Introducing a festival like no other: the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival...
In a blog entitled ‘Too much art in the capital? Move an orchestra to Bristol’, Gramophone’s Reviews Editor, Andrew Mellor, wrote: 'Where I’m from in Plymouth – the biggest city in the fourth biggest county in England – you’re lucky if there’s one concert performance from a professional symphony orchestra in a year. I had to move to Manchester to get the pick of two a week.'
Here is an alternative account of classical music in the South West. Plymouth does have its own professional orchestra. It is called Ten Tors Orchestra and runs a respectable annual programme of concerts in the city and its vicinity. Moreover, its Music Director, Simon Ible, is keen to perform new music. So yes, there is new classical music currently being made in Plymouth, perhaps even more so than in the nearby cultured cities of Exeter, Bristol and Bath. And what’s more, Plymouth is home to the annual Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival, which will celebrate its 10th year at the leading edge of science, music and creativity from February 27 to March 1 and enjoys an engaged and loyal audience.
A distinctive characteristic of the festival is its association with Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR). In fact, the festival was created in tandem with ICCMR. Originally, Simon Ible and I conceived the festival as a venue to showcase ICCMR’s research. The festival has evolved since then, but the research centre still continues to strongly underpin the festival’s programme. Their relationship is truly symbiotic. For instance, the impact of ICCMR’s research case study scored the highest possible accolade in the last Research Excellence Framework (the government system for assessing the quality of research in universities): 100% outstanding. However, this achievement would not have been possible without the festival’s outreach activity.
BioMusic is the theme of this year’s festival. It will explore ideas, instruments and sounds inspired by, and even created by, biological processes. Highlights will include a composition for saxophone and electronics charting the evolution of humpback whale song and a piano duet played between composer and biocomputer which harnesses the ability of slime mould to perform computational tasks. This innovative music biocomputer was invented at ICCMR.
On a personal note, I’m looking forward to the world premiere of my new composition, Corpus Callossum, which epitomises the practices and aesthetics that we have been nurturing through the festival over the past decade.
The composition began in the summer of 2012 when I travelled to New York to meet neurophilosopher Dan Lloyd and psychologist Zoran Josipovic. We met at New York University to conduct an experiment, which involved scanning the brain of people listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I subsequently used the brain data from three people (a young ballerina, Dan’s and mine) to compose Symphony of Minds Listening, in three movements, which was premiered at Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in 2013.
To compose the symphony I developed a piece of software which produces variations of Beethoven’s music using brain data. However, I was conscious that my ambition to avoid manually tweaking the outcomes from the software constrained my musical imagination. Hence, I felt a yearning to revisit this work and ended up composing a rather different piece of music altogether: Corpus Callosum, for an ensemble of 25 performers.
Corpus callosum is the part of the brain that connects and facilitates communication between its left and right hemispheres. The left hemisphere of the human brain is often associated with a more objective knowledge of the world. Conversely, the right hemisphere is largely associated with a more subjective interpretation of the world.
In order to compose Corpus Callosum I teamed up with collaborators at IRCAM in Paris and NOTAM in Oslo to further develop my software for composing with brain scans. This time I worked with data from my own brain only and I granted considerably more freedom to my aesthetic instinct. I divided the ensemble into two groups on the stage, representing the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The composition develops as a metaphorical dialogue between these two sides. Norwegian video artist Ellen Røed has produced a video with pictorial renderings of brain scanning data to accompany the performance.
As the revenue from my tax continues to be spent on too many orchestras in London (Mr Mellor’s commentary on this prejudicial cultural policy is spot on), I will probably never be able get the pick of two orchestral concerts a week in Devon. However, the festival we’ve got going in Plymouth is certainly very special. And I bet you will not find anything like it in the capital.
BioMusic – Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival will take place from February 27 to March 1, 2015. For more information please visit: www.pacmf.co.uk