The Hippie and the Mathematician
Nurturing great music and environmentalism as one.
In the context of his poetry, Walt Whitman made the act of contradicting oneself a positive rather than a negative character trait: “I contain multitudes.” In the midst of our socially distanced era, I find myself re-interpreting Walt’s passage. I have grown to embrace the multitudes I now contain in a conscious effort to keep this music and culture that I care so deeply about alive in my life.
I have always cared about two things: nature and music. My life in music began with an obsessive need to learn as much as I could about the way in which sound is able to reflect and fuel raw human emotion. I’d often spend the whole day practicing the piano, devoting all of my energy to playing the instrument as well as I could so that I could transcend technical challenges and reach that elusive realm of pure sonic expression, the type of music that lifts people up and changes lives for the better—sonic medicine. As time progressed, I began venturing into different aspects of music, mostly out of curiosity and a little bit out of necessity. First came composition, then electronic music and, little by little, orchestral writing, film scoring, arranging, teaching, leading a record label and more.
My love for nature, on the other hand, has a less defined origin. From as early as I can remember, I have been drawn to the natural world. Growing up in Cuba, the flora and fauna, much like the music, are ubiquitous and intertwined with everyday life. I grew up a few blocks away from the zoo in Havana. I would hear the lions roaring in the darkness of those electricity-less “special period” nights. I have dedicated my life to hearing the whole spectrum of “sound,” and I can confidently say that there is no sound quite like that of a roaring lion. I wish I could give a clear-cut moment of when my rapture happened with nature, but I feel as though it was not something I learned. I was born with it.
Somewhere in my twenties, I began to feel as if I had two quixotic characters co-existing within me: the Bohemian-hippie-eccentric and the mathematician. The hippie is the free spirit who specializes in all things visceral, completely disregarding any limitations that reality imposes on us mere mortals. The mathematician squashes all wishful thinking, indefatigably sticking to the dispassionate reality of numbers. Take away either one, and the world starts getting very weird. (To all of the fully-integrated hippie mathematicians reading this: congratulations, you win!)
We ask ourselves how things might be different and better when live music returns after the pandemic is over. I wholeheartedly believe that the most important thing we can do is to keep both our inner hippie and our mathematician happy and healthy at all costs. For us musicians, they are the only ones that can save us now. It might seem like an oversimplified approach, and is too often quoted, but Joseph Campbell said it best: “follow your bliss.”
The most important musical (and non-musical) moments in my life have all been characterized by a simple reoccurring epiphany: there is something out there that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. When these rare, life-changing moments happen, the hippie takes over and soaks it all in as if nothing else is happening in the universe at that moment. It is sublime, like closing your eyes and feeling the warmth of a summer sunset in a beautiful beach somewhere. That’s the hippie—once he has sufficiently immersed himself in it, it is up to the mathematician to translate this experience into a science and develop an analysis of how to harness this raw emotion into something sustainable, shareable, and (the most anti-hippie thing of all) profitable.
While attending Manhattan School of Music, I was feeling isolated, becoming increasingly frustrated with music. I began considering quitting altogether. I began contemplating what my life would be like if I were to go down the path of that other thing that I cared so deeply about: nature. I clearly remember the moment when music won me over once again, and this time for good. I was working as an usher backstage at MSM when I heard a performance of the Brahms Cello Sonata in E minor. It was as if time stood still and I was hearing the faint distant cry of a parentless baby. There was no way I could turn my back on music after that. But that didn’t mean that I wanted to let go of my passion for environmentalism, either. It took me a couple of years before I figured out how to combine my two passions into one.
The bliss that I have followed, aside from performing and composing music, is Biophilia Records. I learned about the concept of biophilia after reading a book bearing that word as its title by entomologist E.O. Wilson. Wilson describes the theory of biophilia as the attraction and innate love that human beings feel towards living things. There is something about the presence of nature that inexplicably makes us all feel good and whole.
If only the mathematician were in charge of me, Biophilia Records would not exist. The numbers just don’t add up. Launching an independent music label during a time when music as a whole is being increasingly downgraded from art to “content,” thereby devaluing it, is completely counterintuitive to the mathematician. Biophilia Records is also wholly focused on climate change and environmentalism. We volunteer with non-profit environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Riverkeepr, doing activities like tree plantings and river clean-ups. We also developed a plastic-free alternative to the compact disc that we call the Biopholio™, with 20 panels of artwork and liner notes, made entirely out of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified paper, containing a unique download code inside for fans to download the music in high-quality audio formats.
The sum of all of these things leaves you with quite a unique situation, ripe for challenges. There has been nothing straightforward about Biophilia Records, and as a result, I have taken on my many “multitudes” (Walt would be proud). Never having attended business school or led a company, I dove head-first into completely uncharted waters. In addition to being a pianist and composer, I had to learn how to perform every task related to the business side of the music industry. This involves all of the qualities that my inner mathematician lives for, as well as all of the things that my inner hippie despises: accounting, social media, administrative management, publicity, manufacturing, and spreadsheets galore. I do this because my passion for music and nature cannot be suppressed. In addition to being masterful, imaginative musicians, Biophilia Records artists are brought together not by a similar sounding musical aesthetic, but by a shared concern and awareness of the state of the environment. I am very proud of the community that is growing in the “house” of Biophilia Records.
Carbon pollution from fossil fuels is warming our planet and throwing natural systems out of balance. You don’t have to look far to see the results: hotter temperatures, stronger storms, rising seas, and so much more, threatening the health of our families and the future we pass on to generations to come. With 8 million tons of plastic dumped into our oceans every year, our marine life is swallowing more plastic than ever, and it’s killing them. I have a sense of urgency as a musician and environmentalist that I doubt will ever go away. It is precisely because I have dedicated my life to music and have an unshakable love of the natural word that I have confidence in my good intentions. I work very hard to create and curate music that aims to expose the audience to something that they didn’t know they didn’t know existed, thus creating for them that same feeling that I love so much in my own life. I don’t expect our particular brand of “sonic medicine” to resonate with everyone, but it is coming from a well-intentioned place and because of that, I will continue to devote my time and energy to keeping the hippie and the mathematician happy and healthy.
It may sound like a naive thought to have, as we are currently in the midst of a pandemic and this planet’s 6th mass extinction, but I still have faith that if everyone is true to themselves and follows their bliss, the world will be a better place. The climb up the proverbial mountain is certainly steep and rugged, but it’s important that you don’t only look up at how much you have left to go—make sure to look behind you every once in a while, too, and you’ll see how far you’ve come. Nourish and protect both your inner hippie and mathematician, let them work together, and good things will happen.