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Drawn to the rhythm

By Matthew Pariselli  •  May 29, 2018

Juliet Palmer is engaged in an artistic residency to connect with scientistsJuliet Palmer sitting on a bench

Music springs up in Juliet Palmer’s lineage as often as notes in a song are repeated to achieve rhythm. Her great-grandmother organized musicals in the tiny New Zealand town of Takaka, her grandmother played piano for silent films in the 1920s, while her mother, at age 80, is an active choir-leader and educator. It’s a passion deeply embedded in her family history, and now it has brought her to Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) as an artist-in-residence.

Palmer, an award-winning composer with a long list of worldwide performances, wants her music and sound works to resonate with audiences. Influenced by composers Annea Lockwood and Meredith Monk, she says, “I see music as being part of a relationship between people. I’m very interested in how music connects to the body. We make music with our bodies, and I am drawn to music that engages us physically. I want music to engage all of the listener—mind, body, soul.”

With support from the Ontario Arts Council through their Artists in Communities and Workplaces program, Palmer is establishing ties with scientists at SRI and looking to build relationships with people in the broader Sunnybrook family. “A lot of the work that people are doing here is enabling us to understand the human body better, and to have this window into what’s unseen and unknown is really intriguing,” she says. Speaking about her residency, she says, “It’s about engaging as a professional artist in a community setting. It’s really designed to foster collaboration.”

Although there is no concrete directive dictating the format of Palmer’s creation, there are several avenues she could pursue, involving scientists, clinicians, patients or allied health care professionals, she says. “If you’re working in a community and creating, ideally the people you’re working with have input on shaping the form of the work. That’s one model. It’s collective collaboration, so making something together that’s an expression of a communal experience or aesthetic.” The second path Palmer could explore places more emphasis on her own artistry. “Another model has me, a composer, coming in, gathering material and then transforming it into a piece. I’d get people’s consent, but it’s less participatory. I would like to honour people’s contribution, especially when it’s something personal.”

Open to Possibility

The final outcome, or outcomes, could be vocal or instrumental music, or take the shape of a sound installation. Palmer might record the acoustics of an MRI and incorporate them into a piece; use a conversation overheard in the cafeteria as inspiration for art; translate data into sound; or she might work with consenting parents in the Subsequent Pregnancy Program to transform their stories into songs or an audio installation. The Subsequent Pregnancy Program offers individualized care to pregnant women and their families who have lost a child during gestation or shortly after birth.

This last point of departure arose from a discussion with Dr. Nir Melamed, an associate scientist in the Women & Babies Research Program at SRI and a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Sunnybrook. “Many of these women might be happy to participate in something like this—to express [their grief], to meet you and share with you their experiences and feelings. It’s a very loaded event [to lose a child],” Melamed, who is also an associate professor at the University of Toronto, says as he suggests the idea to Palmer. Only initial conversations have taken place regarding this potential project; to move forward, more funding and broader discussion within the Women & Babies Research Program are needed.

Palmer could also continue to use the research she’s exposed to as a way of moulding pieces she’s already crafting. Through Dr. Joyce Chen, a scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences at SRI, Palmer was introduced to Dana Swarbrick, who is a graduate student in Chen’s lab. Palmer has been exploring connections between her own compositional projects and Swarbrick’s research on high-intensity aerobic activity and learning. “Dana’s research is informing the creative process of two works in development, both solo pieces for musicians who are enthusiastic runners,” Palmer says.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Trauma Bay

Melamed and Chen aren’t the only researchers at SRI who have welcomed Palmer. The New Zealand-born clarinettist and pianist was invited by senior scientist Dr. Peter Burns, a great supporter of contemporary music, Palmer notes. In February 2018 Palmer presented Inside Us, an audio-video installation and performance in Vancouver that blended vocal soundscape with diagnostic ultrasound recordings captured with the help of Burns. This time, she has also met with other researchers including Drs. Jon Barrett, Charles Cunningham and Stanley Liu.

Additionally, she spoke with Dr. Avery Nathens, a senior scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences and the director of the Tory Trauma Program at SRI, who approved her visit to the trauma bay. When talking about the trauma unit, Palmer’s fascination manifests: “I’m intrigued by the choreography and communication; a lot of it is about improvising and listening. There’s the team leader who’s supervising and keeping a handle on the whole situation, and then there are individuals who are taking care of the patient and calling out things about the person. That’s potentially fruitful [material for work], and has much in common with collaborative strategies in dance and music,” she says. “I am pretty sure my visit to the trauma bay will have some tangible creative outcome.” Palmer also emphasizes her appreciation for critical care and emergency physician Dr. Bourke Tillmann, who was the trauma team leader during her visit and who illuminated for her the technical and emotional elements of working in a high-stakes environment.

Connected in Curiosity

Coupling art and science may seem like a collision of two distinct worlds, but Palmer counters this when she speaks about the commonalities. “I think it’s interesting, the parallels between artistic work and scientific research. They’re both propelled by curiosity, and they both require failure in order to progress,” she says. “They are fields that are a little bit outside the everyday because they can be more speculative.”

One of Palmer’s fondest memories from her time at SRI thus far highlights the intersection of artist and scientist, and her warm and inviting personality emanates as she revisits the encounter. “I was very touched when I went to Stan Liu’s lab and met his students. I was excited that they were experimenting with cancer cells, and they were excited about what I do. It was a nice meeting of shared curiosity,” she says. “They don’t know what they’re going to discover in their work or in their careers, and I don’t know what I’m doing. [laughs] I’m making it up all the time. That’s my world, which is exciting.”

Aside from her desire to create compelling artistic work, Palmer is driven to showcase—in whatever fashion she may—the excellence of SRI. “I find it inspiring, the work that goes on here in terms of the research. I’m not sure people outside Sunnybrook really know so much about what goes on here,” she says. “I’m partly motivated by excitement to share things that seem kind of miraculous.”

In a nutshell

  • With an Ontario Arts Council grant, a composer is spending time at SRI to partner with scientists and produce art.
  • She is interested in the human body and plans to incorporate the science to which she is exposed in her projects.
  • The work she will create could take the form of instrumental music, vocal music or sound installation, to name a few possibilities.