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Composing and consciousness

Dustin Katzin’s friends say he is an Academy Award just waiting to happen.
Dustin Katzin’s friends say he is an Academy Award just waiting to happen.
Dustin Katzin’s friends say he is an Academy Award just waiting to happen.
Photo: Marc Longwood

This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of Spectrvm.

Listen to this music.

Honest. You'll love it.

Dustin Katzin composed this piece — Schrödinger's Cat: a Musical Journey into the Strange World of Quantum Physics — which premiered last spring by the MIT Symphony Orchestra, and which brought the audience to their feet, stomping, cheering, and whistling.

"My heart was pounding. I was so excited. That night was an experience I'll always remember and was one of the most defining moments of my life," says Katzin, whose dream is to compose film scores for major motion pictures, like his idol, John Williams. "There's a magic in his music that gives me chills. That emotion is what I strive for," says Katzin, whose own music, many say, carries a feeling that gives you goosebumps.

Katzin, an MIT Emerson Scholar, a program for top conservatory-level performers, graduated in 2012 with a double major in physics and math and a minor in music. This year, he's at Cambridge University where his mind is on a master's in applied mathematics, but his heart is on his next big chance and a dream to compose soundtracks for Steven Spielberg movies.

"Music is fundamentally math and physics. It's waves and frequencies," says Katzin, whose landmark piece, Schrödinger's Cat, tells the story of a famous thought experiment devised in 1935 by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

The experiment reveals the apparent conflict between what quantum theory says it true about the nature of matter on a microscopic level and what we observe to be true. "The paradox comes from taking the principles of quantum physics and treating large things as if they were subatomic particles. You can't naively apply the principles of the theory at all scales and sizes."

In the experiment, a cat is put into a box in a sealed room with radioactive material. Over time, that material may release cyanide gas or not. "If you misapply the theory, you could say that the cat was dead and alive at the same time, until you open the box. When you see the cat, it would either be alive or dead, with equal probability."

Katzin wrote two endings for the 25-minute piece — sad, if the cat dies; happy, if it lives. When the piece is performed, the conductor flips a coin to determine which outcome. On the night of the premier, the orchestra played the sad ending, followed by the happy one as an encore.

Happy beginning

At age three, Katzin saw The Lion King and that night played the film's entire theme song on a toy keyboard. At eight, he composed his first piano piece for a third grade talent show and won a gold medal. At 11, he heard Anakin's Theme from a Star Wars movie and replayed the song all day and night. "I was in a state of awe."

Mesmerized by the melody, he joined the school band, marching band, and jazz band. He played clarinet, bassoon, tambourine, bongos, and cymbals. ("It's much harder to play cymbals than it looks.") "From the beginning, I was interested in large-scale, orchestral composing," says Katzin, who has perfect pitch. "But I never thought in a million years I'd ever be able to compose anything like this." Three years ago, Katzin composed the film score for Solar, a film made by classmate David Dahan '12.
On this day, Katzin is saying that for him, creativity transcends rationality.

"The composition process for me is unconscious," he says, adding that the sound reveals itself. "And I jot it down. It's like my brain does the work, and I take a back seat and let it go by itself.

"I am aware of a moment when there's a choice, like I make a choice to open myself up to learn what's next. And the music just comes. Sometimes I feel I can direct it. I'll think, I want a specific emotion right now, and then the subconscious part of my brain does the work. I just feel like I am channeling someone who is telling me how the music goes."

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