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A Life: Scott Smedinghoff Was a Mathematical and Musical Genius 

  • Scott Smedinghoff rehearses with the Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble on Friday, May 1, 2015. (Rob Strong photograph) Copyright 2015 Rob Strong

  • Scott Smedinghoff, a Dartmouth mathematics PhD candidate and area church musician who died in Jan. 2016 at 28-years-old. (Family photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2016

Hanover — A little more than two years ago, Scott Smedinghoff, a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Dartmouth College, and his friend Matthew Marsit, who leads the college’s wind ensemble, were sitting in Marsit’s office, dreaming of music they’d like to play together.

Offhand, Marsit mentioned a challenging, modern piece, the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. Smedinghoff, a brilliant pianist whom people called the ensemble’s “go-to man,” pounced.

“Well, give me a score,” he said. “I’ll play it for you next month.”

Within weeks, Smedinghoff came back with most of the piece memorized, and Marsit booked the concert for the following May. In a recording of that performance provided by Marsit, the concerto opened in uneven fashion; the musicians clearly were still learning their notes.

But after a minute or so, in came Smedinghoff. He played like someone who had spent his entire life in concert halls, rapping out the aggressive, percussive opening passage with absolute clarity and fearlessness.

Smedinghoff’s talents allowed him to explore realms beyond most people’s access or imagination, but he found his greatest delight in sharing his gifts with others — whether undergraduate students of math, concertgoers at Spaulding Auditorium or worshippers at churches in Lyme and Thetford.

He died on Jan. 13 in an accident in his Lebanon apartment, police said. No foul play was involved, authorities said, and drugs and alcohol were not a factor. He was 28.

Smedinghoff was born on June 15, 1987, to Linda and Jim Smedinghoff, and grew up in Wheaton, Ill. An inquisitive child, he peppered his parents with questions of every kind. Some were insightful; some were funny (“Do Brandy’s parents have names?” he once asked his father, referring to the mononymous singer); some even his parents couldn’t answer.

The Smedinghoffs maintain that their son was born musical. Even as an infant, when church choirs sang he’d stop fussing and listen. He began his own career at the piano at age 4, and quickly progressed to using two hands.

“Pretty quick we realized we needed to get him a serious teacher,” Linda Smedinghoff said.

At age 17, he started taking lessons on the organ.

His freshman year of high school, he won a state math competition. By the end of high school, he was playing virtuosic music by Liszt and Chopin — pieces that musicians twice his age performed in concert halls around the world.

He went on to study math and physics at Williams College, and after receiving his degree, in 2009, he served as music director for two churches in Bennington, Vt. In 2012, he came to Dartmouth to pursue a PhD in mathematics.

When he died, in his fourth and final year of study, his professors had been expecting him to pursue a bright career in academic research.

Noncommutative Geometry

Not long ago, after Smedinghoff’s passing, a dean at Dartmouth College asked the young man’s PhD thesis supervisor whether he could explain the work they had been doing together.

The supervisor, assistant professor of mathematics Erik van Erp, considered for a moment.

“No,” he said.

They had been studying noncommutative geometry, a branch of abstract mathematics that imagines spaces where the commutative property, a fundamental principle of multiplication, does not apply.

Last week, rather than befuddle a reporter with an explanation, van Erp launched into an description of why his and Smedinghoff’s work was beyond one.

Imagine all of mathematics as a sphere, van Erp said: Its edges touch other domains of study, such as economics, physics and biology, creating fields of applied mathematics. Those subjects have concrete uses — analyzing stock markets, mapping the human genome — and are much easier to explain to a layperson.

Noncommutative geometry is not so easy to explain. It takes place deep inside the sphere, in a realm of pure, abstract mathematics to which few people have access.

“It’s more beautiful, but it’s also harder,” van Erp said. “If you can enjoy what it reveals to you, then it’s a very, very beautiful area; it opens intuitions that basically are not accessible if you can’t absorb the mathematical language.”

For example, van Erp said, take curvature. Initially we all can understand it. Balls and the earth are curved, and we know that from experience.

Math, however, can describe objects that are beyond our empirical imagination: curved spaces in three, four or more dimensions. And whereas it may be mathematically natural to expand one’s thinking to higher and higher dimensions, one’s physical instincts often lag behind.

“You develop an intuition for another type of reality that’s not accessible for our ordinary sense organs,” van Erp said.

“You have to have a weird brain that can absorb that kind of stuff.”

From the beginning of their four-year relationship, it was clear to van Erp that Smedinghoff had such a brain.

