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ModFest 2018

Modfest, celebrating its sixteenth anniversary, is Vassar College’s annual exploration of the arts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Commentary on “Cristalli” by composer Susan Botti

Thanks to Christine Howlett for providing the following transcript:

Commentary on “Cristalli” by Susan Botti, which was commissioned by environmental artist/photographer Alice F. Weston for her multimedia project, Crystal Clues to the Sublime

Jeff Walker

February 2, 2018

 What is it about crystals that fascinates us so?  Enter a room full of crystals, like our museum in Ely Hall, and you are immediately struck by the variety of colors, sizes, and shapes.  Some are metallic, some are glassy, some are opaque, some transparent.  But if you stand in front of a cabinet of quartz crystals and look closely, you will begin to see that the forms, that is, the way the crystal faces grow in relation to each other, are actually very much the same.

Nearly 350 years ago the Danish scientist Nicolas Stenson (also known as Steno), building on work by Kepler a half a century earlier, proved that the angles between faces of crystals of the same mineral were the same regardless of how deformed the crystal looks, implying that order is part of what defines a mineral.  Nearly a century later, René Just Haüy developed the concept of the unit cell – the smallest piece that still contains all of the symmetry of the larger crystal.  Since that time, crystallographers have thoughts of crystal structures as three-dimensional arrangements of unit cells.

The discovery of X-rays in 1895, and development during the first decades of the twentieth century of our ability to deduce the symmetry of the unit cell using X-rays, did little to diminish the mystery of the beauty of a crystal.  Even the knowledge that there are only 230 unique ways to arrange atoms symmetrically in space only increases our wonder at the beauty that is produced from such order.  X-rays may have confirmed the existence of atoms, and even told us how big they are, but the wonders of order in the natural world still fascinate us, and as is typical in all scientific work, each answer from an X-ray study only increases the number of questions we can ask.

It is amazing to consider, for instance, how crystals grow in a liquid in response to a changing environment, which is how most minerals form.  Whether the liquid is evaporating water on the Bonneville Salt Flats crystallizing halite and gypsum, or mixed warm hydrothermal waters deep in the earth crystallizing veins of quartz or calcite, or even gold or silver, or the hot liquid rock we call magma cooling and crystallizing pyroxene and plagioclase in lava flow, the nascent mineral nucleus must attract just the right atoms, in just the right order, to create the correct structure to produce a crystal.  Sure, there are mistakes, and in many cases the mistakes give the crystal the beautiful colors we see, but the mistakes are almost insignificant when compared to the millions of other atoms in correct positions forming the crystal we see.

The fact that crystals bring order to the physical sensible world makes it easy to believe that they can also order features of the world beyond our senses.  Einstein proved what magicians from time immemorial have long felt: that matter is a form of energy, so everything, in essence, is energy.   It makes some kind of sense, then, that an object like a crystal that can order matter, might also direct the ordering of energy, and could be used to bring healing and balance, to make magic, to create myths, and to promote positive change.

Crystals, then, are one example of the beauty that comes with order in the natural world.  The beauty of natural things in found everywhere, from soil to trees to animals to landscapes.  Of course, there certainly is beauty in modified landscapes.  We have all experienced a beautiful garden, but I think deep down we know that constructed beauty orders only a few aspects of nature, and is limited by the imagination, knowledge, and ability of the designer.  Unmodified, wild nature has a deeper beauty that we call sublime, which comes from the ordering of an almost infinitely complex world.  To me, the beauty of “Cristalli”, and the images that accompany it, is in how they represent the immense complexity of an ordered universe, and bring us closer to the sublime.