People: Alumni

Harmonizing science and music

By Rachel Stengel '14

Greg Brown '01Brothers Gregory Brown ’01 and Dan Brown frequently bounce ideas off one another, looking for feedback on creative projects. But when Dan, the bestselling author of The DaVinci Code, sent Gregory a chapter of his latest novel, Origin, Gregory was shocked to see his own musical composition featured in the story.

“It was the sort of thing where he said, ‘I need to show you something. What do you think?’” Gregory Brown says. “Of course I was excited and honored. The chapter was initially out of context for me because I hadn’t seen the beginning of the book yet. When I finally did read the full manuscript, it was exciting to try and guess when it was coming and how it fit into the story.”

The composition, “Missa Charles Darwin,” appears at a key moment in Origin, about two-thirds of the way through the book. The composer, whose vocal and chamber music has been performed throughout the U.S. and Europe, describes the piece as a combination of his great passions in life — sacred music and science — two things that seem to be more juxtaposition than harmony to most.

“What you hear is a love of the music I sing, conduct and listen to all the time,” he says. “There is also this reverence for scientific thoughts, Darwin’s in particular, and how they come together in my life as a musician, as a human and as an amateur naturalist you might even say.”

The intersection of science and music is natural for the Westminster Choir College alumnus. As a child, he spent many hours sitting beside his mother on the organ bench as she practiced for Sunday services. He remembers his father, a math teacher, preparing lectures on the artwork of M.C. Escher, an early 20th-century graphic artist who fused mathematics and art. He even planned to become a computer scientist and then a geologist during his undergraduate years before studying music.

When Brown was approached by Craig Phillips, a founding member of the acclaimed male classical vocal quartet New York Polyphony, who had an idea to merge music and Darwin, the concept resonated with him immediately.

The collaboration resulted in a work based on the standard five-movement structure that replaced sacred texts with excerpts from On The Origin of Species,
The Descent of Man and other Darwin writings. Dan Brown writes in Origin’s acknowledgements section that the fusion of ancient and modern “helped spark the earliest notions for this novel.” In honor of the book’s release, a special remastered edition of the recording was issued.

Gregory Brown says his music and career would look very different if he had not developed an early passion for science.

“I’m very glad to have geology in my background,” he says. “That interest in nature and science has never really left. I’m grateful that I’m able to hone in on my love of music without giving up my background in science. That’s a really big part of who I am.”

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