An adventurous festival combines music and science to explore mind and memory
Ever thought what goes through a ballerina, a philosopher and a composer’s mind when listening to a Beethoven symphony? This question prompted Eduardo Miranda, professor of Computer Music at Plymouth University, to compose his Symphony of Minds Listening, which received its premiere by the Ten Tors Orchestra under Simon Ible at the 2013 Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival on Saturday evening.
Taking real-time fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans from three people listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Miranda then analysed the data and reordered, recomposed and reassembled the material into three movements – one for each set of results. These new versions of Beethoven’s music showed how ‘different brains construct their own unique reality’. Such experiments can often impress on a scientific level but disappoint aesthetically and artistically, but Miranda’s Symphony of Minds Listening achieved a neat balance between both elements. It was also interesting to note the changing character of Beethoven’s ideas in each movement – visceral and dance-like in ‘Ballerina’, cerebral and dissonant in ‘Philosopher’, and broader and more architecturally conceived in ‘Composer’.
Such music-scientific synergies typify the spirit of adventure that has been a hallmark of the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival since its inception almost a decade ago. Working in collaboration with Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), this year’s theme was called ‘Sensing Memory’, and explored connections and associations between music past and present in a variety of ways. The first half of Friday evening’s concert at the Roland Levinsky Building featured 20th century harpsichord music by Kagel, Andriessen and Ligeti, energetically played (and sometimes sung) by Sara Stowe. Her programme drew on a wide range of sources, from Baroque chaconne bass to Chopin. The second half showcased more recent compositions for string quartet by Richard Norris, Duncan Ward and Matthew Slater. Enthusiastically performed by the Bergersen Quartet, Norris’s Mumbai Nights suffered from technical problems, but Duncan Ward’s Eugene Cruft’s Radio fared much better. Reimagining the music that double bass player Eugene Cruft would have heard whilst serving on the front line during the First World War, Ward crafted a subtle and evocative composition from a collage of war songs and tunes, such as ‘Stony Broke in No Man’s Land’ and ‘Roses of Picardy’, heard like fragile, flickering musical signals from a 1920s valve wireless radio.
Musical mind and memory also played an important role in Nick Coleman’s discussion of his memoir The Train in the Night, published last year. A music journalist with the New Musical Express for 25 years, in 2007 Coleman suffered acute neurosensory hearing loss, and his professional and personal life was plunged into chaos. Coleman lost the capacity to make any sense of music, but a meeting with famous neurologist Oliver Sacks persuaded Coleman to try to retrain and rebuild his musical cortex by listening to music over and over again. Drawing on a large reservoir of musical memories stored deep inside his mind in order to rehear once more, Coleman realised that we don’t hear with our ears but with our brains.
A similar sense of personal loss motivated Nick Ryan to compose As above, so below, performed alongside Miranda’s Beethoven Seventh Symphony deconstruction on Saturday evening. Born in Kenya in 1974, Ryan’s father died in a tragic accident when the composer was very young. The first part of As above, so below tried to evoke thoughts and recollections about Ryan’s father passed on to him by family and friends, while the second part – ‘Memory Realised’ – attempted to communicate the composer’s recent experiences of revisiting Kenya, having left the country 40 years previously. Memory was thus ‘sensed’ rather than ‘actualised’ in Ryan’s composition, and worked particularly well in combination with filmmaker Tom Kelly’s beautiful images of Kenya’s natural landscape.
Other events and performances included a series of compositions for solo guitar by Will McNicol motivated by his father’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, and a fascinating algorithmic film by Alexis Kirke, which took pulse, heartbeat and other biological signals from audience members in order to determine the narrative and plot pathway of a pre-recorded movie. The film’s ‘ending’ was therefore decided by audience members’ physical responses to what they were seeing and hearing. Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be experiencing Hollywood movies and listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the same way…
Gramophone reviewer Pwyll ap Siôn is senior lecturer in music at Bangor University. His monograph on The Music of Michael Nyman was published by Ashgate Press in 2007. Other books include The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music and an edited volume of Michael Nyman's Collected Writings (both due out in 2013).