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Once a physicist: Dan Trueman

Dan Trueman is a composer, Hardanger fiddle-player and a co-founder of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra

Dan Trueman

What sparked your interest in physics?

My father, Larry Trueman, is a theoretical physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and either through genetics or exposure (or both) I’ve been interested in physics for as long as I can remember.


Why did you decide to switch to music? 

I had been playing violin since I was four, and my family is very musical, so I was surrounded by it (also for as long as I can remember). As an undergraduate, I struggled to balance these competing interests, and when I was filling out applications to graduate school in physics, a good friend of mine who had just started grad school in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told me that, realistically, I’d have to quit playing violin at any serious level while pursuing graduate studies in physics. I vividly remember dumping the applications in the trash sometime later, after realizing I just wasn’t ready to do that. I also think I realized that I was just better at music than I was at physics.

What is a Hardanger fiddle? 

The Hardanger fiddle is a traditional Norwegian instrument that has been around for at least as long as the violin. It is distinguished by a set of sympathetic strings that run underneath the main strings (through the middle of the bridge and under the fingerboard); these strings resonate variably, depending on the notes you play, and give the fiddle a magical, warm and sparkling quality. I fell in love with the sound of the instrument and the strangeness of the traditional dance music that it is associated with when I first heard it.

You’re also a co-founder of a very non-traditional music group, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk). 

The orchestra directly follows my interest in the Hardanger fiddle. One of the things that struck me about the Hardanger was how small changes in instrument design could radically change its expressive and creative possibilities. For instance, I can change the tuning of the instrument slightly from the norm, so that running my fingers through familiar patterns yields unfamiliar melodies and chords. So, my work with laptops in music has been focused on trying to build digital instruments that are inspired by old instruments such as the Hardanger fiddle, the violin and the piano, yet exploit the new possibilities afforded by computation.

With PLOrk, each player has a hemispherical speaker that can roughly approximate the way conventional instruments fill rooms with sound (I helped develop these speakers with a computer scientist at Princeton, as part of a larger research project). What’s nice about this is that every player has their own sound source, and we can just gather wherever and make music together in a familiar old-fashioned way.

What are you working on now? 

I’m currently finishing a set of études for what I call the “prepared digital piano”. This instrument uses a conventional 88-key MIDI piano keyboard and can sound like a familiar piano, but it has a set of “preparations” or simple algorithms attached to the “strings” – this is all done in a laptop – that cause it to respond differently. For instance, the tuning of the virtual strings might change as you play, creating chords that are tuned “perfectly” using exact ratios. I am also just beginning a big new piece in collaboration with the Irish sean-nóssinger Iarla Ó Lionáird and the poet Paul Muldoon.

How (if at all) has your background in physics influenced you as a musician and composer? 

There are obviously specific fields, such as acoustics and Fourier analysis, which have come into play for me over the years. I also feel that the general sense of discipline that the pursuit of physics involves has been important to me. I remember my father working out equations on his yellow pad, while also conversing with experimentalists about the design of collider experiments, and while I never reached the point where I could really understand the physics, the process feels familiar; I am constantly working things out on paper or in code, and then trying to bring them to life in the real world with musicians, and I try to be as disciplined and honest about the results as physicists need to be. Finally (and I hope this doesn’t seem too fuzzy to the physicists reading this), there have been aesthetic lessons from physics that have stayed with me – lessons having to do with symmetry or the lack thereof, elegance, simplicity and abstraction grounded in the messiness of reality, and just the overwhelming impression that the world has some truly intractable and beautiful problems to solve.

Any advice for today’s physics students? 

When I was studying physics, I felt that I could go anywhere with it. At the time, I thought that meant I might pursue, say, atmospheric sciences or engineering after my physics degree, but it has provided a wonderful background for musical pursuits as well. I’m not sure this qualifies as “advice”, but recognizing that the study of physics is about much more than just physics is important, and might help when in the throes of trying to complete a problem set.

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