All That Jazz...Squared

Monday, May 22, 2006

Written by Adam A. Donaldson

It’s not unusual for U of G professors to pursue other interests on the side; but the one-two punch of physics prof and jazz singer gives Diane Nalini de Kerckhove an edge on some of her hyphenate colleagues. When Professor de Kerckhove is not drilling students on the importance of protons and electrons, she’s simply known as Diane Nalini: jazz singer extraordinare. She’s performed for US presidents, former Beatles and in nearly every major Canadian Jazz festival you can think of.

Nalini’s latest accomplishment is turning the written words of William Shakespeare into lyrics for a collection of songs on her new album, Songs of Sweet Fire. She’ll be launching the album in a concert in War Memorial Hall on Thursday May 25th, which doubles also for the unofficial beginning of the Shakespeare-Made In Canada festival, which will be hosted in Guelph in the first half of 2007.

Recently, The Cannon got a chance to sit down and talk to Nalini about jazz, Shakespeare and even a dumbed down explanation about the advantages of a proton microscope. We began by talking about how a jazz singer became a physicist; or is that how a physicist became a jazz singer?

"I started sing jazz when I was about 2 or 3 years old, so I certainly had grown up with a passion for jazz," said Nalini. "Another one of the things I wanted to be as a kid was a scientist. I started singing professionally while I was in college, and all throughout by undergraduate years I was studying physics full time all while singing. So they certainly grew up as parallels for me."

Nalini grew up in Montreal, home of one of Canada's most vibrant jazz scenes. Under her father's influence, Nalini grooved to the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday. Sure, as a teenager she listened to the big names of the 80s like David Bowie, the Police and U2, but jazz and other lesser appreciated musical genres were never far from her mind.

"I find that as I get older I get less and less interested in categorizing music, and this new album is not strictly a jazz album, When I was writing the Shakespeare songs I didn’t think that this had to a jazz album, I tried to think, 'What does this sonnet mean?' Sometimes they came out as Motown, or more blues or gospel. So from a music point of view, I didn’t want to be restricted stylistically."

It was while she was studying at Oxford that Nalini began to experiment with putting the words of Shakespeare and Tennyson to music. She worked on compositions with other student musicians at Oxford, they used the literature they were studying in class as their guide to creating new musical compositions. Although the group only performed together once, the idea stuck with Nalini ever since, the Tennyson piece ending up on her second album, Tales...My Mama Told Me.

"Normally when I write music, the melody comes first and then the words, and they come in tandem with each other, so I’ll write a little bit melody and put words to that. Then, once a theme presents itself, it comes together after that."

So this new album was a uniquely different challenge; while Nalini had written both English and French lyrics to the music of other artists this was a completely new experience. "The words are there already, and then you have to keep reading them over and over again, and usually for me, the theme of the poem suggests the tempo, the time signature and the general feeling of the music and style. Then the actual melody comes from the cadence of the words.

"There was one song that came from Anthony & Cleopatra that’s called 'The Fabulous Minstrels', and it’s about Orpheus, and before I knew it, I was playing a tune that was almost a little nod to the 1960s with that kind of feel, and I thought, 'Where did that come from?' and it came from the poem."

Still, the idea of the combination of jazz and Shakespeare hits people like a tonne of bricks. It's jazz, which is the quintessential 20th century American art form and Shakespeare, 16th century England's most fondly remembered playwright. Yet the two synch up very well in the performance. "I think that it’s a tribute to Shakespeare more than anything. People have set Shakespeare to music throughout the centuries whenever the plays were staged; somebody had to write music for them. What I’ve done here is that I’ve set these pieces to music out of the context of the plays.

"I wanted the songs to stand on their own and I think that they do, and that’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius. The songs are little gems in and of themselves, you don’t really need to go back to the play or the context they are being sung in the play, because they have their own little pearls of wisdom, or their own fanciful lightness."

Finding those pearls was a different matter all together. "Some lines lent themselves more easily, in my opinion, to being set to music then others. I didn’t want to choose songs that had a very archaic language and some of them do, lots of thees and thous; I didn’t want that. So the ones I chose have more modern English, and the songs were easier to set because they had some natural repetition."

Nalini, as she describes the album, hesitates to call Songs of Sweet Fire a jazz album, citing the folk, blues, country and the aforementioned pop elements as examples of how the the songs to make up an exclusively jazz album. "The thing that makes it jazz perhaps in a broad sense is that they all contain improvised segments. Segments where I asked the musicians to play a solo over the harmony I had written and melodically they got pretty inventive, which was great."

Being accomplished as both a musician and a physicist may give a person thoughts of leaving one for the other. Nalini's been down that road, she took a sabbatical and moved back to Montreal after finishing her post-doc and sang four nights a week, but she found that she missed her work in physics. "I found myself missing the challenge, it must be left brain/right brain thing. There are aspects to composition that are challenging, but it's not nuclear physics. I missed the newness, I missed the learning something new everyday and I missed the interaction with my colleagues."

Speaking of physics, Nalini's research has focused on the development of the U of G's proton microscope, so I asked her to give me a simplified for non-scientists explanation of what it will do and how it will be useful. "It's just like a light microscope excepted that instead of shining light on to matter you're shining protons, they're basically hydrogen atoms that have been striped of their electron, and it has the ability to penetrate quite deeply into matter without damaging the material too much for most of the time it spends traveling in the material.It doesn't scatter like light would and it penetrates quite far before it stops."

Basically, the proton microscope gives you a look at an object in 3-D, inside and outside, but that's not the extent of it's abilities. "The other thing that's neat about it is that it has the ability to detect trace quantities of material, parts per million for example. We analyzed parts of Napoleon Bonaparte's hair while I was at Oxford, he had been poisoned with arsenic and you shouldn't normally be able to detect arsenic in parts per million levels in healthy human hair, and yet he had arsenic in about 10 to 15 parts per million in his hair."

Unfortunately, the sample wasn't enough to settle the age old debate about whether or not Napoleon was poisoned deliberately, but obviously forensics is just one potential practical application for the proton microscope.

In any event, moonlighting seems to suit Nalini, playing with the laws of physics by day and playing jazz at night, she has become wonderful new addition to the pantheon of Guelph characters. "When a position in Guelph opened up I thought that this was a marriage of convenience: the two things I like best. Guelph has been such a wonderful place to come to. The physics department is really friendly and collegial and I have such interesting discussions with people there. My dream is to keep all things up: the teaching, the singing and the research."

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