Sing a Song of Science: Hai-Ting Chinn

Opera singer, skeptic, podcaster, and a lover of science, Hai-Ting Chinn fuses the passionate and fanciful world of music with the grounded, rational aim of skepticism in an innovative and satisfying new way. She’ll be performing at NECSS this weekend, and recently I got the chance to ask her a few things before the big event.

First of all, could you tell me about your music background? When did you start? What made you interested in pursuing opera?

I was sent to a children’s choir from the age of 4, so I started singing and learning to read music before I really remember. I also took piano lessons from the age of 7. My parents aren’t professional musicians, but one is Chinese and the other Jewish, and whether for cultural or just personal reasons, they emphasized practice! There was also great music education in the California public schools in those days (alas, that all seems to have evaporated) and I learned to play recorder, which was required, and trombone, which was not. I also did a lot of music theater, but not much opera. It was a small town, so there wasn’t much opera, and I must admit that I wasn’t particularly into it when I was growing up. We listened to the Met Opera Saturday broadcasts on the local NPR station, but Saturday was our family house-cleaning day, and I pretty much associated opera with cleaning the toilet. Not the most appealing association. I started to love opera much later, in college, mostly because of recordings of Maria Callas.

How did you become interested in science and skepticism? Could you tell me a little about the path that brought you here? What kind of backwards hippie Northern California town did you grow up in, anyway?

I grew up in Arcata, California (as you know–right next to where you grew up!) which is indeed one of the most woo-woo places in the US, although most of it takes the form of anti-establishment hyper-liberalism, which I was pretty much OK with growing up–at least it’s not that sort of American small town where fanatical religiosity, racism, or homophobia is rampant.

The seeds of my love of science were probably planted by my mother, who is a (just retired) mathematics professor at Humboldt State University. She was one of the first women to get an advanced degree in math from Harvard, and she was always working on getting more girls to pursue careers in math and science. At home, she used games around the dinner table to teach my brother and me mathematical concepts. I was certainly interested in science and good at math when I was young; becoming a musician rather than a scientist was partially my form of teenage rebellion.

At some point in my early career as a musician, I began reading a lot of popular science. I can’t remember why, but I started with evolutionary biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould, early Richard Dawkins, and Steve Jones (who wrote Darwin’s Ghost, which is The Origin of Species updated with all the new information that we’ve gathered since Darwin’s day) and moved on to all kinds of science popularizers. I basically started considering popular science a hobby, reading as much as I had time for, and getting a kick out of the fact that I was a professional musician and science amateur: exactly backwards from tradition. Reading about science is relaxing and inspiring for someone who spends her life practicing and performing music.

As for skepticism: like many, I credit the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. And, once again, like many others, I would say that I have always been skeptical; I just didn’t know there was a name for it. To give credit where it is due, I must also say that Matthew [Schickele] found the SGU first and told me to listen to it!

Spacesuit with wombat: Hai-Ting in La Didone

You do a lot of work with opera in unusual settings, with productions like Requiem for Fossil Fuels; Mosheh: A VideOpera, a contemporary and hallucinatory take on the Moses tale; and La Didone, a sci-fi retelling of the Dido and Aeneas story — my favorite quote about which was from the New York Times, which said “The lush-voiced Ms. Chinn will suddenly switch from an aria about the torments of passion to the parenthetical (and monotonal) delivery of a line about having seen a horrible space monster, and then back to florid song.” That sounds amazing, and I wish I could see it. Could you share a bit about your experiences working in these sorts of contexts? How do these types of productions compare with the classics?

Opera is odd–it’s an art form that can be both conservative and radical at the same time. There are so many firmly entrenched traditions that simply MUST be followed (or so someone will always insist), and there is such a culture of “authenticity” for opera of every period and region. At the same time, the one thing that all opera shares is that it is intensely and inescapably artificial: everyone sings, all the time! A weird idea, really. So in a way, even them most traditional opera is no less extreme than the Wooster Group’s Didone, in which the 17th-century Italian version of Dido and Aeneas is mashed up with a 1960s pulp Sci-Fi movie, “Terrore nello spazio,” (whose title was strangely translated into English as “Planet of the Vampires”). It’s all a matter of perspective. Sometimes I really appreciate the structure of working in traditional venues (someone always tells you exactly where to be and when), but the more adventurous projects often have a collaborative aspect, which I love.

Tell me about your podcast! What kinds of things have you covered, and what kinds of things are in the works?

Our podcast, whose official name is Scopes Monkey Choir: Music in a Rational Universe, comes out every week, usually on Sunday night. It’s me and Matthew Schickele, two professional musicians, discussing the science of music, music about science, and skeptical topics that touch on music and musicians. The idea came from the passionate discussions Matthew and I sometimes get into about the things we heard on other people’s skeptical podcasts. We’d be talking about something or other we heard on Skeptically Speaking or Rationally Speaking or the Skeptic’s Guide, and suddenly we’d say, “Hey, this should be a podcast.” We decided that we had a niche: science and skepticism in (and of) music. At first we thought that might be too restrictive, but as we looked in to it, we found so many potential topics that we’ll never get to them all. It’s still pretty narrow in terms of who might be interested in listening, but who makes a podcast for the listeners, anyway?

Hai-Ting in Mosheh: A VideOpera

What will you be presenting at NECSS?

I am developing a one-woman show called “Science Fair,” which is scientific texts set to music and illustrated/demonstrated live. The music is being composed for me by various “classical” composers I’ve worked with throughout my career (Matthew is one of them). In the full show, there will be sections on topics in astronomy, biology, and evolution, as well as live classroom physics and chemistry experiments. It will be something like Mr. Wizard and Carl Sagan getting together and singing an opera. The show has just been accepted into a long-term artist-in-residence program at the HERE Theater in NYC SoHo. (Though it is not yet on their web page, it will be soon.)

For NECSS, I’m presenting several pieces on scientific themes, but they will not necessarily be part the final show. One of the things I want to do is involve the scientific/skeptical community in creating “Science Fair,” and I’m hoping that by singing for a big crowd of skeptics at NECSS, I’ll be able to get some of them interested in helping me. In particular, I want people to suggest their favorite classroom/home science experiments: reasonably safe experiments that demonstrate basic concepts in physics or chemistry, and that I can do live in front of an audience (while singing!). Dr. Pamela Gay (of AstronomyCast) has already agreed to work with me on the Astronomy section, choosing historical texts about the solar system and even writing some new ones. And Page Van Meter, a zoologist who is one of the organizers of NECSS and of the New York City Skeptics, is serving as my “science consultant,” and working on some texts with me as well.

So basically, my presentation at NECSS is a preview of and a plug for “Science Fair.” There will also be a surprise contribution by one of your fellow MadArtLab bloggers!

Hai-Ting will be performing at NECSS on Sunday, April 10th at 1:20 pm. You should go. Do eet.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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