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A Symphony Of Life & Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

A Symphony Of Life & Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

A Symphony Of Life & Creativity


Yesterday our family went to hear a concert. A real live symphony concert. In an 80-year old high school basketball arena, but a proper concert nonetheless. We hadn’t seen two thousand people in a single space since 2019.

One piece was performed, an unconventional combination of music and image called “Life,” a compendium of photography of biological and geological diversity by the photographer Frans Lanting combined with the hypnotic pulsing music of Philip Glass. 

The piece assigned symphonic movements to various epochs in evolutionary time. It began with a sinuous arcing line played by the cellos, their warm thrum perfuming the air.

Later the chortle of woodwinds, skirling violins, and the scarlet flare of brass. How I had missed the energy of an orchestra, dozens of people working to create a beautiful and ephemeral structure.


Symphony orchestra


Later it occurred to me how music has deep relations to other creative pursuits, particularly art and architecture.

Like art, orchestral music is a combination of skill and expression. But it is very unusual to have sixty people working on a single artwork.

Perhaps a few assistants to the master artist when creating a very large canvas or a monumental sculpture, but rarely more. The communal nature of symphonic music is more akin to architecture, evoking Goethe’s words:

Architecture is frozen music



Solo artist at work


In architecture, the vision of a single person is turned into solid form by many people, sometimes thousands, similar to a composition being performed by a large group of musicians.

But the end result persists, unlike the dying echo of music. And, once created, there is only one example.

Music is created again and again every time it is performed, a compensation for its impermanence and a strong inducement to pay immediate attention.


Gothic church nave


Before the concert, a panel of professors from the University of California Santa Cruz held forth on various aspects of scientific research about life, from understanding and possibly reproducing its origins to how we might go about finding it far from Earth in other solar systems without traveling there. 

One of the faculty, David Haussler, opined that if we were somehow successful in creating “test-tube” life, that the biggest challenge would not be containing it but rather keeping it going. This because of context.

Life on Earth has had billions of years to evolve, to toughen itself, to adapt. New and fragile life with no evolutionary history would be the proverbial “babe in the woods,” easy prey for jaded and wily organisms, microscopic students of the school of hard knocks. 

Just as we had a breakneck speed one-hour tour through four and a half billion years of evolution, it occurred to Nancy that these sorts of tours are happening all the time, namely in the process of biological reproduction through human embryonic development.

A single cell becomes many, then differentiates to different cell types, then grows capability through organs and musculoskeletal structure, and finally emerges blinking into the light, then eventually goes to college and starts asking difficult questions.

The vast history of evolution is recapitulated in every single life like a thematic restatement at the end of a symphony.


Embryo at early stage of development


There is a parallel between the creation of truly novel unprecedented life with artistic creativity, particularly radical changes in expressive direction.

New ideas are brought into an existing context, one that is established and well defended, both in the artist’s mind and in the creative community.

New ideas need to be nourished and coddled for a while rather than thrown out into the primordial soup to sink or swim if they are to get a proper hearing. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment below.

With gratitude from my studio to yours,



Book Cover: We have a Winner!

We’re so excited to announce that we have a Winner for the book cover contest! We tabulated the votes and the Winner is…


Thank you for casting your vote for the book cover of our forthcoming book. Book #3 (the pink cover) came in a close second and Book 31 (red cover) came in third.

Stay tuned for updates and sneak peaks of the book coming soon!







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