The 12-song, 45-minute album, “Once Upon Deep Time,” looks at the evolution of hearing and how sound connects humans to the past. Bonnan got help from his kids and Stockton students and colleagues.
During the isolation of COVID-19, Stockton University paleontologist Matthew Bonnan nurtured what he calls his parallel passion — music.
He taught himself to play piano, practiced singing and embarked on a dream, with the help of his children and some of his colleagues and students.
Earlier this month, that dream came true. Bonnan released a 12-song, 44-minute album, Once Upon Deep Time, that looks at the evolution of hearing and how sound connects humans to the past. The scientist in him came through loud and clear. His songs, available on his website matthewbonnan.hearnow.com, his You Tube channel @mbonnan, and streaming sources, include animated videos that impart scientific lessons, while aiming to entertain.
“Part of it came out of the isolation I was feeling at the time, just kind of cut off from everybody,” said Bonnan, 49, of Hammonton, N.J. “I wanted to reach out beyond my classroom … to reconnect not only with other people but wanting to reconnect all of us with nature.”
From the song “Rightside Down,” listeners learn that “our hearing evolved from an ancient balancing organ our ancestors used to tell right side up from right side down.” “Dinosaur songs” hits on the wonder of the living, singing and in some cases talking dinosaurs that still inhabit the Earth — birds. That’s right, birds are actually the last living dinosaurs, he said.
“I created these songs to inspire wonder about our shared natural history and to convey the passion that drives me as a scientist,” Bonnan writes on his website.
Bonnan plays the piano and, with the use of software, transforms his keyboard notes onto other musical instruments, including the guitar and bass.
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His son, Max, 14, plays guitar on three songs, while a friend strums on two, and his daughter, Quinn, 17, sings on two.
Quinn said when her father first told her about the project, she didn’t believe it would happen. He proved her wrong.
“I was like ‘dang, my Dad actually knows things, and actually knows how to make music,’” she said.
Bonnan said his son, an aspiring marine biologist, cowrote “Blindsight,” a song about echolocation, in which an animal emits sound that bounces off an object, giving a clue about its distance and size. The song talks about whales and bats, which emit high pitch sounds to see in the dark and locate their prey.
He also tapped the Lickerish Quartet, an alternative rock group, to sing on “Rightside Down.”
For “Storytellers,” about how people are both participant and teller of the story of life, he turned to Stockton physics professor Neil Aaronson, who runs the university’s acoustics lab and mentors its a cappella group. Aaronson arranged and directed the group’s vocals.
“That was really emotional for me, to hear all those people singing the lyrics I wrote,” Bonnan said.
Art professor Michael McGarvey and his students helped with animation for “Into Thin Air” about how hearing evolved from fish in the water to creatures on land.
Bonnan told former student Samantha Giancarli about the project on a Zoom call. He’s on her dissertation committee at Drexel University, where she is pursuing her doctorate in environmental science.
“If you need backup woodwinds, I got you covered,” Giancarli, 29, of Ewing, N.J., told him.
To her surprise, he took her up on it. She plays the tenor saxophone on “Distant Touch” about how fish hear through sensory canals on their bodies. She hopes the album interests people in evolutionary biology and paleontology. Bonnan’s teaching certainly stoked her interest as an undergraduate.
“He was probably the most enthusiastic and animated professor I ever had,” Giancarli said. “He poured his entire soul into this album for the purpose of teaching people about science, which is what he does best.”
He certainly did not do it for the money. He doubts he’ll recoup what he spent on producing it.
“The goal is to get the message out there in as many platforms as possible,” he said.
It’s a little different than the dream he had as a kid.
In junior high and high school, Bonnan played trumpet and baritone in the band and wrote poetry and lyrics. Like a lot of kids, he fantasized about being a rock star.
He’s always been a fan of the bands Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush and REO Speedwagon and liked the idea of telling stories through song. But after high school, he talked himself out of pursuing music.
Then a few years before the pandemic, he began taking his son to guitar lessons, sometimes watching. It reawakened his interest, he said, and in 2019, he bought a piano. He got some advice from the guitar teacher and educated himself, but his interest really took off when the pandemic hit and he was teaching remotely and had more time.
Through YouTube and books, he learned to play piano. His singing evolved as he and friends got into Karaoke, using phone apps.
Bonnan began writing the songs in early 2021 and took a sabbatical in fall 2022 to finish them; the album debuted Dec. 16.
Up next? He’d like to take the work onstage, maybe add a touch of reality to that teenage fantasy.
“I hope in the next year or so to develop this into some kind of performance,” he said.