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There’s Another Passion behind the Music of Whitehorse: The Sound of Scientific Thinking


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thump TAP. thump thump TAP. Melissa McClelland’s soft brown cowboy boots tap sharply on a hollow wooden platform. The sparse sound opens Whitehorse’s Killing Time and provides the song’s rhythmic backbone. While the song builds, McClelland moves deftly around her husband and musical partner, Luke Doucet, bringing found percussion items, loop pedals, keyboard melodies and guitar chords together in time. On this night, McClelland and Doucet were putting their musical puzzle together in an unlikely place: on a makeshift stage pressed against the wall in a rural community hall in Viking, Alberta.

Even in this unlikely setting, there was another surprise. McLelland is a poetic and ethereal singer-writer with a soulful voice. Doucet is every inch the alt-country rocker, his hair slicked back and plaid shirt sleeves rolled up to show the flaming heart tattoo of a career musician who has been on the road since he was 18. After the show, though, when I introduced myself as a science writer, Doucet’s face opened into a wide and enthusiastic smile. “That’s awesome!” he said, eagerly shaking my hand.

I had driven two hours across the prairie from Edmonton to talk to Doucet and McLelland about Killing Time, a meditation on mortality and the inevitability of time’s passage that hinges on the line: When all is said and all is done, time will waste everyone. I was curious about how Doucet and McLelland think about time and how their ideas fit with ongoing scientific questions about its cosmological origins. Introducing myself to Doucet, I hoped he’d agree to a short chat about the song. I wasn’t expecting the engaging and deep conversation about the importance of science and scientific thinking that happened instead.

***

Finding the show was itself an adventure in time. The road that Google maps recommended didn’t exist, and I was left circling back and forth through quiet streets. As the minutes ticked by and I tried to think my way out of an infinite loop of confusing information, not a single one of the town’s purported 1000 citizens were anywhere to be seen. Viking seemed like a ghost town, with frontier shop facades closed and dark, only leaves tumbling down the main street.

I finally spotted a small crowd gathered outside of the Community Hall. Inside I managed to find the show and, it seemed, the entire town of Viking. The hall was packed, full to capacity with families, teenagers, seniors, and everyone in between. As the show started, the MC teased a couple that had driven out from Edmonton to buy tickets earlier in the week and then all the way back that night for the show. The town was clearly off the usual tour route, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering if Doucet and McClelland could pull it off. Could they make a show they play in packed downtown venues in Toronto and New York work on a temporary stage likely normally used by wedding bands and prom DJs?

The answer was a definitive and charming yes. They told stories about their families, about McClelland rewriting one of Doucet’s songs about his ex-girlfriend and about an uncle who finally welcomed McClelland to the family by complimenting one of hers. About halfway through, Doucet interrupted a story and leaned into the microphone to add, “We’re married, just in case you didn’t know,” and with a huge grin raised his arms in victory. The show was more than compelling enough to keep the multigenerational crowd not only happy but entranced. And Viking, it turned out, was far from a ghost town.

Their approach to the show seemed to depend on taking a genuine interest in where they were (Doucet spent the morning exploring while he went for a run) and why they were there, expressing as much surprise that the room was packed as the MC had about convincing them to come: “So happy that people have come,” Doucet remarked with gratitude to the crowd, “The myth was that unless you’re Blue Rodeo you can’t play smaller places because people won’t come. So happy to be proven wrong about that.” Their efforts on stage clearly showed the care they take in sharing their music and making a connection with their audience.

After the show, when I asked if I could speak with them about Killing Time, it was also apparent that they care deeply about science. After kindly inviting me into the green room, I only managed one or two of my planned questions about the song when Doucet stopped in the middle of discussing the lyrics. “It’s interesting that you’re a science writer,” he said thoughtfully, “and that you find something, like some kind of correlation between our music and science. I’m totally honoured, I love that. I didn’t care about science at all until two or three years ago when I started to think about a few things and started to read certain science writers.” And suddenly the conversation changed. We were just three science lovers talking about our favourite popular science books, with their recent picks ranging from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science to the one currently on McClelland’s nightstand, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts. I came away with a list of their recommendations and left them with some of my own. Doucet even sweetly attributed his interest to McClelland, explaining how her curiosity inspired him to start reading more science books and paying more attention to scientific issues.

