Interlochen students play to a crowd of thousands at Armenia’s Starmus Festival
The festival, founded by astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May, showcased the connections between science and the arts.
It was September 10, 2022. Vocalist Jessica Li stood on the stage at Armenia’s Opera Square, checking the sound before her upcoming performance. In just a few short hours, she and her bandmates would be playing at an international festival of science and music. Li is a high school senior at Interlochen Arts Academy. And tonight, in her band’s second-ever public performance, she’d sing in front of 20,000 fans.
Performing at an international festival is certainly an unconventional start to the school year. For Li, the journey from Interlochen to Armenia began in January of 2022. Li’s bandmate Case Fadell met one of the festival’s founders, astrophysicist Garik Israelian, and shared some music with him. Intrigued, Israelian invited Fadell and his band to perform in Armenia in the fall.
The band, SYZYGY, includes current Arts Academy students Li, Fadell, and Jorge González Díez Gutiérrez—all of whom are returning for their second year at Interlochen—along with Tomomi Kimura, a four-year senior. Alumna Kat Stockton and professional drummer Justin Amaral fill out the lineup. According to Li, the group’s style is “metal with a pop sensibility.”
Once they found out they’d be performing in the fall, SYZYGY worked over the summer to craft a full set list of concert-caliber music. The students worked closely with arts division director Marc Lacuesta to perfect their sound and production.
Their destination? The Starmus International Festival.
Starmus—a combination of the words “star” and “music”—is the brainchild of Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May. First held in 2011, the Starmus Festival is “a global festival of science communication and art that brings together the most brilliant minds on the planet.” Its ranks of past speakers boasts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Richard Dawkins. Past board members have included Stephen Hawking. The festival features a concert with bands from around the world.
SYZYGY took to the stage in a beautiful outdoor venue in Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan. Li, who wants to start a career in music, especially remembers the soundcheck because someone came up and asked her for her autograph.
“It struck me for the first time that I could actually be a performer, as a profession,” says Li.
As the last band of the night, SYZYGY followed up several Armenian groups. The relatively unknown group from northern Michigan earned a warm welcome from the crowd.
“Everyone was really supportive of our band. I could tell that they really liked us even though we were just starting out and we didn't really have a fan base or any previously released material,” says Li.
“The crowd was amazing,” adds Lacuesta.
Where science and the arts intersect
While at the festival, SYZYGY also made time to attend several different research talks, some of which discussed sending probes to Mars. Although she’s always had an interest in psychology, Li never considered herself a “science person.” Her perspective changed at Starmus.
Both music and science are about making the world a better place, one through using technology and the other through evoking emotions.
“We went to this talk about neuroscience and music and how they're related. And that clicked for me, because it connected two of my passions that had been pretty distinct from each other,” says Li.
“Both music and science are about making the world a better place, one through using technology and the other through evoking emotions,” she continues.
Lacuesta hopes that his students discovered connections between science and the arts while attending the festival.
“So much misunderstanding of the sciences comes because it's not communicated properly, or not communicated in a way that is interesting to the people that need to hear it,” says Lacuesta.
Incredible as the Armenia trip was, Lacuesta is looking forward to settling back into teaching at Interlochen. His students, he says, have bright futures ahead of them.
“I'm grateful for it [the trip]. But really, the excitement comes from what I'm going to teach them, and what they're going to learn this year, and who they're going to become. This is just one step.”