Molecular Mimicry – BCMG Resolution Project

As I posted about a few months ago, earlier this year I was involved in BCMG’s Resolution project, exploring scientific research through music and I composed a piece for secondary school students to perform. As part of my research, I drew a little storyboard which was made into a little film (thanks to Jonathan Lee). I’ve finally managed to put the audio recording of the performance by the students together with the animation. And here it is (make sure you turn your sound up – the beginning is very quiet):

Programme note:

Molecular mimicry’ is a term that describes the process of the body’s immune system mis-recognising its own antigens (particular proteins which live on the surface of cells) for those of a foreign pathogen and attacking itself. This piece explores the hypothesized process of the body developing Sjögrens syndrome.

Firstly the musical form of an oral bacterium called Porphyromonas gingivalis (P. Gingivalis) is heard:

Molecular Mimicry Melody

This bacteria, or pathogen, is very similar in appearance to some of the body’s own cells. In the music this is represented rhythmically similar harmonies. The melody and harmonies are locked into by another rhythm:

Molecular Mimicry Counter-melody

This depicts the way the body uses a ‘lock and key’ type mechanism when discovering and reacting to particular antigens. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIN5sSUlZWk

This in turn triggers an immune response – an alarm – and the body begins to attack itself. In Sjögrens Syndrome this takes a number of forms, one of which is that the tear ducts and mouth dry up, shown in the music by the change from loud resonant sounds into high pitched dry, scratchy sounds.

From Christmas to Easter…

…was a pretty busy time for me! In a good way!

I was involved in a number of projects, two of which have now finished for this year.

Firstly Resolution with BCMG. This was an intriguing science and music project which I blogged about previously. The final performance of this project was immense – the three secondary schools all did a joint performance which was really well received. I was so pleased with the way the young people reacted to the slightly crazy mix of science and contemporary music. They really engaged with it and pushed it forward in ways I didn’t imagine which was fantastic! Even created a rap about antibodies and antigens, which was awesome. I wrote a piece for the young people to perform entitled ‘Molecular Mimicry’ which was based on a theory of what the body does when it develops Sjögren’s Syndrome. Here’s the cartoon strip I wrote for it (no audio):

 

I was also involved with BCMG’s Imagine Compose project where I was working with one of Birmingham Music Service’s beginner instrumental ensembles to get them to be creative with their instruments. The exciting thing for me about this project was that you could see the children’s minds opening up to the new ideas and possibilities of their instruments. The group were fantastic – they were all really engaged and creative which made it fun. I went to their final performance at the Adrian Boult Hall in March and they actually performed a piece they’d created together. Here it is:

 

I have also been doing workshops with CBSO’s Birmingham History Project and CBSO’s Stay Tuned project – in fact you can catch fleeting glimpses of me here on this video:

Science & Music

Notes spilling onto page
Notes spilling onto page – if only it were this easy!

Over the past few weeks I have been working with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group on a project called Resolution. The project brings together science and musical composition and as part of it I am writing a piece for a group of young secondary school students to play, which is based on research into Sjogren’s Syndrome. It’s all very intriguing.

The scientist I have been working with is looking into specific theories of how Sjogren’s Syndrome might develop, as it isn’t really known. It’s amazing both how much and how little scientists know! So the piece I’m writing uses extra-musical information such as the ideas of bacteria, antigens, antibodies etc and I am trying to convey this information without it being too much of a story-telling exercise. Which is fascinating. And difficult. But fun. And challenging.

The trouble is that the information given to me by the scientist is very complex and abstract and although myriad different ideas are sparked off by the research, actually honing those ideas down to be more communicative of the science is quite tricky. It should be interesting to see how this pans out! It begs the question – can concrete scientific ideas ever be communicated successfully by a non-verbal medium?

Samples and Samples
Samples and Samples
A fake science experiment
A fake science experiment or an intriguing appetiser?

Y Gollyngdod: Mezzo-soprano aria with piano reduction

Finally got around to uploading this recording from October 2011. I posted about the project at the time which you can read here.

Anyway, hope you enjoy this!

A Compromising Composer?

A couple of weeks ago I was hanging around at work when I happened to get into a brief conversation with one of the players. He was rehearsing for BCMG‘s concert that evening and was playing in Gérard Grisey’s Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuilI asked him how things were going and he said something along these lines (I paraphrase) – I know it’s a very important piece, but it is an effort for me to practice it. It’s difficult to play, and doesn’t sound nice. Nevertheless, he implied that he was glad to be performing the piece.

Now if you have heard the Grisey, you can well imagine that the sole player practising in their own time, would have trouble motivating themselves to repeatedly practice what could possibly sound pretty horrendous. However, as an ensemble, the piece sounds fantastic.

The thing is, I know that this particular player had in fact practised and is dedicated enough to the music to put the effort in to perform things correctly because he sees the vision and can consider the bigger picture of the whole piece. But what happens if you have performers who aren’t that dedicated? The Grisey performance could have been a disaster. (It wasn’t – it was fantastic!)

So: should composers consider what performers want to play? Should composers think about what the performer will have to go through to practice the piece? What if the performer doesn’t see the bigger picture of the whole ensemble performance? Should the composer write music assuming that all players will be dedicated enough?

