Saturday 18 September 2010

Guided by eminent neuroscientist Professor Vincent Walsh, Faster Than Sound will explore the rich scientific, sound and visual world of the brain and the concept of Small World organization (more popularly known as six degrees of separation).

The composers are joined by Loop.pH, a design and research studio set up by Rachel Wingfield with Mathias Gmachl, who will create a reactive
installation around this theme.

This promises to be another surprising and thought-provoking Faster Than Sound, following on from the inspirational Music and the Brain series in this year’s Aldeburgh Festival.



Click here to see the full gallery for this event


Click here to see the video for this event

The following has been taken from the handout from the event which should explain a little more…


An introduction by Vincent Walsh…

Why the arts are not behind us

The use of scientific ideas as a springboard for artists is not new. Explorers in both domains of activity have long sought insights from one another and indeed the apparent segregation of the two communities through education and professional protectionism is recent and in many ways artificial. Understanding sounds and creating instruments requires some appreciation of numerical concepts – think of the long, complicated journey of equal temperament – and there is a long list of scientists who have taken inspiration from the arts. Both communities are offering descriptions of the world, and both are trying to understand the world: with different tools, and different consequences for sure, but with many parallels too.  It was with a roll of my eyes and a tired feeling of distress, then, that I read recently a senior UK scientist and Fellow of the British Academy stating that “unlike in…the arts, in which the best work is behind us, the best is yet to come in science”. Today’s Faster Than Sound event shows why this view, which I’m happy to say is a minority view among scientists and a non-existent one among intellectuals, is nonsense. In science we feel comfortable stating that every answer we get generates another hundred questions and that our venture is therefore endless. It follows then that if artists simply responded to or used scientific ideas their quest would be equally endless. But of course they respond to much more than science. Science throws up new descriptions of the natural world and new questions about how we live – today we are thinking about GM, synthetic biology, brain implants, surrogacy, nuclear power, water shortages and diseases of old age as we live longer. Artists respond to this and help us to understand and confront these questions; they are an indispensable part of how we interpret the world in which we find ourselves.

Noises in your Head

The first scientific source for today’s Faster Than Sound is human brain imaging. The use of brain scans is now common in research and medicine and the musicians and artists wanted to explore the sounds of the scanners. Functional Magnetic Resonance Brain Imaging works by detecting the changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity – when a brain area is more active it consumes more oxygen and to meet this increased demand, blood flow increases to the active area. The detection is made possible by the large magnetic fields in the scanner which cause nucleic atoms (protons) in your brain to align (think iron filings in your head). The stronger the field, the greater the alignment, which produces a magnetic signal we can measure. The nuclei that are measured in MRI are in the Hydrogen nuclei of water. When the field is on, your protons line up; when the field is off they relax. The difference between energy in the lined up and the relaxed state is what we measure as the signal. When you use a part of your brain it requires more oxygen and that results in the transport of more oxygen and other materials to that part of the brain. By comparing how much oxygen is delivered when you are using a part of your brain with when you are not using it we can generate the pretty pictures you see when you read news stories about the function of a brain area. The MRI brain scanners are noisy. Very noisy. The noise is due to the rising electrical current in the wires of the magnets being opposed by the main magnetic field. The stronger the main field, the louder the gradient noise. I have always liked the noise. It is rhythmic, hypnotic, energetic and joyous (I have ruined many colleagues’ experiments by zoning out and even falling asleep to the relaxing nature of these sounds). I knew that Loop.pH, Mira and Anna would love the sounds too and, as you will hear, they have dived inside the scanner and its sounds. You will hear the pulsating power, the seductive drone and enveloping hum transformed in these pieces to produce magic.

Watching and listening to Anna, Mira and Loop.pH during this residency I have learned a lot about something I thought I already knew. The energy, inventiveness and intellect brought to bear on the scientific ideas were impressive to experience and it was a privilege to be allowed on the inside of these creative processes. The world is a complicated place of networks, timing and communication. Scientists have a key role in describing, understanding and helping us to navigate the world, but we should be careful of complacency: not only is it an ignorant conceit to think that the best of art is behind us, it is important to know that in some areas of life, the arts are always ahead of us.

