Alex Khalil

Alex Khalil: A Neurocomputational Ethnomusicologist (Yes, really!)

A Supercomputer Center is an unconventional place to find an ethnomusicologist. Yet, this is where we find Dr. Alex Khalil, an unconventional musician-scholar in whom the disjunct worlds of musicology and neural computation converge. This makes him, in a word, “eccentric.” No, not the “zany, frizzy-haired and absent-minded genius” type of eccentric. (Well, the “genius” likely applies, though Alex would deny it vehemently.) Rather, he is eccentric in that he makes a habit of pursuing those questions that carry him far beyond the comfortable center of any one world of standard practice or academic discipline.

Alex Khalil performing on gender wayang

Balinese Gender Wayang Performance, Seaport Village

Alex holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Music Composition and Performance from CalArts and a PhD with an emphasis in ethnomusicology from U.C. San Diego. He has spent more than twenty years conducting research on several Asian musics (primarily those of China, Japan, and Indonesia), speaks Mandarin and Indonesian, plays a host of traditional instruments (specializing in Balinese gamelan and Chinese guqin), and has worked extensively with the Center for World Music for over three decades, including stints as Executive Director and Teaching Artist in Residence. His current post? Project scientist at UCSD’s Institute for Neural Computation and research fellow for the Temporal Dynamics in Learning Center. How did this happen?

What may appear as a dramatic career shift is really a natural continuation, a fulfillment of Alex’s varied abilities and ideas that were sparked while he was teaching in the CWM’s Balinese gamelan program, which he established alongside Center founder Robert Brown back in 1999. In gamelan, rhythmic precision and tight group synchrony are vital. Gradually, Alex noticed that most children synchronized relatively easily, while a few struggled. “It clearly wasn’t for a lack of effort, nor did it correlate with their musical ability in anything other than rhythm. This was strange.” He later discovered that all of these struggling students also had attention deficits. Through further testing he established a definitive correlation between attention and rhythmic timing.  

Further study could show that musical practice might facilitate improvement, not just in musical timing but beyond gamelan and into interpersonal communication, which is also fundamentally rhythmic.

“Attention is dynamic, that is, changing in time, and so it is rhythmic in nature.” Alex believes that developing proficiency in music, especially rhythm, may improve communication skills in children with ADHD or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and perhaps even for all children. His road from the classroom to scientific research has been a long and difficult one, but it is starting to pay off. Recently, he and partnering institutions were awarded a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation (Science of Learning Center) to further study synchrony in group brain dynamics. “If the hypothesis is true,” he says, “we have an army of skilled music teachers who can offer help.”

“We tend to wonder what happens when music is included in cognitive development, but a musical brain is a normal brain . . . and music just isn’t in our lives in the same ways it used to be.”

Alex Khalil embodies the heart of what the CWM promotes in its youth education program, World Music in the Schools: we solve problems better when we are skilled at listening and acting across the boundaries between cognitive worlds, even those that seem so stubbornly divergent as “science” and “the arts.” Something as seemingly simple as learning an unfamiliar musical style can, in a sense, make us bilingual. Nine-year old Olivia, a gamelan student from The Museum School, makes this crystal-clear when she says that “it’s fun to learn another culture’s music because then you can kind of speak with them, in a way.” You’re right Olivia!  

Cultural fluency can be fun, and, as Alex demonstrates, it can also provide a lens for viewing and solving old problems in new ways.

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Japanese Shakuhachi Performance, USD

Speaking of cultural fluency, can you guess Alex’s central passion since childhood? It’s unlikely that Byzantine chant came to mind. But for Alex, who still frequently performs as a cantor in a Greek Orthodox Church in San Diego, this is not just another thing he does. Just as gamelan rhythms might improve communication skills, on a cognitive level our various activities don’t stay in neat compartments as we might expect.

The many worlds in which we participate converge, integrate, and become the world we know.

As we depart the supercomputer center where we found Alex Khalil, our world has already grown. But it also imparts a question, really a personal challenge: how will you expand your horizons today?

Read an article written by Alex on the value of music education for kids for The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art here.

Learn more about the CWM’s World Music in the Schools gamelan program at the Museum School here.

—James Gutierrez, Center for World Music Board Member