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John Updike meets The Sopranos

Nan Haemer sings Updike

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

My fondest memory of the 2010 APS March Meeting will be the soprano Nan Haemer’s performance of Updike’s Science – music by the physicist Brian Holmes and words by the late John Updike.

Brian is at the left of the photograph above, turning pages for Terry Nelson on the piano.

As well as being a condensed matter physicist at San Jose State University, Holmes is a professional French horn player and a composer.

Updike’s Science consists of musical settings of six poems by John Updike. Some of the poems make direct reference to science – “Cosmic gall”, for example, begins:

“Neutrinos they are very small…”

Other poems are included because they remind Holmes of science – “Lament for cocoa”, for example could be a lament for thermodynamics with the lines:

“The scum has come, My cocoa’s cold”

Holmes blowing his horn

Before the performance Holmes entertained the crowd with a lively demonstration of the physics of brass instruments.

What did I learn? Well it seems that the pitch of a trumpet with a bell is higher than a similar instrument that ends in a plain tube. Although Holmes didn’t say so, the logical conclusion is that the bigger the bell the higher the pitch – but I would have thought bigger bells result in lower pitches.

The reason, I think, is that a larger bell means that the acoustic node of the instrument is further into the trumpet – which shortens the wavelength of the sound, boosting the pitch.

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