On Saturday night I had the privilege of being at the 150th Anniversary concert performance at Plymouth University. Drawing inspiration from the sea, the concert was commissioned by Peninsula Arts and programmed by Peninsula Art’s Director of Music, Simon Ible. The results were sublime.
BAFTA award-winning composer Nick Ryan began the evening with an introductory talk, where he described how, reflecting on his father’s early tragic death, he became inspired by physical and metaphorical divisions, in particular the meniscus layer – the surface tension or divide between air and water – which he translated into a powerful metaphor for the thin divide between reality and memory, life and death – as reflected in the title of his work ‘As above, so below’. Nick explains;
“The piece is slow, smudged, romantic, longing, frozen and suspended, just as in my imagination. Abrupt changes in timbre represent the emotional and physical differences between the space above and beneath the sea and changes in tempo are conceived as differences in the speed of mechanical transmission of sound in air and water. The melody acts as a messenger between worlds, determined to resolve the discord in both and bring about symmetry between them – ‘As above, so below’.”
Many of the musicians involved in the Plymouth University 150th Anniversary concert work across disciplines, utilising the latest research within science and technology to create and advance new forms of music. Eduardo Miranda (Professor in Computer Music at Plymouth University) heads up the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Research (ICCMR) and performed ‘Raster Plot, Anathema’ the second of three intermezzi in ‘Sound to Sea’ a symphonic choral work with 4 movements, premiered by Ten Tors Orchestra on 22 September at St Andrews Minster Church, Plymouth. ‘Anathema’, which literally means ‘cursed’ in Aramaic, combines musical patterns generated by computer simulations of neuron activity with the singing and recitation of extracts from Robert Falcon Scott’s last diary to the South Pole.
Continuing with an interdisciplinary theme Alexis Kirke (Research Fellow, ICCMR) produced ‘Distinction‘, a 12 minute composition, which merges scientific knowledge with 18th Century poetry – taking inspiration from the molecular chemistry of DNA and the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The piece included the low frequency sound of underwater earthquakes, the noise of evolving computer ‘artificial life’ algorithms, tubular bells, vibraphone and the voice of mezzo-soprano Juliette Pochin.
Will McNicol, a phenomenal guitar player and a recent graduate from the Faculty of Arts played two pieces ‘Breaking Waves’ and ‘By the Water’. Both performances were impassioned and evocative, tracing the movement of water from calm, to storm, and back again. Mike and Kate Westbrook performed a contemporary jazz interpretation of a prayer, acknowledging the continuing transformative power of the sea.
The event finished with ‘What Happens’ by PRS winner John Matthias (violin, voice), Adrian Corker (piano) and David Strang (electronics). Presented in two movements, each with 3 sections, the work was accompanied by a ‘Neurogranular Sampler’, a new instrument recently developed at Plymouth University that samples live recordings as the music plays, then re-presents “grains” of these sounds through a “network of neurons in a cortical computer model creating a sonic texture with the rhythms of the firing patterns.”
The pieces, though very different, were all highly charged and emotive, evoking a serious mood, representative perhaps of the somber and restrained times we currently find ourselves in. However undercutting the thoughtful mood was a palpable sense of new potentials and possibilities, enabled by the pursuit of creative and technological exploration. I left with a sense of optimism, enhanced by having experienced something new – through a series of beautiful aural sensations.
The creation of new forms of music, particularly those that incorporate classical music, is difficult and expensive but is incredibly important. It doesn’t happen much outside of London so for Plymouth to recognize the importance of investing in continued support for new research into the development of remarkable new music and which interestingly crosses art and science disciplines, is worthy, I feel, of an accolade or two.
So now the hard sell – or rather a way for YOU to both hear the above performances and to help support the continued development of new music. The CD and accompanying brochure are available to purchase at Peninsula Arts (01752 585050) – buy it – you won’t be disappointed.
Director, Peninsula Arts
For further information on all contributors please see the 150thanniversary brochure.
Cover image & programme design by Daniel Jones adapted from ‘That Mighty Sound’ 2012.