Barry Chiang was mesmerized by nature and the night sky while growing up in Taiwan. He is devoted to deciphering the simplicity and beauty of the universe through both science and music.
Chiang came to the University of Illinois as a first-generation college student to study physics and astronomy, with plans to become a researcher in theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology. He realized he also wanted to study music. He had no formal music training other than a few years of piano lessons, so he signedup for a class in music theory.
“I really liked it. It was like math. There are existing rules that you need to follow, but you need to be creative about it,” Chiang said.
It was so fun for him that he decided to pursue a third major in music composition.To be accepted, he had to go through an interview and an audition and submit a portfolio. Chiang had never written music before, but he composed four pieces during winter break of his sophomore year and sought feedback from friends who were studying music.
“The composition program was really encouraging and supportive. I was really lucky to be accepted,” he said.
Chiang was taking an overload of credit hours every semester and pursuing a minor in math along with his three majors. It was hard at times to manage all the work, but Chiang said the music offered his brain a break from doing physics.
He is drawn to understanding the properties of dark matter. Chiang was the first author of a paper on detecting dark matter annihilation, and his current research concerns dark matter production during the high-temperature cosmic reheating in the early Universe.
In his music curriculum, Chiang found one of the most challenging aspects to be a four-semester course to develop aural skills and pitch. He had no previous exposure to the concept, unlike students who had been seriously studying music before college. He practiced as much as possible and earned an A every semester of the course.
Chiang was selected by his professors for a commission given to students each yearto compose a piece to be performed at a concert at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Chiang’s composition, “From the Above,” was inspired by memories of looking at the starry night sky as a child in Taiwan. It was performed by the Illinois Modern Ensemble in March.
He has many years of study ahead. He’ll pursue master’s degrees in math and theoretical physics at Cambridge next year, followed by doctoral studies. Music will remain a part of his life as well.
“When I listen to music, my mind is teleported to a completely different space. To me, that’s captivating. I can really be part of it. If I play music I love, I can add my personal touch to it,” Chiang said. “There are a couple of pieces, when I listen to them, it instantly brings me back to a time or a physical space I’ve been to in the past. I can’t get that anywhere else. Music is special to me in that sense.”