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Theatre Short Things


Writing Public Speaking

I Sing a Particle
contemporary music theatre
in collaboration with Collide@CERN
composer Arnoud Noordegraaf
writer Adrian Hornsby
CERN curated visit March 2013 (CERN, Geneva)

full production tbd



Artists are essentially interested in two things: ideas, and how people feel about them. Given such concerns, physics is a rather curious field in that it exhibits terrific idea-density, but is mostly silent as to what these ideas mean to the people who develop or use them. Over the last decade artists have increasingly come to notice this quirk, and started saying to themselves, ‘Aha! There’s maybe something I can do here.’

A few years ago I started reading particle physics books with a mind to making a piece. One thing I was struck by in particular was how moving an experience much of the reading was. What did it really mean for a particle to sniff out all possible paths, I kept asking myself. Should I be worried about the possibility that the universe was losing information? These were profound and emotive questions. At some point I caught myself standing in front of the fridge with the door open, feeling lost, and thinking, ‘The idea of gravity — that bodies in space simply attract one other — is so beautiful. But that it’s so hard to find at the small scale is upsetting. But perhaps also a little wonderful ….’ I closed the fridge door without an answer to quantum gravity, but what was emerging, it was clear, was the possibility for a human story.

I started to see a character — a non-physicist, but who nevertheless felt bombarded by physics-related questions. In obsessing over them, he was partially obsessing over the fundamentals of matter, and partially using these questions as proxies for the real issues in his life. The story-making mind is so suggestive that it’s very easy for a peculiar aspect of, for example, antimatter, to somehow have something to say about your relationship with your daughter, or your dog. But to put this character in a dramatic situation required more. There needed to be something at stake for the character, to generate a crisis of some kind, and he needed to be brought into contact with particles, such that he had a tangible reason to be bombarding himself with these questions.

The narrative solution we found was to give him a tumour, and a mixture of radio- and hadron therapy. The tumour, and the sense of mortality it necessarily provokes, leads him to thinking about his life. What kind of a story does his life make, and what is the story telling him? At the same time, the particle beams he is subjected to are at once either healing him, or making him sicker. The behaviour of these particles is governed by the laws of particle physics, and matter more generally, which in itself is the story of the unfolding of the universe. Such a story must in some way include the unfolding of his life. But is this universe, and its particles, flowing against him? The tumour is on his throat, and as a result of tissue damage from radiotherapy, he has lost the ability to sing. Consequently he feels the particle beam to be a hostile force, taking pieces of his life away from him, and this plays into his anxieties over a broken relationship with his daughter, and his fear of dying with this piece of his story unresolved.

As the treatment progresses, and his condition and prognosis fluctuate, he remembers things in different ways. Through a series of letters written out loud, he reveals to the audience various parts of his life, suggesting first one and then another version of the past. His observations and feelings about the beam seem to be writing and rewriting his own personal history, as though tracing out different possible paths …

This concept for the scenario came at the same time as a vision for a song cycle, which we saw playing on the same stage and almost in parallel. The idea was to create a libretto composed of pure descriptions of particle physics — filled with all the suggestive and emotive potential I had found while reading — and for this text to be sung by a soprano alongside the story of the man, as he sits writing his letters. The two worlds would naturally start to resonate, with the physics of the songs taking on meaning in relation to an individual human life. What was emerging between these two for us was a full-length piece of music theatre.

Over the course of the piece, the man gradually moves through the anger he initially feels about his disease, and the universe and how its particles are treating him, and increasingly is able to hear the soprano’s song cycle, and to think of it all as a form of music. Though he has lost the ability to sing himself, he comes ultimately to understand living as a form of singing. It is singing the song of the particles, or the universe, or letting the song sing through him. And within the story of his life, this translates to being able to heal the relationship with his daughter (the soprano), and so to find love.

We wrote these ideas up as a proposal and sent them to Collide@CERN, CERN’s artist residency programme. We were then lucky enough to be invited for a research visit to start honing the content and language for the song cycle, and to develop our understanding of hadron therapy. We look forward to working further with the scientists we met and the programme itself as the piece takes shape.


artists in hard hats

(at the CMS detector at CERN)