Sponsored by The University of Wisconsin Geology Museum. Additional sponsors include the Anonymous Fund of the University of Wisconsin- Madison College of Letters and Science and Audio for the Arts of Madison.
Contact Person: Joseph Skulan (jlskulan@geology.wisc.edu 608.265.4274)


To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Composed by Roy Nathanson and featuring the Jazz Passengers

Jazz Passengers
The Jazz Passengers

Saturday, April 9 at 8 PM in the Great Hall, University of Wisconsin- Madison.

click here to see a clip from the concert.

The Rock Concert now is over, and it was a great success. Thanks to Dave and Tim at Intellasound, the sound in the Great Hall was better than expected. Paul Schafer did a wonderful job with the lighting, and of course the Jazz Passengers performance of Roy's intricate, hilarious, strange, and beautiful work was magnificent. The concert now resides in a hard drive which, in about 5 weeks, will give birth to a CD. Let me know if you want one. There also is a lot of very good video footage that we hope will one day find its way onto a DVD. This site will need to be updated, but not before I get some sleep.

The Rock Concert will travel

If you are interested in having the Rock Concert performed where you are, contact:

Danny Kahn
Crossroad Management
45 W. 11th St.
Suite 7B
New York, NY 10011

You stand in front of a brightly lit glass case. Inside the case rests a microscope slide, on which there is a smudge of something that looks like glue. Accompanying text identifies what appears to be a speck of dust stuck in the glue as a zircon crystal that began to form 4.404 billion years ago: the most ancient object of earthly origin ever dated. The text also explains that the zircon appears to have formed in a cool environment. A few tens of millions of years after a collision with another planet may have liquefied earth and created the moon, the earth, at least briefly, was a hospitable place; cool enough for liquid water, for oceans, for life.

The scientific application of ingenious technology has provided us with handful of numbers that describe the zircon, and identify it as a extraordinary object. But this description is not what makes the zircon extraordinary. The zircon is extraordinary because of what it is, a survivor of deep time, all the more remarkable because of its smallness; a speck of dust that has survived the crushing weight of eons. The zircon is authentic. It really was there.

But, as an observer of the zircon, how do you capture that authenticity? How do you go from reading a label to a visceral acceptance of the realness of what you are looking at? The same problem arises whenever we try to appreciate the authenticity of an object: these gates really were in the walls of Babylon; these bones really were inside of a living dinosaur; this penny really was in someone's pocket when news of Lincoln's murder broke. In the end the problem has no solution. The object remains outside of us, a mystery that resists every effort to make it ours. But the striving to make the unattainable ours is inspiration, and a natural starting place for art.

It is in this sense that the zircon inspired the Rock Concert. The purpose of the concert is not to teach science, or even to bridge the gap between science and art, although both of these would be good results. The concert is an attempt to bridge that gap between the zircon and its viewers, between object and subject; an attempt to use art to capture the zircon's realness. This is the spirit of the Rock Concert, and of the Stony Muse.

An aside

The Zircon:

Zircons are crystals of zirconium silicate. They are nearly indestructible and preserve, in chemical form, information about the environments which created them. Dr. John Valley of the UW Geology Department is currently studying extremely ancient zircons from Australia. This research, done in collaboration with Australian scientists, is extremely important as it provides information about the environment of the earth shortly after it formed. One of the zircons has been dated at 4.404 billion years, making it the oldest known terrestrial object. For more information about the zircon, click here.

I've been getting email from people who I assume are young-earth creationists, objecting to the radiometric dating techniques that are used to establish the age of rocks such as this zircon. I urge these people to read a superb description of how radiometric dating works written by physicist Dr. Roger C. Wiens, a practicing Christian. In fact, anyone at all who wants to know more about dating should read this- it is fantastic.

The oldest zircon itself

A zircon of similar size to the oldest zircon, on a penny. The zircon is the smaller and slightly darker oval in the object in front of Abe's eye (the rest of the blob is glue). To its right is a human hair. Thanks to Aaron Cavosie for the photos. Aaron also supplied the hair, and will be appearing in the Rock Concert.

The zircons eventually will be repatriated to Australia. Before that happens, the Geology Museum plans to have a special one-day exhibition where the public will be able to see, for the first and perhaps only time, "the oldest thing in the world".

