Is that why you particularly like conducting contemporary music?

Yes, because with music that’s never been performed before, it’s up to me to figure out the piece and how it functions. I enjoy that sense of exploration that comes with being the first to grapple with new music. You don’t quite get that same feeling with old music that’s been performed hundreds of times before.

Do you think classical music, like physics, can be rather elitist?

There has been a big effort to open up classical music to more diverse performers and audience – and that’s an effort I’ve been involved in – but it’s tough.