In high school, Merel Vercammen faced a dilemma. What would she become when she grew up, a musician or a scientist? ‘I could not choose right away, so I went to study violin at the conservatory and math at university.’
In the end, the music won. And for a few years now, Vercammen (33) has attracted attention with idiosyncratic albums, excellent violin playing and surprising improvisations. But science kept calling, and now there’s Snaar, a one-day festival on science and music, which looks set to become a bi-annual tradition. Saturday is the scoop in TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht.
There was no such thing yet. How did you get the idea?
‘It happened already twelve years ago when I was studying at the Royal College of Music in London. Walking from the subway station on Exhibition Road to the conservatory, I passed the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and a technical university. A little further on was the Royal Albert Hall, the famous music hall. I thought: why do these institutes never do anything together? I made an attempt, but my wild plans failed because of the indirectness of English culture. ‘
Doesn’t a day around music and science become bone-dry?
‘Of course I try to avoid it with all my might. For example, the pop duo Clean Pete, or the twins Loes and Renée Wijnhoven, participate in a performance about musicality and heritage. When Professor Henkjan Honing comes to talk about animal musicality, a pianist plays new music. In addition, many performances are interactive. This way you can do a self test on music preference and personality. ‘
Have you never thought: what have I started?
‘Haha, especially the last few weeks. Everything is connected now and sometimes it is very busy. But I also enjoyed the preparation a lot. Suddenly I was zooming in with scientists from Nikhef, the national institute of subatomic physics. I studied mathematics for three years, but I know nothing about particle physics. ‘
What kind of representation does it produce?
‘A scientist explains that subatomic particles behave like a string. And double bassist James Oesi plays improvisations. The performance ends with a new piece, which the composer Henryk Golden has based on string theory. ‘
Does science affect you as a musician?
‘The math study has certainly developed my analytical skills. I have come to understand complex music better, such as Bach’s intricate fugues. I also have a master’s degree in music cognition. How music affects the brain fascinates me enormously. Scientific research has shown an interesting effect. Listening to happy music in happy mood or sad music in sad mood can temporarily improve your cognitive performance.
‘The show Does music make you smarter? experiment with it. Visitors first do a test on their mood and then a short IQ test with a spatial insight question and a memory question. A new IQ test follows after the concert. ‘
An illustration by renowned scientist Albert Einstein is the campaign image of your festival.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize 100 years ago. But more importantly, his life proved to provide an entrance to make the festival more accessible. Composer Mathilde Wantenaar has her new mini-opera Dear Professor Einstein partly based on his biography, culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The second story lies in the historical letters Einstein wrote to children. In it he answers their questions about life with great wisdom.
‘Einstein also played the violin. He even said he enjoyed music more than science. Online, I found the 1934 program booklet for a concert in New York where he played. It was a benefit concert for colleagues that Einstein had left behind in Nazi Germany, with music by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
‘Unfortunately, I can not get one anecdote confirmed. Einstein is said to have made music with the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler. As Einstein swung, Kreisler asked, ‘What’s wrong, Professor, can you not count?’
Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg, 28/5.
He became a hit on YouTube: Snowball, the dancing cockatoo. He swings and headbangs to the music of Queen, Backstreet Boys and Michael Jackson. Snowball, for example, provided evidence for the theory that the sense of rhythm is not reserved for humans. For the String Festival, three composition students wrote new music for Snowball’s movements. The pieces are played by pianist Mengjie Han.