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Physicist and jazz pianist combines music and science at Rochester

May 6, 2021
2021 Commencement: Rochester graduate Philippe LeWalleAs a double major in physics and music, Lewalle says having work to do in both fields gave him academic balance at times. “If I got tired of one, I could always switch to the other.” (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

College alumnus Philippe Lewalle graduates with a PhD in physics but stays close to his piano.

As an undergraduate and later graduate student at the University of Rochester, Philippe Lewalle ’14, ’21 (PhD) has played piano at the College’s music and physics department commencement ceremonies.

This year will be different, though: he will also be the one graduating—with a PhD in physics—during spring commencement ceremonies, May 14 to 16 and 20 to 23.

2021 Commencement: Rochester toolkit selfie sign

Celebrate the Class of 2021!

Visit the Class of 2021 site for details about this year’s Commencement ceremonies and for a downloadable toolkit of materials to share your support on social media.

The child of parents who are both violinists and academics, Lewalle began playing piano at age 7 and was drawn to Rochester because the University offered the possibility to combine his love of music and interest in science, earning dual degrees in music and physics at the School of Arts & Sciences.

“I came to Rochester in large part because it was feasible to double major in physics and music,” he says. “Even though I was working a lot of long days as an undergrad, it always felt refreshing having two very different types of homework on my platter. If I got tired of one, I could always switch to the other.”

The summer after his sophomore year, Lewalle had the opportunity to work with Joseph Eberly, the Andrew Carnegie Professor of Physics, conducting research on quantum optics. The research would ultimately set the direction of his graduate work and PhD dissertation.

“That summer definitely shaped the trajectory I took later,” Lewalle says. “The research I conducted as an undergrad ended up relating a lot to my PhD work.”

As a graduate student, he worked with physics professor Andrew Jordan, where his specific research focus was on tracking quantum systems in real time—a process that is intrinsically invasive to changing the system state itself as it is monitored—and the odd things that happen when such systems are disturbed. The research is important not only for better understanding fundamental quantum mechanics, but also for improving quantum technologies such as quantum computers.

Throughout his time at Rochester, Lewalle continued to play music with a variety of musicians at venues in the city and took advantage of the musical opportunities offered by the Rochester community.

“The pool of talent that comes through Eastman is really motivating and inspiring,” Lewalle says. “I have benefited a lot from playing with so many talented musicians throughout my time here, in addition to attending a number of the great performances, whether at Jazz Fest, student recitals, or other concerts that are held on a regular basis at Eastman and venues around the city.”

Lewalle’s own musical interests include contemporary jazz and its intersections with hip-hop and free improvisation. One project he played in, called “Claude Bennington’s Fever Dream,” involved a synthesis of hip-hop and jazz that “took a jazz rhythm section and instead of horn players, put rappers out front,” he says. “We were learning beats and treating them like jazz tunes, improvising on and around them and sometimes venturing freely away from the written material.” Recordings from the project are available on Bandcamp and YouTube.

Although many of his music projects have stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewalle has continued to work on his own compositions and record and play when possible and safe, even while finishing his physics PhD thesis.

“It’s been difficult during COVID because, especially with jazz improv, you really feed on the energy of the crowds and the immediate interactions between musicians,” he says. “It’s not the same without that.”

In July, Lewalle will start a new chapter as he travels across the country to California to begin a postdoctoral research appointment, studying quantum mechanics in the group of K. Birgitta Whaley at the University of California Berkeley.

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Category: Student Life