From medicine to music

Dr. Robert (Bob) Burns Arnot (MDCM’74) reflects on his interest in music from a young age, his latest musical accomplishments and his humanitarian aid work.
Image by Paul Rogers, Stowe, Vermont.

Since he graduated from what is now the McGill School of Medicine in 1974, Dr. Bob Arnot has led a busy career in the hospital and the media. An award-winning journalist and the chief medical and foreign correspondent for NBC and CBS Broadcasting, Inc., he is also known as the host of the reality TV series Dr. Danger and has authored 15 books on nutrition and health. In parallel, he is the founder, and current and former board member of many humanitarian associations providing relief worldwide, as well as an artificial intelligence and health care specialist. 

More recently, Arnot became reunited with one of his first and longstanding areas of interest: music composition. We caught up with Arnot shortly after the release of The Cottonbrook Suite (2023), the first recording of his orchestral works. 

What sparked your interest in music and composition?   

When I was in seventh grade, I picked up a trumpet and found I could play it—there were no terrible sounds, no terrible notes. I then studied trumpet with Paul Gay, the chief trombonist with the Boston Pops; in eighth grade, I played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major (Hob. VIIe/1) all over Eastern Massachusetts. I was told that if I practiced hard, I could be the first chair in the Boston Symphony Orchestra by the end of high school. But my father refused, so that was the end of that.  

My whole life, I wondered whether I was a composer. I remember Edward Elgar, the famous British composer, who composed into his sixties and seventies, and I thought: “I wonder if I have it in me.” William Caplin, who is the James McGill Professor of Music Theory at the Schulich School of Music, wrote a phenomenal book on music theory which I read again and again and again. I then took courses on music theory, music composition, conducting, piano, cello, trumpet and singing, and built a curriculum for myself. 

Could you describe some of your works? 

Man writing music.
Image by Paul Rogers, Stowe, Vermont.
Arnot's first studio album, The Cottonbrook Suite, features some of his early compositions.
I started to write music and wrote “Great Spirits on Haunted Mountain.” I then wrote my first symphony, “Victoria,” in honour of a lieutenant colonel in the Armed Forces of Ukraine who had been captured by the Russians. And I wrote a double concerto for trumpet and violin, which is highly unusual. These works were recorded in Prague with the Czech Studio Orchestra and are included in my first studio album, The Cottonbrook Suite

I’ve since written three more pieces. One is called “Molokai” and is about the Moloka’i-2-O’ahu Paddleboard World Championships, a thirty-two-mile open-ocean race with twenty-seven-foot cresting waves. The second piece is a symphony called “The Birth of the Romantic Era” that encompasses most of the harmonic sequences from the classical era. The third is “Birth of Rock and Roll,” in which I take every one of the great harmonic sequences from rock and roll.  

I’m always trying to progress and keep my work interesting because, and I think that is the interesting thing about classical music, you hear new classical music everywhere but in the concert hall. It’s in the movies—think of John Williams and Hans Zimmer. It’s in video games. I think I’m in the perfect era to compose and I want to spend as much time as I can writing music. 

What are your ambitions for your music work and what are some influences?  

My chief ambition is to inspire. I am influenced most heavily by composers like Mozart, Beethoven, the Romantic era and even various dissonances. There’s this strange thing in music. It’s almost like someone saying: “We’ll take your novel, but you can’t use English sentences or grammar.” My take on this is that, similarly to Beethoven being influenced by the French attacking Vienna, we have the war in Ukraine, for example, and other crises. I think that colours my work, but I’m also striving to get as good as I possibly can. It’s a very intense journey: every single time I think I’ve gotten somewhere, I’m at the bottom again and there’s something new to learn. It’s a wonderful intellectual challenge. I take every suggestion into account so that I can inspire people with my music. 

Which piece are you most proud of?  

I think “Molokai” may be the best because it tells a story. The very beginning is like Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major (“Titan”), in which you have this very quiet, high harmonic. And this is what it’s like in Molokai first thing in the morning. It’s very soft, very quiet. A few birds here and there. A little wisp of wind, a little wisp of wave. But you know it will become ferocious, so there’s a little anxiety in the air, and you can hear the strings on tremolo. Then I have this lovely Hawaiian hymn written by Lorenzo Lyons. And then the wind goes, and the waves go, and they’re off to the races. The music comes to an andante as you get stuck out in the waves with thunder and lightning all around. There’s a rondo at the end, which is fast and represents the gigantic waves to conquer, before surfing safely towards the beach. It’s very dramatic. 

Let’s transition into your humanitarian work. What drives you in this area? 

I’ve worked with great organizations: Save the Children, the UN High Commission for Refugees, Artists for Peace and Justice and the US Committee for Refugees. I’ve always been drawn to this type of work. One of the reasons I went to McGill was because there was a great humanitarian department. Between my sophomore and junior years, I was in Kenya, where I worked in a government hospital and a mission hospital. In my senior year, I worked in Sierra Leone. I wanted to work with local doctors.  

When I got to CBS News, we covered the great floods in Bangladesh, the Rwandan Genocide, the civil wars in South Sudan and Darfur and the wars in Congo and Somalia. 

In 2022, I co-founded Health Tech Without Borders with Dr. Jarone Lee, who is Vice-Chief, Critical Care, at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. Health Tech Without Borders is a global non-profit organization that leverages digital tools and technology to provide communities with immediate access to health resources during sudden humanitarian emergencies. Since the launch of our Ukraine Telehealth Relief initiative, we’ve done 180,000 telemedicine visits with people in Ukraine. We have little echo devices that can replace MRI on the front lines. We partnered with Microsoft to create a hollow lens so that someone at Harvard can look at the hands of a surgeon in Ukraine and direct them. I find international humanitarian work fascinating.  

What about future plans? 

I’m doing the World Championships of Ski Mountaineering and will probably be participating in the Nordic World Ski Championships. 

I will also be conducting one of my symphonies, either in Prague or Vienna, which will be fascinating. And my next album will be coming out.  

And with Health Tech Without Borders, I want to marry artificial intelligence to telemedicine. For example, if you are in a remote clinic, you can take a picture of somebody’s bite and AI will tell you what that person was bitten by, or what kind of skin cancer they have. We can take an X-ray and AI can help us with the diagnosis. It’s all very exciting. 

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