Feistodon and the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration

Last week I wrote about my pick for the 2012 Polaris Prize, a prize awarded to the best Canadian album of the past year based solely on artistic merit. My pick was YT//ST from art-punk-Japanese opera-and more-inspired duo/group YAMANTAKA//SONIC TITAN. Like that panel that chose the short list, I find their work often surprising and original. But while I heard they put on a great show at the gala, they were not the eventual winners.

This year the award went to well-known and much-loved  singer-songwriter Feist. She is best known outside of Canada for 1234, made famous in iPod commercials and the charming Sesame Street version that followed. Here at home though, she is a popular veteran of the independent and art music scene, and her winning album Metals is a darker, more challenging, and almost deliberate move away from the commercial success brought by The Reminder.

I liked Metals but by far my favourite Feist project this year was her collaboration with American prog metal band Mastodon. In celebration of Record Store Day 2012 they teamed up to create the two-song split EP Feistadon, one side featuring Feist’s cover of Black Tongue and the other Mastodon’s cover of A Commotion, the fifth single from Metals and this week’s Song of the Week. The video features Leslie Feist herself singing along to Mastodon’s much heavier take on the lyrics. Here she is performing her original for comparison.

I love the way her careful songcraft is transformed through the driving guitars and crunch of Mastodon’s style. I’d venture to say the result is something completely different from what either artist could have created on their own. And Feist is no stranger to heavier music having had her start in Calgary punk.

And it’s not just in music where expertise in a different style can be brought to a project in a way that leads to new and previously impossible insights. One of the best historical examples is Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to understanding the structure of DNA. The puzzle was a hub of investigations by several researchers in the 1950’s after the Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment provided good evidence that DNA (rather than protein) was the molecule responsible for heredity. Among those searching, and eventually successful, were James Watson and Francis Crick. It makes perfect sense that Watson was hard at work on the problem with his training in zoology and bacterial viruses, key organisms in the study of heredity. The insights that led to their eventual success though came not from biologists but from chemist Linus Pauling and then crucially from the x-ray crystallography of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin had come from a background in structural chemistry, completing her PhD on the porosity of coal, with her paper The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal and other materials. After her PhD, she worked in Paris with Jacques Mering at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat on applying X-ray crystallography techniques to materials without a usual or simple crystal structure.[i] It was this background and training that helped her to create, with her graduate student Raymond Gosling, the famous Photograph 51 that gave a tremendous hint regarding DNA’s double helical structure. The full story of exactly how it all happened is a complicated one of tough personalities and more than a little deceit  and competition, but the fact remains that it was her outsider’s skill and approach to the problem that provided the necessary push that led to the model we know today.

So long live the cross-disciplinary, cross-genre collaborations that bring new insight to both the familiar and the puzzling. They are invaluable in pushing music and science forward. And in the case of Feistodon they can rock in the process.

Feistadon was originally released in April 2012 on vinyl only but is now available for download at http://www.mastodonrocks.com/feistodon.


[i] An excellent outline of Franklin’s work can be found in the NIH’s Profiles in Science (http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/retrieve/Narrative/KR/p-nid/186) including links to her original papers.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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