Throughout the conversation, they were both contemplative about what had drawn them into science and what they’d learned about its importance in the current social and political climate. “One of things that really struck me and has fueled my passion to have these kind of conversations,” Doucet explained, “is the fact that science is often viewed as some kind of bully pulpit of collective thought where the elitists have agreed upon this collection of ideas and are going to try to ram them down people’s throats. While occasionally that may be the case, as with any institution, what I found so important from reading those books is that science is not an agreed upon set of theories or rules or regulations, it’s a process. Scientific method is what it’s all about. It’s about seeking evidence.” McClelland interjected with the simple but solemn statement, “And the respect around that method has to come back. I mean it’s all we have.”

Both Doucet and McClelland were vigorous in their defense and advocacy for science. Doucet had leaped up to sit cross-legged on the table facing me, gesturing passionately as he spoke. “How could we have anything else?” he implored, “It’s not like we have another option if we want to figure out what the best way to germinate a field with seeds or find some kind of alternative energy or to fly a spaceship to the moon. There’s only one way to do that, and it’s science. There aren’t three ways, there’s one way, and it’s all just called science. Any time you put things together and they make something else and you look for evidence for it, that’s science. I think there’s a real misperception out there that what it is some kind of elite collection of ideas that are agreed upon by men with patches on their elbows. That misses the point so terribly. And it’s so important right now, given global warming and the technology we have to destroy ourselves. We need to recognize what science is. I’m passionate about these things.”

At some point, lost in the enjoyment of our conversation about the importance of scientific methods, I remembered that we were supposed to be talking about Killing Time. It’s an emotional and poetic song, though, and I was worried about breaking the spell by changing the subject until I recalled the resonance it had with scientific conceptions of the nature of time. The irreversible arrow of time, usually explained through the concept of entropy, has the same meaning as the song’s red thread lyric: Time will waste everyone. Now certain of McClelland and Doucet’s interest in science, I wondered if they thought about it the same way.

When I asked about the meaning of time in the song, McClelland leaned back to enjoy a sip of wine and explained thoughtfully, “It’s not exactly following someone through their life but the whole song is about the concept of time, your mortality and death and birth and everything in between.” She wrote most of the lyrics for the song, starting with the line When all is said and all is done, time will waste everyone, which was leftover from an unfinished ballad she had been writing years earlier. It first popped into her head when Doucet played her the song’s guitar riff, and cemented time as the central theme.

Still sitting on the table, Doucet leaned forward and took the analysis further, picking up on my curiosity about scientific ideas about time. He wondered aloud if what makes time so interesting is that those ideas are so difficult to understand, both for each of us as individuals and for science. It is difficult to grasp because some elements seem arbitrary, such as deciding to divide the day into twenty-four hours that we mark and label as time. Cosmologists similarly argue that the direction of time might seem on some level arbitrary too. In the laws of motion, for example, there few reasons why events can’t be reversible. We know, however, that they’re not. Cosmologists are currently grappling with whether that must always be true at every place and time, future and past, in the universe and probing the conditions of the big bang for clues. Closer to home, we also have to try to make sense of the ultimate human impact of time: death. “We don’t understand it, much as we try,” Doucet said shaking his head, “We can talk all we want about the things that we know, even the greatest scientists of all can have all of the theories but the fact of it is that we don’t know. We don’t know what it’s like when the light goes out.” And that’s a hard position for a self-identified “science junky” like Doucet. “There will never be a sufficient amount of science and understanding to put us at peace with the end of our lives,” he proposed, “So time becomes that thing, because the inevitable is just getting closer and closer and closer and closer. It’s not necessarily terrifying but it’s coming, right?”

