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College of Arts and Sciences Newsroom

First-Year Arts Immersion

Charles Jencks' Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland uses landscape and design to explore fundamental aspects of the universe in stunning fashion, with sculptures and artificial landforms serving as metaphors for concepts such as subatomic particles, the diversity of DNA, and the birth and expansion of the cosmos.

This fall, University of Dayton first-year students are examining ideas related to Jencks’ garden in the introductory English, history, philosophy and religious studies courses that make up the "Humanities Commons" program.

On Oct. 16, nearly 1,400 of those students will hear the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra perform selections from composer Michael Gandolfi’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation, an orchestral suite inspired by Jencks’ garden, at the Schuster Performing Arts Center in downtown Dayton.

The event is part of the University’s First-Year Arts Immersion, a partnership with the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance that invites faculty teaching Humanities Commons courses to incorporate aspects of a specific performance into their classrooms - creating a common reference point across the curriculum and celebrating the way in which art provides insight into the human experience.

Now in its fourth year, the First-Year Arts Immersion is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost and the Office of the President. This year’s theme is "Time and Place."

Past arts immersion events have included a Dayton Philharmonic performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; Dayton Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking; and Dayton Ballet’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. The Philharmonic, Opera and Ballet merged in 2012 to form the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.

"One of Dayton’s greatest assets is its very active and vital performing arts community," said Paul Helfrich, Dayton Performing Arts Alliance president and CEO. "And yet, we know it’s possible for many college students to come to school here and never leave campus. We’re very grateful for this partnership with the University that assures their students an experience with the performing arts at the Schuster Center early in their collegiate careers. Naturally, we hope they’ll come back."

Attending an off-campus performing arts event encourages students to think about the meaning of their humanities education and link what they’re learning in one class to another by sharing that experience with classmates, said Caroline Merithew, associate professor of history and Humanities Commons coordinator.

The Humanities Commons creates a foundation for learning in the rest of the University’s Common Academic Program, which calls on students to integrate what they learn by requiring them to take courses that intentionally cross disciplinary boundaries and incorporate relevant non-classroom experiences.

"This particular piece, it's musical and historical references, has lots of learning and teaching possibilities," Merithew said.

Inspired by science and mathematics, Jencks’ 30-acre garden uses forms of nature to interpret forces of nature. For example, a dining terrace made from curving and stretching blocks of Astroturf and aluminum shows the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole. The Universe Cascade, a waterfall and staircase leading from the house to the garden, represents the evolution of the universe as a series of steps from the beginning of time up through 25 levels to the present.

Gandolfi adds another layer of interpretation via his 2009 orchestral suite.

Helfrich said University faculty can add context and perspective to the Dayton Philharmonic’s performance, beyond the reach of the arts organization alone.

Aili Bresnahan, assistant professor of philosophy, will use excerpts from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, as well as other materials to explore both Jencks’ imitation of the cosmos and Gandolfi’s musical representation of the garden with her students.

Masha Kisel, a lecturer in the department of English, is using works by Jon Krakauer and Leo Tolstoy to focus on humanity’s relationship with nature.

"The garden that inspired the symphony is a place where divine creation and human artistic creation co-exist," Kisel said. "What are the limits for human representation of natural creation? Can human beings really have an understanding of the natural world or are we merely creating mirrors of ourselves through literature, art and music about nature?"

Neal Gittleman, Dayton Philharmonic artistic director, and Robert Merithew, a lecturer in the department of physics, will conduct a question-and-answer session with the audience following the performance, furthering the interdisciplinary and intercultural experience of the First-Year Arts Immersion.

In addition, a University woodwind quintet directed by Kristen Smith, associate professor of music, will perform before the concert. Smith plays bassoon in the Dayton Philharmonic.

Student bus transportation from Lot C to the Schuster Center will be provided starting at 12:30 p.m. The 3 p.m. concert will be preceded by a food truck rally at Courthouse Square, featuring Son of a Biscuit, Wicked Wich, Dogs for Dogs, Courtlands, Las Pampas and Bella Sorella. Graeter’s, a supporting sponsor for the Classical Connections series, will provide free scoops of ice cream after the performance.

"PATH" points toward student housing selection are available for first-year students who stay through the end of the Q&A session.

Students can reserve a concert ticket at and secure a bus seat at More information is available at

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

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