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Aspen Center for Physics: physicists Lisa Randall and Vijay Balasubramanian in conversation with composer Chris Theofanidis and John Luther Adams on music, science & creativity

Aspen Center for Physics

This event was recorded on August 10, 2023 at Aspen Center for Physics, in partnership with Aspen Public Radio.

Listen in to this panel of award-winning physicists and musicians, including Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer, John Luther Adams, Harvard University physics professor Lisa Randall, chair of composition at Yale University Christopher Theofanidis, and polymath physicist and University of Pennsylvania professor Vijay Balasubramanian. This special evening will be moderated by pianist and astrophysicist Amir Siraj, with a special introduction by Hirosi Ooguri.

Panelists investigate the relationships between creativity, music, and science. They also discuss Aspen as an inspirational backdrop for their creative endeavors at the Aspen Center for Physics and Aspen Music Festival and School, respectively.


For John Luther Adams, music is a lifelong search for home—an invitation to slow down, pay attention, and remember our place within the larger community of life on earth. Living for almost 40 years in northern Alaska, JLA discovered a unique musical world grounded in space, stillness, and elemental forces. In the 1970s and into the ’80s, he worked full time as an environmental activist. But the time came when he felt compelled to dedicate himself entirely to music. He made this choice with the belief that, ultimately, music can do more than politics to change the world. Since that time, he has become one of the most widely admired composers in the world, receiving the Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award, and many other honors. In works such as Become Ocean, In the White Silence, and Canticles of the Holy Wind, Adams brings the sense of wonder that we feel outdoors into the concert hall. And in outdoor works such as Inuksuitand Sila: The Breath of the World, he employs music as a way to reclaim our connections with place, wherever we may be. A deep concern for the state of the earth and the future of humanity drives Adams to continue composing. As he puts it: “If we can imagine a culture and a society in which we each feel more deeply responsible for our own place in the world, then we just may be able to bring that culture and that society into being.” Since leaving Alaska, JLA and his wife Cynthia have made their home in the deserts of Mexico, Chile, and the southwestern United States.


Professor Lisa Randall studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University. Her research connects theoretical insights to puzzles in our current understanding of the properties and interactions of matter. She has developed and studied a wide variety of models to address these questions, the most prominent involving extra dimensions of space. She was on the list of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" of 2007 and was one of 40 people featured in The Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary issue that year. Randall was featured in Newsweek's "Who's Next in 2006" as "one of the most promising theoretical physicists of her generation" and in Seed Magazine's "2005 Year in Science Icons". Randall has also pursued art-science connections, writing a libretto for Hypermusic: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes that premiered in the Pompidou Center in Paris and co-curating an art exhibit for the Los Angeles Arts Association, Measure for Measure. Randall’s books, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions and Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World were both on the New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of the Year. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Christopher Theofanidis’ music has been performed by many of the world’s leading performing arts organizations, from the London Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, and the American Ballet Theatre. He is a two-time Grammy nominee for best composition and his viola concerto recording won a Grammy for best solo performance. His work, Rainbow Body, is one of the most performed works of the new era, having been performed by over 150 orchestras worldwide. Mr. Theofanidis is currently on the faculties of Yale University and the Aspen Music Festival, and directs a workshop for the Albany Symphony’s American Music Festival each summer.

Christopher says of the relationship between science and music, “Music engages with science on many levels - first, at the literal level - the interaction of acoustics and temporal relationships (both in the form of ratios), but also equally importantly on a more metaphoric level. Creativity is associative, and metaphors are often sparks for that process; science has always had a strong influence in that regard in shaping the creation of music, and it is perhaps nowhere more vital and interesting than in contemporary composition.”


Vijay Balasubramanian is the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania. He works on many areas of theoretical physics ranging from string theory to biophysics. As a string theorist he studies the foundation of quantum theories of gravity and the black hole information paradox. As a biophysicist he investigates the principles that govern the organization of living systems, examining how complex functions emerge from the interaction of many simple constituents. Balasubramanian has worked on numerous systems in the brain including those that enable vision, audition, olfaction, motor control, navigation, learning, and decision making. He directs the Computational Neuroscience Initiative at Penn and is an External Professor of the Santa Fe Institute. He is the current Scientific Secretary of the Aspen Center for Physics, where he has been a General Member since 2011.


Amir Siraj is a dual New England Conservatory- and Harvard-trained concert pianist and astrophysicist. He is a US Presidential Scholar in the Arts, Steinway Young Artist, and Lang Lang Foundation Young Scholar alumnus, and has performed for leaders like Moon Jae-in of Korea, Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Queen Rania of Jordan. He has played with orchestras including the Boston Symphony and Pops, and at venues including the Kennedy Center, Wigmore Hall, Millennium Park, and Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium. Amir’s work in astrophysics was named one of ten “extraordinary cosmic revelations” of 2022 by CNN, and Astronomy Magazine dubbed him one of 25 “Rising Stars” in the field. Amir is a Forbes 30-Under-30 honoree in science, founder of Music For The Parks, and recently performed with Yo-Yo Ma with on-stage discussions about the science/music connection at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. He will start his PhD in Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University this fall.