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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 9

The Leonardo Project: Creating Dialogue Between Art and Science

by Kristine Berey / June 14, 2007

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In his 1928 essay on creativity, Sigmund Freud remarks, “Before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.” Yet, it could be argued the problem lies not with the artist but with Freud’s approach, and that creativity is not as ephemeral as he supposes. By developing appropriate tools and knowing what to look for, like the sculptor who sees form within the stone and only removes the unnecessary, a seeming enigma can turn into actual experience that can be documented and studied.

At Concordia University’s The Leonardo Project, artists and researchers have worked side by side for the last 15 years, slowly unraveling the mystery of human excellence.

“I couldn’t believe that only people who started at the age of 2 could ‘make it’ [as artists], said Concordia professor Phil Cohen, describing one of the issues that kept coming up in his work with musicians—sometimes world class performers—who have consulted him over the years. Many were suffering from potentially crippling challenges such as performance anxiety, physical injury or neuro-muscular and perceptual disabilities. In private sessions and in his seminal performance analysis classes, Cohen has seen enough people defy the odds to make him question what he calls “received wisdoms” about the nature of talent and human potential. “Certain individuals should make it [as artists] and never do, while others shouldn’t and remarkably do,” Cohen said.

After creating the University’s undergraduate music department in 1969 and later the Graduate diploma in Advanced Music in 1982, his need to know what conditions make or break a talented individual led Cohen, with
psychologist Norman Segalowitz, to found The Leonardo Project in 1992.

The initiative is inspired by artist/musician/scientist/engineer/biologist Leonardo da Vinci, Cohen explained. “It’s important to know he was an artist first,” Cohen said. “He looked at nature as an artist and scientific study as a contribution to his art. And none of it was invasive.”

Understanding the creative process and nurturing the artist at different stages of development is the essence of the Project, with the long-term aim of providing a unique performance environment where artists and researchers can collaborate and build scientific as well as practical knowledge. The Project’s team received the prestigious Seagram Award for Innovation in Academic Research in 1992, and since then four television documentaries have been made about their work.

“We have thousands of hours of videotapes,” Cohen said. Musicians taking part in the project use the audio and video facilities of the studio/concert hall/laboratory designed by Cohen to analyze systematically their performances in minute detail, record what they’ve learned and build upon it. Their insights have profound implications beyond the arts to other fields including sports, therapy and education.

“He makes no assumptions as to the right or wrong way of doing things,” said Anna Szpilberg, the Project’s Artist-in-Residence, describing Cohen’s approach. “The important thing is to time the expressive rhythm, always focusing your attention on the music and not the mechanics.”

On Tuesday, June 5, The Leonardo Project presents Une Arabesque et Deux Pianos, a unique concert for two pianos and a dancer, featuring pianists Anna Szpilberg and Pamela Korman, and dancer/choreographer Christine Paulino. The concert begins at 7:30 pm at the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall. n

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