Science and Music Meet in the World Premiere of "Cocoon"

Science and Music Meet in the World Premiere of Cocoon

Music Academy of the West and NCEAS partner to co-commission piece by James Stephenson


Santa Barbara, CA — A unique septet of instruments will come together for the world premiere of a piece entitled Cocoon by acclaimed Chicago-based composer James Stephenson on Friday, July 19th at 7:30 pm at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara as part of its 72nd anniversary Summer School and Festival. Attendees are also invited to attend a pre-concert lecture on the work from 6:45 pm to 7:15 pm.

Science and music will meet in the composition, which is based on Mr. Stephenson’s experience as an artist in residence at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), an environmental science research center affiliated with UC Santa Barbara. His residency was also supported by the Music Academy and The Squire Foundation. The composer is an alumnus of the Music Academy, which he attended in both 1988 and 1991 as a trumpet fellow, and he recently joined the Academy at the 2018 Summer School and Festival as a composer-in-residence.

Clarinet, oboe, piano, violin, harp, trombone, and a Persian percussion instrument called the tombak are an unusual mix of instruments to be playing together, but the ensemble they will create in Cocoon reflects what Mr. Stephenson learned at NCEAS, itself a place where unusual combinations of scientists convene and collaborate on complex questions about the natural world.

It’s a piece like no other I have ever written. Writing for and about science was extremely energizing for me.

— James M. Stephenson

Mr. Stephenson describes the piece as exploratory, interactive, and communicative, with each instrument offering its own melodies and others commenting in response, and concluding in a melodic synthesis of their contributions. Such a synthesis of musical ideas mimics the scientific synthesis that happens at NCEAS, which Mr. Stephenson described as “a cocoon of ideas that grow, metamorphose and will eventually change our world.” 

Cocoon’s debut will include a moderated discussion between Mr. Stephenson and the executive director of NCEAS, Ben Halpern, who is also a professor at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

The parallel between composing and performing chamber music with a range of instruments and developing and executing research with a group of scientists from different disciplines is striking in its obviousness, yet something I had never thought about until interacting with Jim.

— Dr. Ben Halpern

By facilitating interactions between artists and scientists, the artist-in-residence program at NCEAS is designed to expand the ways scientists contemplate, investigate, and communicate about the natural world while exposing artists to scientific processes and ideas.

“I’m hoping these interactions produce new insights into pressing scientific questions and new, creative artistic expressions,” said Dr. Halpern.

Fellows from the Academy will play the debut, which Mr. Stephenson says enabled him to write the piece with a depth and virtuosity he knew they could undertake while also making the piece accessible for subsequent ensembles.

“I hope that the result for those who are listening equals the excitement I had in creating it,” said Mr. Stephenson.

Tickets for the premiere are $10 to $40, with 7 to 17-year-olds free when accompanied by a ticketed adult. For tickets and event details, please visit:

Cocoon Events: Friday, July 19

Hahn Hall / Music Academy of the West
1070 Fairway Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93108

Pre-Concert Talk / 6:45 pm

James Stephenson composer
Ben Halpern executive director, NCEAS

Picnic Concert / 7:30 pm

program to include:

SCHUBERT Quintet in A Major, D. 667, “The Trout”

BARTÓK Contrasts

STRAUSS/HASENÖHRL Till Eulenspiegel – einmal anders!

JAMES STEPHENSON Cocoon (World Premiere, co-commission, Music Academy of the West and NCEAS)

About James Stephenson 

Leading American orchestras, instrumentalists, and wind ensembles around the world have performed the music of Chicago-based composer James M. Stephenson. Most recently, Mr. Stephenson wrote a new concerto for bass trombone, premiered by the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Riccardo Muti. Compose Yourself!, Mr. Stephenson’s landmark young-audience work has been performed over 300 times since its creation in 2002. Mr. Stephenson is also a highly sought-after arranger and conductor.

About Ben Halpern, PhD

Dr. Ben Halpern is the executive director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses primarily on marine ecology and conservation planning but also spans a wide range of disciplines. He is also a Senior Fellow at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre of the United Nations Environment Programme.

About the Music Academy of the West

The Music Academy of the West advances the development of 21st-century, classically trained musicians and cultivates discerning, appreciative, and adventurous audiences. Founded in 1947, the Academy operates on a ten-acre, oceanside campus in Santa Barbara, California, where its world-renowned eight-week Summer Festival comprises more than 200 events. Programs comprise voice, vocal piano, collaborative piano, instrumental, and solo piano. In 2018, the Academy launched a four-year partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra, focusing on education and performance on both sides of the Atlantic. For more information, visit



The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, or NCEAS, is a research center affiliated with UC Santa Barbara that conducts transformational science to inform solutions that will allow people and nature to thrive. It accelerates discoveries by enabling interdisciplinary collaborations and the synthesis of data and ideas that shed light on the big picture of complex environmental challenges. Learn more at


About The Squire Foundation

The Squire Foundation is a non-profit empowerment foundation, dedicated to civic and educational programs for artists, curators and all manner of creative people. Squire supports emerging and experimental art programming in an effort to nurture an environment of creative empowerment in the world. Learn more at

Released: June 27, 2019

Kate Oberjat
[email protected]

Jenny Seifert
[email protected]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email