Sunday, August 4, 2013

He took the psychedelic pop path to math

Robert Schneider in a promotional photo for The Apples in Stereo. "I love music, but I'm also really obsessed with math," he says. "That's my focus now." (Photo by Adam Cantor.)

By Carol Clark

By the numbers, Robert Schneider is not your average PhD student of math. He is 42 years old and just finished his first year of graduate school, working under Emory number theorist Ken Ono. Schneider didn’t even enroll in college math classes until 2004, when he was in his mid-30s.

“I’m rough around the edges. I’m an untamed mathematician,” he says, “but I’m working on that.”

Schneider’s bright blue eyeglasses, pink hoodie jacket and buoyant personality give further clues that he is not your typical academic.

In fact, Schneider is a well-known figure in the underground music scene as the co-founder of the Elephant Six Recording Company and the indie band The Apples in Stereo. He’s a composer, sound engineer, producer, singer, songwriter and musician. He played at the Democratic National Convention where Barack Obama was first nominated for president and has made guest appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the Colbert Report. In addition to having a cult following, Schneider’s music has enjoyed broader commercial success, and can be heard on the sound tracks of dozens of commercials.

“The cheesiest thing was when the contestants on ‘American Idol’ sang my song ‘Energy,’” Schneider says. “That’s probably the thing that impressed my mom the most.”

It’s an understatement to call Schneider’s career “eclectic.”

A Powerpuff Girls character has been named after him (Robin Schneider, the one with an apple on her t-shirt) and The Apples in Stereo's music has been featured on the Cartoon Network series.

Actor Elijah Wood (best known for playing Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) is among the fans of Schneider’s music. Wood founded a record label, Simian Records, and one of the label's albums is New Magnetic Wonder by The Apples in Stereo, released in 2007. Schneider and Wood are also friends, and have collaborated on a series of YouTube videos, including a few that feature Schneider as a musical mad scientist (see above).

Schneider has now put his music career on the back burner in order to get a PhD at Emory. Schneider the successful pop musician sits at a tiny cubicle, surrounded by other graduate students in their cubicles, and dreams of becoming a mathematician. He’s decorated his workspace with pictures of his idols, including Benjamin Franklin, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and pioneering Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler.

“I love music,” he says, “but I’m also really obsessed with math. That’s my focus now. I have a desk! It seems so romantic to me. As you walk down the hallways of the department, you can hear people talking loudly, almost arguing, about math. It’s all around me, ringing in the hallways!”

In the fall, Schneider looks forward to teaching freshman calculus. “I want to turn the students on to the magic and the history of the subject,” he says. “I plan to add some dramatic flourishes to accomplish that goal.”

Shortly after arriving at Emory, Schneider, above left, found himself riding an elephant in India with his math mentor Ken Ono. They were both speakers at conferences surrounding the 125th anniversary of mathematician Ramanujan's birth.

Schneider was born in South Africa. He moved to the small town of Ruston, Louisiana, when he was seven years old and his father took a job teaching architecture at Louisiana Tech.

“Ruston was like Mayberry,” Schneider recalls. “It’s a super square town, about 30 years behind the times.”

Schneider amused himself by writing songs, playing the guitar and tinkering with gadgetry. Although living in rhythm and blues country, he was into the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground.

Schneider found a few other musical kindred spirits and started helping them record their sounds, using a four-track tape machine and a synthesizer. His friendship with Jeff Mangum, who would gain fame with the indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, goes back to the second grade. Schneider’s other Ruston childhood friends included Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart, who formed the band Olivia Tremor Control.

Schneider attended Centenary College in Shreveport for a couple of years, focusing his studies on music composition, philosophy and poetry. He moved to Denver to continue his studies at the University of Colorado, but decided to take his junior year off to devote himself full-time to music.

Public transportation brought Schneider together with musician Jim McIntyre.

“We were always waiting at the same bus stop and I’m chatty,” Schneider says. McIntyre, however, wasn’t so chatty and when Schneider asked him what music he liked, McIntyre said the Beach Boys, thinking that would stop the conversation cold.

“It was super unhip to like the Beach Boys in the early 1990s,” Schneider explains, “but they were like my gurus. I had a religion and mythology based around them.”

Schneider and McIntyre, together with Hilarie Sidney and Chris Parfitt, launched The Apples, named after the Pink Floyd song “Apples and Oranges.”

“It wasn’t a commercial venture,” says Schneider, the lead singer and songwriter for the group. “We were just having fun and trying to blow people’s minds.”

