July 6, 2011 | 4
John Boswell is the creator of the musical web series, the Symphony of Science, which turns spoken word from influential scientists into singing via auto-tuning software, and combines it with original instrumentals and imagery to make evocative science-themed music videos. The series centers around Carl Sagan and explores themes such as cosmology, space travel, natural selection, reason and skepticism, and more. The music videos have amassed over 10 million views and received coverage from outlets such as NPR, Wired, the Scientist, and more, and led to a special vinyl release of the first single, A Glorious Dawn, on Jack White’s Third Man Records. He eventually plans to compile the series into a DVD/CD set and is exploring the possibility of playing the shows live.
Joanne: Before your success with “Symphony of Science”, did you produce other videos? If so, what were they?
John: I had minimal experience in video making before starting Symphony of Science; my only prior auto-tune video was a light hearted Billy Mays remix made shortly after he passed away. It was not anything interesting or novel, but it was conceptually similar to the science-themed videos and paved the way for A Glorious Dawn, my first Symphony of Science song.
Joanne: Clearly you have a passion for science. When did this begin? Did you ever consider a career in science?
John: My passion for science developed during college, where I was fascinated by a variety of undergraduate introductory science courses. Although I majored in Economics, the sciences are more compelling to me as a field of study now. During my studies I encountered many books and documentaries that would ultimately inspire many aspects of the Symphony of Science series.
Joanne: What skills did you bring with you before you embarked on this creative endeavor? Do you have any special training with music writing and video editing?
John: I have never been formally trained in music or video editing, with the exception of a year of piano lessons at age 17. In my high school years I took an interest in turntables / DJing, which introduced me to fundamental concepts in mixing elements of music together. By expanding into other realms of music, primarily keyboard composition / audio production, and focusing on my hobby throughout college, I developed enough skills to be competent enough to embark on a project like Symphony of Science. My video editing skills were elementary at best when I started, but I have learned a lot over the past year and a half, which I think is reflected in the quality of video editing as the series has progressed.
Joanne: Sagan himself was incredibly poetic in his speech. Other than this inspiration, what prompted you to create the fabulously popular “Glorious Dawn”?
John: Although Sagan’s timeless words and elegant presentation style were the primary inspiration for A Glorious Dawn, I was also originally motivated to attempt something more educational in general and something with an out-of-this-world feel. My musical style sits well with this genre, as do Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, of course. Mixing the two together felt very natural.
Joanne: You must watch video clips all day long! How do you go about deciding what clips to include or which topics to cover, including the latest one about the brain?
John: In the early days of the project, there were clips I had already seen that I would revisit and decide if they were eligible for remix treatment or not. Now I have exhausted most of the clips I had in memory and a bit more searching is required to find the right quotes to use. I now use social media to leverage my search capabilities – I use Twitter, Facebook, and my forums, as well as email correspondence, to help track down suitable material for the series. Fans of the music have helped a great deal in finding good source footage.
Joanne: Here come the technical questions! As far as the video clips go, do you have preferred software to grab clips from offline?
John: Most of my clips are taken from Youtube. I use Keep-Tube to do this, although there are many alternatives out there.
Joanne: How did you go about obtaining permissions to use the clips from Cosmos and elsewhere?
John: I am in touch with some of the copyright holders, but most of my works I consider Fair Use under the DMCA, so I don’t actively seek permission for every clip
Joanne: What editing software do you use?
John: I use Reason/Record, Melodyne, Adobe Audition and Adobe Premiere for all my editing.
Joanne: Any other equipment of interest to create your videos?
John: My keyboard is essential for all my compositions.
Joanne: How do you fund these projects?
John: I fund the project through donations and a bit of ad revenue.
Joanne: Do you have anyone to assist you?
John: Beyond finding source clips to use, and garnering feedback from friends, I do all the composing and editing myself.
Joanne: I see you plan a DVD and hope to do live shows. Exactly what would these shows look like?
John: The live show may just end up a pipe dream, but I envision a group of 2-3 musicians (myself on keyboard) performing key instrumental elements of the songs (piano, bass, etc) while the videos are projected on a screen as the focus of the show and the auto-tuned voices sing on top.
Joanne: Other than the above plans, do you envision any larger goals for these video projects or do you have other projects in mind?
John: I have been contemplating the idea of Symphony of History – branching out to other academic disciplines beyond science. History is another subject I hold great interest in, and there is a wealth of material to sample out there. It’s definitely a possibility down the road.
Joanne: Please tell our readers what you see as most beneficial about new media venues such as YouTube and iTunes for sharing science with the general public.
John: For sharing science with the public, new media outlets like Youtube serve as a common place to find information on almost any scientific idea, often in new and interesting ways. Its video recommendation engine has provided me with hours of perpetual entertainment and I’m sure many others can say the same.
So what do the experts have to say about John’s videos?
Jeff Morales researches, develops, produces, directs, and shoots a wide range of wildlife and human subjects for National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet, The Nature Conservancy, CBC and others. He recently produced and directed “Crocodile King”, a blue chip saltwater crocodile film for the National Geographic Channel, was Director of Photography on “For the Love of Elephants”, a one hour film for CBC’s “The Nature of Things”, and was a contributing field producer/director for National Geographic’s landmark series “Great Migrations”.
“Very cool! I think what works best about these reworks is that they are presented in a style that really nails the critical mission of making science and the scientific approach more accessible and compelling to a general audience. It’s the same message that researchers and science lovers feel so passionately about (but whose appeal can be lost to others because of traditional packaging) made quite infectious by infusing a cool musical approach. You get sucked in enjoying the style and presentation and the science message kind of washes over you. I guess the only thing that I would look out for is a matter of stylistic degree, what elements of this type of approach help you engage your audience and what details may be distracting. I find those looping cuts to the beat can take me out of the zone if used too much (even though I recognize it’s a stylistic technique), and in general, the auto tune sound is certainly suitable for this shorter format but can’t sustain a more involved story.”