RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

Special Issue - March 2004
  MEETING : DIETER TRüSTEDT AND JöRG SCHäFFER  -  Experiencing science through art

A nuclear physicist abandons a career mapped out in advance to devote his time to multimedia performances. A musician and doctor of biochemistry translates into sound the beauty which fascinates him in the science of biology. Two German researchers, Dieter Trüstedt and Jörg Schäffer, have chosen a career as artists – but it was science that led them there. 

The Catalanian Assumption – Munich, November 2003  Franz Kimmel
The Catalanian Assumption – Munich, November 2003
©Franz Kimmel
Fluctuating, echoing sounds, like distant harmonies, contrast with the amplified strains of string instruments – projections of often abstract visual images. In the midst of it all is a dancer whose movements interplay with sounds, shadows, shapes. The Catalanian Assumption is one of the latest creations of Dieter Trüstedt, a nuclear physicist who preferred art to science. The title is a reference to a mathematical problem – sequences of squared numbers, such as 8 or 9. 'That is simply an inspiration which helped me to structure the material when designing this performance,' explains Dieter. 'The public does not need to know this to appreciate the beauty.'

From the simple to the complex
This scientist's passion for the arts is long standing. It was first aroused when he was a student in the sixties and attended a performance by a very original puppet show. 'There was an abstract image, consisting of shadows and shapes, and I was haunted by it.' Trüstedt decided to join the group, where he met the artist who was to become his wife. Together they sought new modes of expression and experimented with the projection of images accompanied by electronic music. It was complex work due to the limited availability of suitable material. Finally, the physicist, who was both practically minded and familiar with laboratory equipment, built his own synthesisers and laser projectors which he used to create his own performances.

With his science doctorate behind him, Trüstedt opted firmly for art. 'Clearly, it was a difficult decision, but I had experienced the intellectual pleasure of creating, of giving birth to something and sharing it with an audience.' But that did not disprove the old adage that 'once a scientist, always a scientist'. 'This dimension always stays with you; you cannot drive it out. There is always the curiosity to know how things work, the desire to experiment, to first explore simple phenomena and then arrive at a greater complexity.'

This is an analysis that can be applied equally to his creative work which is austere and free of ornamentation. 'I am not a real musician. I can't even sing a melody. I simply organise sounds and noises rather like a painter uses colours and lines.' The visual aspect is, moreover, a very important element in his performances. The tension originates in the combination of simple geometric shapes – with the emphasis on pure colours and from which there sometimes emerges the photo of a real but deformed object – and the movements of a dancer as a counterpoint.   

Variations on DNA
Jörg Schäffer: 'Science often remains blind to some of its aspects, such as beauty.'   Franz Kimmel
Jörg Schäffer: 'Science often remains blind to some of its aspects, such as beauty.'
© Franz Kimmel
While Trüstedt was presenting his latest performance at the Munich School for Music and Performing Arts, Jörg Schäffer was playing one of his compositions on piano in a neighbouring room. The clarity and linearity of this music initially brings Bartok to mind. It consists of a cycle of 26 short pieces, called Viroids, which were inspired by DNA sequences. Each of them corresponds to between 200 and 300 nucleotides. 'I am trying, through the medium of sound, to reveal the harmony of this molecular structure and the beauty of DNA.'

Dieter Trüstedt: 'I organise sounds and noises like a painter uses colours and lines.'  Franz Kimmel
Dieter Trüstedt: 'I organise sounds and noises like a painter uses colours and lines.'
© Franz Kimmel
A doctor of biochemistry with a degree in musicology and a composer, Schäffer says he grew up 'between a chemistry lab and a piano room, one almost next to the other’. Science and music: he feels equally at home in both these worlds. He sees his compositions as an attempt to analyse scientific compounds through aesthetic elements. 'In musicology or in the theory of art, it is normal to analyse the arts through the medium of science. I do the same thing in musical creation, but in the other direction.' Although passionately interested in science, nevertheless Schäffer regrets that it 'often remains blind to some of its aspects, such as beauty, of molecules for example. It is a question that is asked only rarely, when I believe that research would benefit enormously from such an approach.' 

The sound of an atom
Schäffer could imagine deciding to return to his laboratory one day, but on one condition: 'If I made a new discovery, I would probably want to publish it in the form of a composition.'  

'What could the sound of an atom be like?' he wonders. It is a question he has never been able to answer – 'yet everyone can tell me what an atom looks like' – and his music is an attempt to provide one. This is no doubt why after his studies at the famous Max Planck Institute this young biochemist studied musicology and the history of art. It was at this time that he discovered experimental music, began to compose and was subsequently appointed musical director at several German theatres. He composed a number of piano works and also an opera, the latter inspired by the piece by the Hungarian composer Peter Nadas, entitled Housecleaning. Schäffer has also been commissioned to write certain works, always keeping in mind his scientific inspiration. He wrote Fusion (a work symbolising nuclear fusion and the transformation of hydrogen into helium) for the Fraunhofer Research Institute and Caenorhabditis elegans, based on the flow chart of cellular development, for the Max Planck Society. Schäffer is nevertheless at pains to point out that his music is not for or about physical phenomena or the development of living organisms, but always an attempt to capture the internal and secret harmonies of science and to translate them into musical forms.

"Echtezeithalle"
About a decade ago, Trüstedt founded the Arts Centre at Ulm University where he taught 'artistic strategies' to science students. He was putting into practice the idea that 'the very notion of university implies a universal education' and was trying to demonstrate in his lectures that a whole world of inquiry lay behind the sciences. This concept was applied to the Echtezeithalle, a 'real-time' centre founded by Trüstedt and Schäffer in 1999 and dedicated to exploring the various artistic fields which embrace the dimension of sound – innovative music in all its forms, sound sculptures, performance art, experimental choreography, videos, etc. About 50 artists, engineers and scientists from various disciplines work at this institution which is in the open tradition of the Bauhaus. Their general aim is to explore the new media and new forms of expression which often have their roots in an interaction between art and science. By a strange coincidence, the Echtezeithalle (that has since also become a virtual 'multiple use' space) is situated on Einstein Street – named after the man who said that 'the imagination is more important than knowledge'. 

But do art and science actually have anything in common? Yes, reply Trüstedt and Schäffer in unison. You have to devote your whole being to them. You cannot be a part-time scientist or part-time artist as that can never work. You need inspiration and enthusiasm to stay the course. You must have a very clear idea of what you are looking for and of the result you are seeking. All of these apply to both fields.


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