He describes their early music as “raw and loud, distorted guitars,” that later became “more psychedelic and otherworldly.”

Schneider also loved producing music, so he co-founded the Elephant Six collective, along with his core group of childhood music friends from Ruston. The collective launched many notable psychedelic and experimental groups of the 1990s.

As a producer, Schneider may be best known for the Neutral Milk Hotel’s critically acclaimed record “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” for which he also played bass and keyboards and wrote many of the horn parts.

“My main goal was to not get mixed up in the music industry and become slick,” Schneider says. “I wanted to create songs that are musical and catchy but at the same time would be interesting to underground musicians, my own scene.”

An obsession with vintage recording equipment led Schneider to buy an early 1970s Ampex MM-1200. “It’s a legendary tape machine, the size of a washing machine and heavy as a piano,” he says. “It uses two-inch tape, shiny and thick, beautiful to look at. And the sound quality was fantastic.”

The downside to the Ampex, however, was its instability. “It blew out diodes all the time,” Schneider recalls. “I’d hear it go ‘pop,’ and it would shut down and have to be fixed again.” A repairman told Schneider that it was a fatal flaw of the machine, and he would have to learn to maintain it himself.

“Fixing this tape machine became a big part of my life,” he says. “The guts of it were often sprawled out on my floor. It had an instruction manual the size of a dictionary, filled with fold-out schematic drawings.”

Schneider started reading books about electronics, which is how he came across Ohm’s law. “It says,” he explains, “that the voltage, the current flow and the resistance are intimately connected in an electrical circuit.” The law is named after the German physicist Georg Ohm, who provided a mathematical equation to describe his discovery.

“I had this revelation,” Schneider says, “that all things in the universe that flow through electricity are tied to this equation. It was like the ceiling opened up and all this golden sunlight was pouring onto me. I realized that all the stuff that was important to me – synthesizers, microphones, the experience of listening to music, playing in a band, my relationships with my friends and band mates – all of these things somehow had this equation in the background. Even your brain itself is an electrical system of sorts. It blew my mind!”

The math bug had bitten Schneider. “My world view just changed,” he says. “I realized that math had all of this depth, beauty and poetry.”

He started teaching himself number theory, and reading up on famous mathematicians in history, like Euler and Ramanujan.

He eventually moved to Kentucky, where he met his wife, Marci Schneider, who runs the independent label Garden Gate Records.

Schneider continued his music career, while also finding a math mentor in David Leep, a professor at the University of Kentucky. “He was amused by me because I was self-taught and so enthusiastic,” Schneider says. “He let me come by every couple of weeks and share ideas with him.”

Schneider subsequently enrolled part-time at the University of Kentucky. He received a BS in mathematics in 2012 with departmental honors, on top of touring with his band and making records. “When I turned 40, I realized that, statistically, I had reached half of my life span,” he says. “I never really imagined my whole life would be about just one thing. I’m so into music, but I need to step away from being a full-time musician if I want to make real progress as a mathematician.”

He has managed, however, to incorporate some music into his math. One of his side projects was the invention of what he describes as “a Non-Pythagorean musical scale based on logarithms.” Watch an explanation of it in the video below:

He has also composed a score based on prime numbers for a play by number theorist Andrew Granville. (This month, he’s going to Banff, Canada as an artist-in-residence at the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery where he will record the score with classical musicians for a documentary about the play.)

Schneider was mulling offers from several graduate schools to pursue his PhD in analytic number theory when he met Emory’s Ken Ono during a visit to Atlanta. The two immediately hit it off. Schneider enrolled in Emory, relocating to Atlanta with Marci and his son, Max, 12.

“Ken is so charged up about math, he’s electrified,” Schneider says. “It’s amazing to study under him. He’s teaching established knowledge in number theory, and almost in the same breath explaining his results from that day that aren’t known to anyone else yet.”

As he forges a new life path into math, Schneider hopes it will be as unusual and creative as his musical career. He describes Ono as an explorer who inspires him to follow him into new territory.

“Ken sees the wilderness of math and he wants to conquer it,” Schneider says. “Once he finds a beautiful, green pool in the mountains, he wants to swim in it and move on to find the next pool. I’m more like a naturalist. I want to camp out by the new pool to gaze into it and admire its beauty.”

How culture shaped a mathematician
New theories reveal the nature of numbers
Math theory gives new glimpse into the magical mind of Ramanujan

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