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The Crossroads Project



—Rebecca McFaul

That word — passion — bookends the description of  The Crossroads Project, a unique, collaborative effort that brings the worlds of science and the arts together in one package, tied neatly with a musical bow. It also describes the key players: Dr. Robert Davies, a physicist and educator at Utah State University, and Rebecca McFaul, who represents Utah State’s resident string quartet, The Fry Street Quartet.

So what is The Crossroads Project? At its core, it’s a communication piece. And, to its creators, it has an important message. But it’s the unique vehicle that presents the message that distinguishes the project.

The overarching theme of The Crossroads Project — and yes, the name is intentional since it implies we are at an intersection and can choose our path — is sustainability, with a very important sub-set of climate change. Davies says science is telling us that we have very little time to change directions to avoid the worst impacts and avoid the unwanted consequences. Human social structures as we know them are unsustainable, he says.

“Our most urgent concern right now is climate change,” Davies says. “Those issues will come to a head during the first half of this century. But, we’ve got an opportunity to change paths.”

Yes, we are at a crossroads and everyone involved outlines a possible map to the future.

Telling the story …

It wasn’t as if Davies was a prophet in the wilderness. He’s given scientific-based lectures on the subject to dozens of audiences.  After all, science is this great human enterprise that makes us understand things, he says, but something wasn’t connecting.

Enter the Fry Street Quartet

“Many of the members of Fry Street had heard Rob talk,” McFaul says. “As individuals we are all concerned and have been for years. We’re paying attention to what the science is telling us, and we want to make our music relevant to the discussion.”

Davies approached the quartet with an invitation to become involved in the ever-evolving project. He wanted, McFaul surmised, to change things up a bit — he needed to move from the head to the heart. And, with its familiarity with Davies and his message, the quartet quickly came on board. And it was a group decision — there was a consensus to get involved, not only in the message, but in shaping that message. In the musical realm, a string quartet — or any quartet for that matter — must work as one. Just as the members’ musical choices must be committed in the same way, so too goes the group’s decisions outside the musical realm.

“We followed our beliefs,” McFaul says. “We feel it’s an artist’s responsibility to help reflect on areas of society that need illuminating. The idea that we could do some of that as a quartet was hugely invigorating, but not without risks.”

The musicians, it seemed, had as much passion to join the project as the scientist.

“I was surprised how primed the arts community was to have a voice in this kind of project,” Davies says.

The work begins …

The notion for the Crossroads Project was raised approximately four years ago. It involved comments and ideas from those involved and from outside.  The “script,” for lack of a better word, would be based on Davies’s science-based lectures. As the form developed, that information was introduced by, supported and interpreted by the music. Soon other art forms were introduced, including paintings, photographs, sculpture and movement, combining to add aural and visual textural fabric to the piece.

Enter the artists …

“When we began, the structure was very simple,” McFaul says. “We wanted to start with a draft, an outline, and see where it went.”

That early start included a string quartet by Shostakovich, but soon, Fry Street commissioned a new work after McFaul, acting as a curator, searched the inventory of existing music but never found that perfect match. During the process she was led to composer Laura Kaminsky, who, after being contacted, agreed to a commission for an original work for the project. The result was a string quartet titled Rising Tide that can be performed as a stand-alone work but also forms the musical core of The Crossroads Project. Kaminsky’s quartet, like the Crossroads performance, is divided into four sections, each musically reinforcing the text.

With Kaminsky on board, other artists were added to the mix, including painter Rebecca Allen, a New York-based painter whose work centers on the landscape and themes of music; Garth Lenz, an internationally known environmental photographer; Lyman Whitaker, a sculptor with 50-plus years experience who focuses on creating kinetic art — wind sculptures — that respond to the changing currents of the wind; and Camille
Litalien, a movement artist whose improvisational movement provided important physical transitions between the spoken word, images or music in the performance.

This creative team combined its individual artistic endeavors and specialties with Davies and Fry Street for a week-long series of lectures, master classes, panel discussions and exhibits at USU, capped with the performance of The Crossroads Project.

“Putting the Crossroads Project together has been a true collaborative effort,” Davies says. “Anytime I’ve asked an artist to participate, I can barely get the words out before they jump on board.”

The performance …

The performance portion of the project is structured in four
elements — water, life, food and society. The information is presented in the form of a short, scientific soliloquy by Davies.

The program opens with a musical prelude and a prologue by Davies and each section includes a scientific soliloquy.

All the music in the piece, including Kaminsky’s music and other selections, has been carefully considered, McFaul says. The opening features the first movement from Haydn’s Sunrise quartet. 

“The opening music is beautiful,” McFaul says. “Haydn is the ‘enlightenment’ composer. The music is organized and structured. The Crossroads performance opens with no words — it sounds
like the beginning of a concert — and we finish with music. Music is the last thing people hear.”

Davies’s soliloquy in the performance’s concluding section, society or societus, is expanded. The performance illustrates the wonder of natural systems and how they work. In the final section the impact of human systems on ecosystems is shown, especially through a series of images shown in complete silence.

Then, the final music begins, the fourth movement of Janáček’s First String Quartet, a magnificent, programmatic work, McFaul says, describing the last movement as “beautiful, mournful, violent at times, ending with heart-wrenching remorse and, perhaps, a bit of a question. This is where we want to leave the audience.”

Both Davies and McFaul consider the performance as organic, ever-changing and evolving through its various performances, whether in Mexico, Brazil, or Park City, Utah. Its largest audience was a group of 1,500 sustainability educators at a conference in Los Angeles. But wherever it’s been performed, The Crossroads Project response has been consistent and positive, although there is often the audible sound of weeping near the conclusion. 

“The Crossroads Project offers a deep mediation on the choices before us, the paths they forge and the dramatically different landscapes to which they lead,” Davies concludes.

And at the end of the experience, there is one thing that is clear: the artists are passionate about the science and the scientist is equally as passionate about the music. And, from the response, it’s a powerful collaboration.

Much more information on the Crossroads Project,
including a section on resources, is available at its website

— Patrick Williams ’74