The zircon will be on display at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum (1215 W. Dayton St., Madison WI) from 10 am to 3:00 pm on Saturday, April 9th. On Friday, April 8th, Dr. Simon Wilde of Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia will discuss the zircon in a talk entitled "Jack Hills, Western Australia: Site of the World's Oldest Crystals." Both events are free and open to the public.

These zircons are barely visible to the naked eye, making it a challenge to display them. It is important for the public not only to see them but to also understand their significance. Magnified images and text will accompany the zircons in the exhibit, but the Museum aims to go beyond standard and predictable interpretive aids. It is the intent of this series to use art to help explore the intellectual and emotional relationship between a viewer and an object which is the essence of a museum experience.

The Concert:

The essential feature of the zircons is their extreme age, or their origin in Deep Time. Deep Time is an important concept in geology, but one that is difficult to convey. Many analogies are used to try and convey a sense of Deep Time: the age of the earth, for example, but all rely on the same tired formula: "if a year is the thickness of x, the age of the earth would be y long." These analogies are not very successful. An understanding of Deep Time cannot be achieved by simple multiplication. There is a breaking point in the counting years when our ability to grasp a length of time in terms of our own experience collapses, and we must switch to a different mental scheme. Deep Time must be experienced as a visceral response to the contemplation of almost unimaginably great age, a kind of vertigo that blends wonder and anxiety, and perhaps even horror.

Roy Nathanson
Roy Nathanson

The Stony Muse has commissioned acclaimed saxophonist and composer Roy Nathanson to create the "Rock Concert,", a visionary project celebrating the oldest known terrestrial object, a zircon from Australia. Performed by the internationally renowned Jazz Passengers, this concert will explore the idea of Deep Time through words and music, providing one person's musical answer to the question, "what is 4.4 billion years?"

Of the Rock Concert, Mr. Nathanson writes: "I am writing a piece of text/music that lives in a world of time and materials informed by the zircon and its history. Since I can only experience time subjectively, the narrative moves back and forth from my own history to geological history through the mythical character of Fromkin, my 8th grade science teacher. Similarly, the music plays with meter and relationship to pulse in an evolving way with a rhythm section comprised mostly of pitched rocks. The rocks will be played live as well as triggered by a midi device and manipulated by desktop computer. The Jazz Passengers will be playing their normal instrumentation of trombone, vibes, violin, bass, and this odd percussion set up. The test will be orchestrated throughout the piece and augmented by Greek choral parts sung by this distinctly un-Greek band."

The Jazz Passengers are not your average jazz band. They continue to expand the forefront of jazz through musical innovation, combining unique and often fantastic instrumentation with a strong visual and theatrical sense. The band grew out of a partnership between saxophonist Roy Nathanson and Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes in 1997, after the two had played with John Lurie's band the Lounge Lizards. Subsequent members include Bill Ware on vibes, E.J. Rodriguez on percussion, Sam Bardfeld on violin, and Brad Jones on bass. The band was also joined by Deborah Harry for several successful collaborations. Throughout their career, the Jazz Passengers have toured Europe and North America, recorded eight albums, and have worked with a wide range of artists, including Elvis Costello, Jeff Buckley, Mavis Staples, Darius De Haas, and Ilene Weiss. The Passengers have also arranged and performed orchestral versions of their work with the BBC Concert and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestras.

Admission to the Rock concert is free, but seating is extremely limited. No physical law requires you to make a donation, but the Furies will hound you if you don't. Unless you really can't afford it. If you would like to attend, RSVP to: jlskulan@geology.wisc.edu


We are currently seeking donations and sponsors for the Rock concert, as well as future events. To become a sponsor, to obtain a press kit or for more information, contact Joseph Skulan at jlskulan@geology.wisc.edu or call (608) 265-4274. If you or your organization want to make a contribution to this series, please follow the link below. There are many ways to contribute, including donating goods and services. Any help at all is appreciated, but most importantly, plan on attending, and tell your friends!

About The Stony Muse Home Page

Please Visit The Stony Muse online store, the exclusive purveyor of merchandise to the Rock Concert!

The official recording company of the Rock Concert

The official airline of the Rock Concert, offering discounted airfare for travel to Madison for the concert. Contact jlskulan@geology.wisc.edu for more information.