The music of science

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Singer-songwriter-scientist Charlie Marshall.

“I spend a lot of time pondering atoms,” says Charlie Marshall.

If the statement makes him sound a bit like a modern incarnation of the Roman writer Lucretius – who wrote perhaps the world’s first science poem, On the Nature of Things – the comparison is not inapt. 

Marshall, 52, is well known to Australian alternative music fans of a certain age. Through the 1980s and 90s he fronted bands, such as Harem Scarem, which served as training grounds for musicians who went on to join global sensations including the Bad Seeds, the Dirty Three, the Avalanches, and Hunters and Collectors.

Come the turn of the century, however, Marshall’s music stopped. He gave away the rock game to take on a science degree and transform into a science teacher.

However, after a few years in his new role – a role that he relishes – something odd happened.

“If you’re passionate about things – for me, music and science, especially physics – eventually things start to happen subconsciously,” he says.

“I stopped playing music live for 10 years and concentrated on my science teaching. Then suddenly all these songs just sort of materialised in my head.”

It was the start of a process that ended this month with the release of that rarest of things: an album full of science-themed melodic rock.

Called Sublime, the collection of songs weaves together lyrics exploring nucleosynthesis, electromagnetism, radioactivity, cosmology, mitochondria, and symbiosis, as well as name-checking Einstein, Newton, Dawkins, Feynman, Attenborough and others.

Remarkably, the end result avoids any sense of overweening worthiness, self-conscious cleverness, or awkward nerdiness. It rocks out, resting on a solid substrate of guitar, drums and bass, backed up when required by a stonking horn section. This is science to get drunk to.

Or to put it another way, it’s rock with footnotes. Ironically for a musician, Marshall admits to not getting out very often in the evenings, because he’d far rather sit buried in a science book.

Reading serves to inform both his teaching work – he does science themed incursions in primary schools across Melbourne – and his lyric-writing duties. He cites his five favourite authors as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox and Rob Dunn.

Thanks in part, perhaps, to the pedagogic talents of these and other science communicators, Marshall’s music and lyrics deftly play with complexities such as string theory and special relativity.

There remain, however, certain elements in science that have so far resisted all his attempts to convert them to music.

“Quantum theory,” he laughs. “I’d really love to nail that in a song! It’s quite poetic in many ways already, because it makes so little sense. That’s definitely something I want to tackle.

“At the moment I’m working on a song about gravity waves. That’s proving quite difficult, too. But quantum mechanics is the ultimate challenge, I think, when it comes to writing a pop song.”

If you want to check out Charlie Marshall, and his band, the Curious Minds, you can sample Sublime on Spotify, download it via iTunes, or acquire a physical version – on vinyl, naturally – from Bandcamp.

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