Learning from Peter Feibelman

In his marvellous little book, “A Ph.D. Is Not Enough”, solid state physicist Professor Feibelman uses a metaphor near and dear to my heart, that of the fugue.

“But in giving your talk, you should just tell a story. Its structure should be organic, invisible. Your listeners should be propelled from idea to idea with the same sense of inevitability they feel on hearing a Bach fugue.”

Professor Feibelman likes fugues of the musical kind, and to help you understand his point, I ought to explain what he means by “the sense of inevitability”, but without a fugue to listen to, it is an impossible task!

So, given the tremendous restrictions one faces when playing back (and Bach) music on the web, I decided to download the music score of Bizet’s Symphony in C, now in the public domain, and spend the rest of the day to enter the music score inside Logic Pro 8, hire a few Garageband instruments to play the cello, violins, viola, and basson, and give you (a royalty free) 52 seconds of the fugue contained in the second movement of the symphony (adagio). I added the sound of the bell right before the theme of the fugue is played. Listen to the mp3 file, and come back to this text, otherwise, you will not appreciate Professor Feibelman’s “sense of inevitability” comment.

bizet-fugue

I know, the music sounds robotic without quantization and cheesy without the high end Native-Instruments samples, but the purpose of this piece is not to stop you from attending an orchestral performance of Bizet’s symphony in C, or from buying Charles Munch‘s great rendition of it. The purpose of this piece is to describe the “sense of inevitability”.
The same theme is presented five times in the space of 50 seconds or so. You cannot ignore it, and you cannot forget it. Between each presentation of the theme, the composer uses musical glue to enhance the theme and bring cohesion to the piece. As more and more instruments are added, the music rises to a crescendo.  How aptly the metaphor applies to presentations! The theme of your presentation is your title. Each one of your slides refreshes that theme. Your title “organically” moulds  the structure of your presentation. From time to time, you may have a transition slide, or you may transition between two slides while the screen behind you is blanked. These transitions are the equivalent to the musical glue the composer adds between the end of the theme’s presentation and its inevitable resurgence in a richer environment.

The fugue inevitably rises to a crescendo as more and more instruments are added. In the fugue metaphor, each slide is an instrument. Your past slides have to be so clear that their theme continues to ring, reverberate in the recesses of your mind, blending harmoniously with your future slides. A fugue becomes more and more complex as the various parts contribute their melody, but not one of these parts disregards the theme of the fugue. They all support and enhance it. The end result is a harmoniously complex musical delight whose greatest strength is the focus of your attention on ONE THEME. May this be true also of all your scientific presentations, and let that theme be your title.

By Jean-luc Lebrun