 And that World is….

…Small. “Small World” is more than a cliché – it’s a deep truth. One of the important ideas behind today’s performances is that we all find ourselves in the same world and that world is made of many small worlds that are richly interconnected within themselves, but always weakly interconnected with each other. This small world concept is something you already understand. You probably understand it as Six Degrees of Separation: you know Mr Smith, who knows Mr Jones (who you don’t know), who knows Mr Thomas who neither you nor Smith nor Jones knows, etc and Mr Brown knows Mr Obama. So there you are, six steps from the world’s Mayor. Our social circles are all interacting strands of such connectedness and, so it seems, is everything else in the world. The idea of small world organization has proved to be a powerful description of how brain networks develop, how man made power grids are built, how the internet operates and how disease can spread. If you grasp the six degrees of separation idea, you are half way to understanding a powerful scientific description of the world.

The artists in Faster Than Sound have embraced and articulated this idea to incredible effect. Working with them as they developed their project (the poor darlings had no idea that the best in art is behind them by the way), I realized that scientists and artists sometimes work in similar ways. Mira Calix and Anna Meredith immediately allocated their musicians into small worlds and began to explore how they could be interconnected physically and musically. In fact before writing their pieces they arranged the set for the musicians. What you will see will be different communities of notes (musicians) communicating according to degrees of separation.

Loop.pH also surprised me. I expected a 3-D visual sculpture but soon realized that I would be immersed in a soundscape and inside a network of small worlds connected by light. Their piece encapsulates yet another feature of the physical world: self similarity. The whole network is replicated in each part but at a different scale. And within the smaller networks of the branches there are similar smaller networks within the twigs, and within the twigs…  

Professional Musicians Keep Time…

…well, sometimes. Calix and Meredith needed to explore a second scientific idea – the idea of Sync – to complete their small world picture. Synchronization is ubiquitous: your heart pacemaker cells do it, your brain cells do it, fireflies do it, planets do it, menstrual cycles in all women institutions do it, your body clock does it and when jet lag undoes it you realize the importance of synchronized mind-body functions. Understanding the nature of synchrony is a fast moving and exciting field of science. Different signals and mechanisms cause all these things to synchronize, but one thing we know is that nature keeps good time and she keeps it through synchrony.

In their joint piece the composers have used metric modulations and some sneaky surprises for the musicians to bring them in and out of sync. You will experience the resonance and role of sync in these pieces as just as important as resolution in harmony.

Vincent Walsh, 18 September 2010


by Mira Calix

I have been un/fortunate enough to have found myself tightly wedged inside in an M.R.I. machine twice in my life. On both occasions, they were scanning my brain, and the best I could hope for was that they’d find nothing there. My greatest fear was that the machine would come to a juddering holt as someone ran in screaming that they’d found a golf ball sized object lodged in an inappropriate place. But then anything wedged inside the brain is, by default, inappropriate. And so, my debut trip to the M.R.I. was filled with trepidation.

That first occasion I turned up completely unprepared. Of course I’d seen images on film of this white beast of a machine, so futuristic, like something out of Space Odyssey 2001. I found its sleek, spherical body and shiny surfaces extremely attractive, and perhaps I was rather enamoured with the machine even before our first, somewhat difficult, meeting. Of course, all these feelings of awe and angst, which I’m struggling to articulate, were wrapped up in my medical situation. I was the patient. I was searching and hoping for answers.

So there I lay, zipless – stripped of metal, waiting to slide into the tunnel and keep still, very still. Not only was I terrified about what they might find, I was scared about moving, even a twitch. A claustrophobic squirm could ruin it all. As a patient, you’re repeatedly told not to move and not even the smallest amount of metal is allowed anywhere near this giant magnet. They really hammer this home, and so the mental build up to the tunnel is long and pressurized. Then they lock your head in. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about. But here was to be some solace; I had been told to bring along my favourite CDs. Music was to be my comfort blanket.

Or not! Nobody had warned me about the NOISE!

