What happens when a musicologist with a passion for salsa sits down to talk with a cognitive scientist unlocking the secrets of how the brain hears music, plus a philosopher querying the nature of sound itself?

And what if an engineer or a physicist joins in?

The conversation could roam far beyond what any one of them might imagine. And that may be the best reason of all for having it, according to Alan Tansman, the new director of UC Berkeley’s Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities. 

Now six months into his new position, he is busy igniting those kinds of conversations at the center, which is dedicated to the open exploration of any subject that touches on the human condition — a deliberately broad definition.

He’s been continuing the Townsend tradition of gathering faculty whose interests overlap but who don’t always find each other across a busy campus, or whose disciplines or programs don’t allow breathing space for a long-term, open-ended collaboration.

Sound and music is one area where the time seemed ripe with possibilities. A second such collaboration brings scholars in the humanities together with cognitive scientists to talk about consciousness and aesthetics. And a third, an idea that sprang from Berkeley Law, is gathering people to talk about issues around law and the humanities — criminal justice, for example, or citizenship.

Such conversations can lead to new fields of study, the creation of courses, a minor or designated emphasis, or the construction of smartphone apps aimed at solving social problems — and they have, when it comes to the Townsend Center. Or they can simply serve to reinvigorate, to stretch human minds in new directions, Tansman says.

“My appointment made me feel the kind of excited fun that I feel, and I think a lot of us feel, when we’re not quite having to work within the strictures of our own fields,” says Tansman, himself a professor of Japanese and a specialist in modern Japanese literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. “It lets you think playfully and to fantasize, so in that way it’s re-energizing and it brings back an element of joy, which often gets lost.”

That’s true across the board for the Townsend Center’s ever-expanding portfolio of endeavors as it celebrates its 25th year with a gala last fall and an anniversary video. The center itself came into being in a conversation, begun around a conference table at its Stephens Hall offices, among like-minded professors and administrators during the late 1980s, when interdisciplinary initiatives came to the fore, according to Randolph Starn, a history professor who was there and later served as the center’s second director.

The immediate spark was a UC-wide competition to establish a humanities center, a plum Berkeley, already heavily laden with systemwide riches, lost to the Irvine campus, Starn recalls. But the Berkeley center went ahead in 1987. English professor Paul Alpers became its first director, and its future was assured with an endowment from Doreen Townsend, an alumna of what is now the Haas School of Business and widow of businessman Calvin Townsend, also an alum.

From the beginning, the center has existed to stimulate and foster innovation in scholarship, and has worked to build and support new programs that take an interdisciplinary and forward-thinking approach. Over its 25 years, its portfolio of programs has grown steadily to reach across the campus and to involve scholars at every level — undergraduates, grad students and faculty.

It may be best-known for its most public events, including the Una’s and Avenali lectures, which bring renowned culture makers, writers, political thinkers, musicians and other great minds to campus. The richness of current public programming reflects the ongoing anniversary celebration. This fall saw environmentalist, essayist and poet Wendell Berry spend several days reading and speaking here as the Avenali Chair in the Humanities. Coming this spring are author Ursula Le Guin and musician Eddie Palmieri.

Tansman, who has a deep interest in human rights and has written extensively about Japanese fascism, also has helped the Center of Chinese Studies engineer a visit by Chinese musician/artist/pop star Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who works with artist Ai Wei Wei, one of China’s most powerful voices of dissent who was imprisoned for speaking out in 2011. Zuoxiao will be in conversation with the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins.

Most of the Townsend Center’s work is quieter than all this. “Behind the scenes, there’s a lot going on,” says Teresa Stojkov, associate director.

For example, Berkeley’s designated emphasis in critical theory grew directly out of a Townsend Center Strategic Working Group, a faculty research initiative.

Another example is the Social Apps Lab, now housed at CITRIS, which started at the Townsend Center in another of its programs called the Geballe Research Opportunities for Undergraduates. Two professors — James Holston, a political anthropologist, and Greg Niemeyer, a digital artist — had the idea of building mobile phone apps that would turn game players into urban anthropologists. Students in the social sciences joined with humanists in a project that involved researching their own cities. Now, all grown up, the lab is working on issues as disparate as dengue fever, asthma prevention and participatory democracy.

Yet another example is Berkeley’s human-rights minor, which didn’t spring straight from Townsend, but was helped along by it, Tansman says. He himself was part of a Townsend Center working group focused on human rights in the humanities; some of the same faculty and students in that group also worked on developing the minor. And a Course Thread in human rights — a cross-disciplinary Townsend Center curriculum initiative that is still functioning — was integral to preparations for the minor. (link ) “People came out of the woodwork to do this,” he says.

Now, as director, he’s working to link the center’s public events to human rights or “to dire social and political situations and the people who work in them or against them,” in order to help broaden the humanities-human rights nexus across the campus. Starting this year the center will be funding a human-rights lecture series.

But it is the Townsend Fellows program that is the center’s oldest and, according to Stojkov, its heart and soul. “It’s by far the program with the biggest impact on faculty and students,” she says.

Fellowships go to junior faculty and graduate students working on their dissertations. The fellows earn a stipend and meet weekly with senior faculty — around the same table where the center got its start — for discussions of their work as it moves along.

The Townsend Fellows serves as a model for other center programs. Strategic Working Groups, like the one that spawned the designated emphasis in critical theory, bring faculty together and provide time, space and funding for open-ended explorations that may or may not result in a new research project or course of study. This year’s is called Critical Prison Studies in an Age of Mass Incarceration.

The center hosts another 60 or so more informal working groups in which students and faculty take on research subjects ranging from hip hop to James Joyce’s novel “Finnegans Wake.”

Newer initiatives include Course Threads, which encourages undergraduates to make connections around a theme by taking courses with related content across varied departments, and the Townsend Humanities Lab, an online space for experiments with digitals project and collaboration with others on campus and across the world. (links)

All of these programs share a common approach. “We like to see projects that bring together the humanities, the interpretive social sciences, the physical sciences,” says Stojkov. Why? “It’s intellectually the honest thing to do.”

Stojkov coordinates the center’s digital-humanities working group and tells of a student who visited her office earlier this year. “She said, ‘I’m a computer scientist and I am hungry to know what problems you guys need solved,’ “ she recounts. “And I thought, ‘That’s why we do what we do.’ “

Tansman’s hope, near the start of his directorship, is to serve as an “accurate conduit of faculty interest and energy, and to help channel that.” If some of his initiatives live beyond his five-year term, so much the better. “Personally, I hope there’s a strong teaching component” in whatever endures, he says, and that “work gets channeled back to the students.”

All of his initiatives — so far — have the humanities talking with the concrete world, about real-life situations, “and in many ways the humanities are and can be equal partners in that conversation,” he says. But he adds, “Having said that, I think there still should be people working on things that seem obscure and esoteric and appear to have nothing to do with any of the ‘real world’ out there.”