Talking about the song marked a shift in our conversation, away from a physical and scientific understanding to an emotional and personal one. Considering her own writing practices, McClelland observed that time is a staple for song writers and poets. Universal experiences, like mortality and loss, are especially rich because they can communicate with almost everyone. “Obviously a song writer is trying to tap into something relatable”, she reflected, “I think when it comes to this topic, mortality, the passage of time, it’s something that everybody can relate to. Everybody can feel that, can understand that fear or that acceptance or whatever it is. We’ve all struggled with it at times.” She remarked almost wistfully on the particular ways that she and Doucet experience time as touring musicians, where a year spent on the road can feel like an eternity and at the same time seem to pass at the snap of your fingers. It was that feeling that made it worth it, after being separated by an extended touring schedule, for her to travel from Australia to the UK to surprise him at a race finish line. “I guess time is what you make of it and how you decide to stretch it out and fill it and play with it. It’s almost malleable,” she said. Song writing about time, it seems, is about finding that hidden fear or struggle and somehow understanding it better through music.

Is there a conflict, though, in advocating for scientific thinking when your life’s work depends on tapping personal feelings and the hopes and fears of life? In hearing the way they talked about both with such equal passion, it seems there doesn’t have to be. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke emphatically about the scientific understandings of world that are essential for our larger human society, for example about crops, climate change and space exploration, right alongside the personal understanding each of us has to create about the world around us. I needn’t have worried that I was changing the subject because both of them moved so fluidly from talking about time as something that the human species can understand through science to something that individuals have to make sense of in relation to their experiences as people. They aren’t competing types of understanding, and are instead evidence of Doucet and McClelland choosing the most appropriate type of thinking or communicating for the situation, just like they did in working to connect so well with the audience at the Viking Community Hall.

Doucet hasn’t kept his science advocacy hidden from his audience either. In January 2011, he wrote a passionate and cogent piece for the David Suzuki Foundation insisting on the importance of returning to science-based decision making in relation to climate change. In an interview with the foundation he explained that he sees this work as an essential part of his life as an artist. “As a singer-songwriter,” he said, “my thoughts on various socio-political themes tend to inform my work, so it only makes sense that I would consider those themes carefully. Having an audience does carry with it a responsibility to communicate as thoughtfully as possible.” Doucet and McClelland seem to wholly embody this ideal in their approach of communicating genuinely with their audience and, off stage, stepping back to consider larger issues through a scientific lens.

As I drove back to Edmonton that night, the dark highway stretching out against the dark prairie horizon, I was sure to pause for a moment and look up. Inspired by McClelland and Doucet, I marveled at the galaxies and stars ever moving away from us in the expansion started with the big bang and at the same time smiled to remember the human signposts that these same lights have provided on this land for thousands of years. They seemed even more awe-inspiring when seen from both perspectives.

The song Killing Time was featured as Finch & Pea Song of the Week on April 19, 2012, and segments of this interview were reported there. The track can be found on Whitehorse’s debut, self-titled album released in 2011 by Six Shooter Records. Their latest album, The Fate of World Depends on This Kiss, hit stores and playlists on August 28, 2012. For more on the new album, check out this week’s Song of the Week, Achilles’ Desire.

Photos taken at Interstellar Rodeo by Aaron Vanimere, used by permission.

Marie-Claire Shanahan About the Author: Marie-Claire Shanahan is an Associate Professor of Science Education and Science Communication at the University of Alberta. When she isn't visiting research sites or working with her students, she can be found writing about two of her favourite things, science and music, as DJ at the online science pub The Finch & Pea, where she squeezes in as much Canadian independent music as she thinks she can get away with. Marie-Claire blogs about science education and culture at Boundary Vision and tweets as @mcshanahan . Any and all free time is devoted to exploring the Edmonton river valley and the slopes of Banff and Jasper with her husband and two dogs. Follow on Twitter @mcshanahan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. Na g n o s t ic 5:16 pm 09/16/2012

    Only a few sentences into the article, I knew global warming would be mentioned eventually. Scientific American is so predictable.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Na g n o s t ic 5:21 pm 09/16/2012

    …what a dreadful song. Reminds me of the Kansas tune “Dust in the Wind”. Yuck.

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  3. 3. SteveO 5:36 pm 09/16/2012

    Yes, Na g n o s t ic, it is completely unfathomable why one of the major issues of our time would find its way into a conversation with well-informed and intelligent artists, isn’t it.

    At least for you, it seems…

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  4. 4. bbrout 8:14 pm 09/16/2012

    Nice article. I listen to these guys on CBC all the time eh.

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