Imagine sticking your head inside a pneumatic drill. Without earplugs! In order to take images, magnetic fields are created between the coils in the M.R.I, and what you hear varies between 90-140db of tones, overtones, and throbbing rhythm, which, other than volume, pretty much describes the album I took in. That (shall remain nameless) seminal electronic album didn’t have a chance in hell. I couldn’t hear a thing. All the frequencies of the music and the machine merged together, only the machine sounded more beguiling, more avant-garde and way more interesting to me. The M.R.I. goes through a series of sequences, and each one has its own distinctive sonic imprint. In between each is a brief rest, during which the music I brought came flooding back in… friend, a sliver of peace, a hand-hold. A moment to tremble – then again it started, the music lost.

As for me – on my second M.R.I. expedition – I went armed with my favourite string quartets. I felt they would bring out the compliment and contrast with the overwhelming scope of the sound of the machine. This time the sonic landscape was less of a frequency battle and a much more harmonious experience all round. It’s this extraordinary experience, these everlasting sonic impressions, that I have carried with me. It’s the invariable emotional backbone of Zipless.

Lastly, I’m happy and relieved to report that nobody found any golf balls in my brain. Lucky me, I’m empty up there.


by Anna Meredith

My ideas for this piece completely changed when I met the MRI machine – it’s amazing.

It’s easy to feel quite intimidated around the actual machine – respectfully tiptoeing around the line where the huge magnetic field really kicks in and worrying that my dental implants might ping out of my skull at any moment.

The sonic experience of being there is immersive and brutal. However, playing with the recordings at home I found that layering the samples up created a very different experience for me. And the sounds started to feel quite organic and expressive – maybe even joyful or exuberant (though that could be just me….!)  For my final piece I’ve layered the MRI recordings into 5 little evolving chord sequences and the sting quartet fizz in and out of the machine texture.


by Anna and Mira

Our collaboration has focused on two themes – synchronicity and 6 degrees of separation.
As we are both normally more instinctive, visceral composers, we thought that this week long residency would give us an opportunity to explore system based music as a way of creating this piece.

When we spoke to Vincent about the principles of synchronicity he frequently mentioned the example of emerging patterns of fireflies and how they group together and flicker as one.  It was such a striking image and we wanted to bring this pulse of light into our piece.

The second theme of 6 degrees of separation is a theory of the movement of information – whether that be in the brain or gossip amongst a group of friends.  We the performers provide six musical elements which inform one another and build the piece as a whole.  The number six has played an integral part of tine, there are 6 relationships in a quartet, and it is this connection between six and four that is at the core of the systems we made.

At times its been an overwhelming challenge, a lot of sleepless nights but we’ve so enjoyed exploring a new way of working together and benefitting from the creativity of the players and the vision of Loop pH.

Neural Nest

by Loop.pH

We have been introduced to the fascinating and complex field of neuroscience where there is still so much to be understood and discovered, and invited to respond to the pioneering work of Vincent Walsh. During the residency we found a commonality and shared language in the holistic perception and cognition of space, number and time and created an immersive, animated installation that marries digital media and organic matter.

A neural nest suspended above the string quartet and audience was constructed from a series of trees, no longer living – smashed, fragmented and reconfigured in space within a highly ordered grid-work of electro-luminous strings that synchronizes its movement with the musicians position in space. The projected images running throughout the performance illustrate fleeting MRI intrusions and slices into Mathias’ skull – revealing the awesome images of the brain in action.

We were drawn to contrast and harmonize the objective reasoning of empirical scientific study with the complexity and interconnected nature of natural structures.
The use of a tree in its obvious form celebrates the branching, fractal patterns and formations found within network organizations from neural networks, biological structures to galaxies and the flow of air and water. It also illustrates how we objectify nature, simplify it and break it down in order to further understanding.

We have questioned how to communicate complexity, understood how science is made of many incremental discoveries from many scientists, and most importantly how to celebrate a trans-disciplinary practice looking for connections, crossovers and shared understandings from the fields of biology, neuroscience, classical and electronic music as well as the visual arts.

This has certainly been an important and mind expanding collaboration.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Comments are closed.