Should the composer just push through with his overall vision for the piece without considering the needs of the individual performer?

Does the composer need to compromise on his music in order to get the best out of the performers?

Grisey certainly didn’t… but should he have?

Recent goings on – BCMG, Soundbeam, Katya Kabanova…

This week I started back at BCMG doing maternity cover for the Learning Co-ordinator post. It’s great to be back at BCMG and I am enjoying the challenge that my new role is bringing! My brain is filling up with scheduling, budgets, safeguarding etc etc…

I’ve also recently being shadowing Richard Shrewsbury doing primary school workshops in the Telford area. We’ve been experimenting with Soundbeam which has been great fun. The children in the workshops have really loved using it (as have I, although it does have its frustrations!) For those who don’t know, Soundbeam uses up to four ultrasonic sensors as well as footswitches to trigger sounds which get played through speakers. It means that users can create music with their movements by cutting through the beams. Great fun! Although the ultrasonic sensors make a really irritating buzz…

I’ll hopefully have a bit of news to share in a couple of weeks about work in Telford, so watch this space…!

Last night I went to see Welsh National Opera perform Janacek’s Katya Kabanova at Birmingham Hippodrome which is a beautifully written opera with a heart-wrenchingly sad ending. I thought the staging of it was really neat, opening out and closing in depending on the scene. This evening was also the first evening in a ‘cultural exchange’ I am doing with one of my friends – I take him to opera, and he is taking me to a Krav Maga self-defence class… for which he has bought a groin guard (need I say more?). Anyway, he really enjoyed it which is ace – I must say we were both glad of the surtitles as our knowledge of Czech is limited…

Make an Aria at the Barber Institute – Y Gollyngdod

Monday was fun! I got to rehearse my aria – Y Gollyngdod – with mezzo-soprano Amanda Baldwin, Michael Rafferty conducting and Michael McCarthy directing. I was really pleased with the way it turned out and it was really nice to see it being rehearsed with real attention to the subtleties of David Roberts‘ libretto. Amanda was great, and was really enthusiastic about getting to grips with the aria which was great to see. Also, repetiteur Nicola Rose did a really nice job.

In the masterclass Nigel Osborne really got to the heart of my music and showed a great deal of insight and understanding which was really helpful for me. Having such a big focus from Nigel and the others on my music was incredibly revealing and taught me a great deal. It also made me pretty pleased with myself, because I think its a pretty decent piece!

Overall I think the project was ace – a great opportunity to really work with a writer and confront the challenges that collaborative opera writing can throw up, as well as really making sure I got to the heart of the text and considered the dramatic aspects. A big thank you to all the people involved from Music Theatre Wales, Welsh National Opera and BCMG. At some point we may even get round to finishing the opera!

For now, David and I are going to work on a few songs – he tells me he has some poems he reckons would be good so it’ll be interesting to get my teeth into them. Speaking of teeth, I’m having really awful toothache  – I think from my wisdom teeth. Sad times.

Anyway, hopefully I should get a recording up here pretty soon, so please come back when its around!

Make an Aria – public masterclass at the Barber Institute

On this coming Monday (10th Oct) from 5pm til 7.30pm there will be a public masterclass of four new arias written for the Make an Aria project, and I have written one of them!

The project is through Welsh National Opera, Music Theatre Wales, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, The University of Birmingham and Birmingham City University (Birmingham Conservatoire). There were four composers and four writers from the two universities and we were paired up. My writer was David Roberts, and we focused on a storyline which involved the intriguing and conflicting life of a communist Welshman. The aria is sung by his wife as she mourns his death and comes to the realisation that she has not really been able to live her life because of him.

If you fancy coming along, the  public masterclass will be at 5pm at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, which is a beautiful venue with a lovely acoustic.

See you there!

Summer School, Summer Cold, Summer Riots…

Sitting here coughing and sneezing over my computer… ridiculous summer cold, no idea where that came from, but it’s very annoying!

A couple of weeks ago I went as a ‘runner’ to the Sound and Music Summer School which was brilliant. I spent the week shadowing the excellent David Horne as he taught composition to 16 14-18 year olds. It was pretty awesome – some of the young people were amazingly talented and it was brilliant to be helping further their ideas. Some of these guys will go on to do great stuff! The summer school is a great opportunity to explore composing, and the young people were so so dedicated to the task, with many of them skipping their free time to continue composing! I had to force some of them to take tea-breaks…

In other, more sobering news, riots this past week have affected so many of us in this country, whether directly or indirectly. It saddens me  to hear the politicians harp on about tougher policing but not seeming to address the root causes of these problems – social injustice, poverty, hopelessness… Being tough on crime is not a long term solution and it would be nice to hear some politicians stand up and say as much!

Anyway, back to music… a few things to be working on at the moment – I’m writing an aria for Music Theatre Wales, Welsh National Opera and BCMG‘s Make an Aria project. Also writing some music to be performed with futuresonic at Birmingham’s Artsfest on 10th and 11th September. And trying to finish off my piece for children’s theatre and dance with Springs Dance Company premiering at Epsom Playhouse on 17th September. So busy busy busy!!!

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