Arts and Entertainment | Music

Neurobiology prof doubles as edgy musician

By day, professor Dave Sulzer explores the intricacies of neurobiology. By night, his musical alter ego, Dave Soldier, composes jazzy violin pieces, writes hip-hop with elementary school Harlem students, and conducts a 14-elephant orchestra. Amidst the dozens of neuroscience books on Sulzer’s desk are a variety of avant-garde jazz, classical, hip-hop, and punk CDs—two of which are Dave Soldier originals, titled “The Complete Victrola Sessions” and “Water Music,” which will make their debuts on Feb. 25.

Music brought Sulzer to New York City, and New York City led him to Columbia for graduate school. Sulzer’s professional and musical successes came after years of touring with a band, bartending, and making cappuccinos in the city. “When I was 20 and 21, I left college and went on tour,” Sulzer said. “I was on tour for a year and a half. One day I came home, looked at my life, and realized I didn’t want to be on tour for the rest of my life.”

Through trial and error, he found a niche in the neuroscience community at Columbia University Medical Center, where he began exploring the mechanisms of addictive drugs. Sulzer’s interest in the effects of drugs on the brain developed over many years and influenced his latest musical project, “The Complete Victrola Sessions.” The album recreates early 20th-century culture by bringing together elements of jazz and violin. “The Complete Victrola Sessions” was also motivated by Sulzer’s fascination with bringing the virtuoso tradition into a contemporary music scene.

The virtuoso tradition is “less important now for a variety of reasons,” Sulzer said. “Lots of fast notes being played one after another used to just be amazing and bizarre and superhuman, but these days it’s not because we have electronica music and electronic manipulation.”

“The Complete Victrola Sessions” is the soundtrack to a silent film, “The Violinist,” that filmmaker Winsome Brown wrote and directed in conjunction with Sulzer’s music. The uneasy nature of the film and the jazzy eeriness of the music make for an emotional and disturbed artistic experience.

“One thing I wanted to do was find a way to express my own love for the classical virtuoso,” Sulzer said. “But the thing is, if you write that kind of music now, people don’t really care about it anymore. It’s a music of a former time. Why should someone around now be writing that kind of music?”

By combining film, live performance, and an antiquated violin tradition, Sulzer creates a piece that breaks down barriers between genres and art forms. With his two new releases, Sulzer takes twisted, seemingly unrelated ideas and turns them into reality.

Sulzer’s slightly furrowed brow smooths out as he describes “Water Music,” an album that features his 14-elephant orchestra from Thailand. “This is their [the elephants’] third and final album,” Sulzer said with a rare smile. “We had a week where every afternoon, these 14 elephants were playing music together ... It’s the ultimate record.”

“Water Music” is the product of Sulzer’s interest in animal behavior and a simple idea: If elephants can paint, then they can play music. Sulzer worked with the Thai Elephant Conservation Center to raise awareness of a beautiful yet dwindling population of elephants. “In one hundred years, the Asian elephant population has gone from 100,000 to 3,000,” Sulzer said. “We need Westerners and people in southeast Asia to be aware of this.”

Between taking a break in his undergraduate studies and becoming a neurobiology professor at Columbia, Sulzer has created Dave Soldier—an ambitious artist with a realistic goal for his new releases.

“As an artist, you need to get people to care about what you’re doing and have it make sense,” Sulzer said.

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Anonymous posted on

Wow, he's so well-rounded. The modern Renaissance man.

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