Most first-year grad students need help to grasp the more abstract concepts of high-level mathematics, van Erp said, “but with Scott, it was very clear that he could read this stuff on his own.”

As he did with his parents, Smedinghoff came back to van Erp with question after question, some so probing that the professor didn’t necessarily know the answer.

“He was very, very talented,” van Erp said. “It was almost like a conversation with an equal, even though I’m 20 years ahead in terms of studying.”

Making original contributions to noncommutative geometry research is difficult, according to van Erp. The field has existed since the 1980s, and over the years a considerable amount of exploring has been done. Yet van Erp said he was convinced that Smedinghoff, who was almost finished with his doctorate, would have made his own mark on the field.

And in a way, van Erp was jealous of Smedinghoff.

“If you work in the internal regions of mathematics, it’s pretty much impossible to explain what you’re doing to the outside world,” van Erp said. “I find it a shame. You have all this beautiful stuff you are excited about and there’s very few people you can share it with.”

Smedinghoff had something other deeply analytical thinkers did not: a way to share the beauty of his calculations with others.

‘Rock In The Ensemble’

Though at Williams Smedinghoff had been active in the music department, at Dartmouth he found his way into the Hopkins Center ensembles by chance.

“He wasn’t thinking he was going to be too involved,” Marsit said, but then another student heard him play in piano masterclass and recommended him to the wind ensemble conductor. “Within a rehearsal or two he was hooked.”

Whether in a full ensemble setting, with scores of musicians, or for a chamber-music piece of just four players, Marsit came to rely on Smedinghoff to guide his younger instrumentalists. Over the years, conversations in Marsit’s office grew longer and ranged further than music; the two men had become friends.

“For nearly four years, he’s been this rock in the ensemble,” Marsit said. “It was almost like having a teaching assistant in the room.”

Smedinghoff was an advocate of new music, and the atonality and rhythmic complexity in Stravinsky’s concerto had been typical of his tastes.

“It’s kind of a mechanical work,” Marsit said. “It requires a great analytical mind, and the ability to break down rhythm thoroughly and carefully, and his mathematical mind handled it perfectly.”

After his death, musical tributes poured in. The Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble changed its winter program to honor Smedinghoff, and Full Circle, an Upper Valley voice ensemble, held a memorial concert last month at the Lyme Congregational Church.

Smedinghoff’s family is raising funds to commission new music in his memory. The first work of three, by composer David Maslanka, is in progress, and at least two more are coming, according to Marsit.

On June 11, the First Congregational Church of Bennington, where Smedinghoff played for years, will hold a musical event in his honor.

Bennington, Vt., native Lucy Gardner Carson came to know Smedinghoff well during his days at the Old First Church. Together they formed a choir and, she emphasized, shared many a laugh.

“With all the focus on his mathematical and musical genius,” she wrote in an email this month, “people should know that, above all, he was funny!”

“He had the silliest laugh, I can’t even describe it: very loud and giddy and over the top. He laughed a lot while he was talking, and he had the biggest, wildest gesticulations — you had to keep your peripheral vision sharp to protect passersby from getting whacked during a particularly exciting story. He accumulated wacky T-shirts, especially with silly math or music sayings.”

Defining Terms

In late January, the Rev. Robin Junker-Boyce, pastor at Thetford First Congregational Church, where Smedinghoff was music director, led a memorial service for him at Dartmouth’s Rollins Chapel. Though she and Smedinghoff knew each other only a short while — she arrived at the church in December, two months before his death — his musical abilities had entranced her.

“When he would play the organ it was like a dance,” she said. “His feet were dancing, his hands were dancing, it was beautiful to watch.”

Spirituality was one topic Junker-Boyce never got to cover with Smedinghoff. She knew that her younger colleague had played in several different churches, and once she had asked him about his beliefs.

“What’s up with you?” she remembered saying. “You’re 28 years old and you’re a mathematician, and you’re playing all this church music.”

His response, an indirect one, had intrigued her.

“You know,” he said, “I think sometimes that when I talk about religion with my friends we’re all talking a different language.”

During those conversations, he told her, he had felt a typical mathematician’s impulse: he wanted to start by defining terms.

Looking back, the Thetford pastor thought music might have been a spiritual outlet for him in its own right.

“What he is capable of doing and what he hears when the music plays is beyond what the ordinary mind knows,” she said. “Perhaps it was a mystical thing for him, and he couldn’t explain to his friends why.”

She added, “But if you could have heard him play, you might have thought, Oh, we’re in a different realm here.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.

Correction

Scott Smedinghoff, who died on Jan. 13, 2016, learned to play the organ from two teachers. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date of his death and mischaracterized how he learned the instrument.