Hidden Music Overview

Everything we do is Music – TedX Groningen 2016

The material in this portfolio are all examples of the musical translation of scientific data, natural processes and other ‘non-musical’ material, an area in which I have been actively working for over 15 years. In fact, the roots of the project run earlier, when a childhood spent at CERN and inspired by both the physics research I witnessed and a deep immersion in music permanently entangled the conventionally distinct fields of science and music. Despite the best efforts of the educational system these fields have remained interweaved – through an investigation in both the science of music, and what might be called the music of science – the ethos of this Hidden Music portfolio. A brief background and context to the project is available in the accompanying TEDx talk

A foundational piece in this ongoing Hidden Music series is Bloodlines (2004) where – during my treatment for leukaemia – daily blood results were translated through digital audio technology into an electronic composition – with each second of music derived from each day of treatment – the polyphonic swells, dips and interactions are formed through biological process rather than compositional whim. The resulting work emerges not from an emotive responsive to the experience, but through the inner biological dramaturgy – an auto-biological rather than autobiographical expression. This piece – in collaboration with my sister, writer-director and bone-marrow donor Dr Alex Mermikides – was later reworked into a hybrid lecture-performance which “sought to forge a theatrical form that might capture and convey the disruptions of self and embodiment experienced by people undertaking stem-cell transplant for haematological cancer” (Mermikides 2021). Bloodlines (2013-2016) premiered at the Science Museum, London and has been performed, broadcast and disseminated widely for the arts and science academic community, medical practitioners and students, those affected by blood cancers as well as shared to a public audience of millions on (BBC Radio Midweek). Bloodlines delegates significant compositional authority to biological and natural processes, turning the composer’s role from conscious author to the effective communicator, curator and ‘conductor’ of this otherwise hidden music.

This shifting of the composer’s responsibilities from inventor to effective communicator is a characteristic of the project, and involve collaborations with a wide range of practitioners and institutions, including Dame Evelyn Glennie, Professor Morten Kringelbach (Music in the Brain Institute, University of Oxford), Professor Sophie Scott (Royal Institution Lecturer), Suzy Wilson (Performing Medicine), microbiologist Professor Simon Park, Professor Vince Walsh (UCL Neuroscience), Royal College of Nurses and RAL Space. Keynote presentations have been delivered at the Royal Physiological Society, the Royal Society of Medicine, The British Sleep Society, Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts, British Psychosocial Oncology Society, International Guitar Research Centre, Canterbury Christ Church, British Psychological Society and the European Sleep Research Society. The project has involved residencies, workshops and masterclasses to contemporary artists at the Frank Mohr Institute (Holland), electronic musicians at the Ableton Educational Tour (in Scotland and Berlin), to medical students at St. Bart’s Hospital, and to over 1200 trainee nurses. Public exhibitions and broadcasts of works have been given at the Design Museum (London), Cheltenham Science Festival, Rose Theatre, Ableton Loop Conference, NECSS (New York), BBC Radio 4 Inside Science, Stadium Generale, BBC Radio Midweek, a 2-part series on BBC Radio 4 (The World as an Orchestra with Dame Evelyn Glennie), a concert of data at the Noorderzon Music Festival, Sage Gateshead, British Library, New Scientist, BBC Radio Scotland and for the carbon-neutral CARE conference, a simultaneous broadcast of pieces to local audiences in Germany, Japan, India, Turkey, Slovakia, Hungary, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Israel, Netherland, South Africa, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, China, Austria, Serbia and Russia.

In contrast to conventional approaches to data sonification. Compositional technique, technological resources and bespoke translation systems are now employed not to impose but to reveal musical patterns and structures, and in so doing shared concepts and processes between scientific disciplines and music are identified and developed. These include phasing found in both minimalism and sleep disorders (49:48), the complex polyrhythms and microtonal tunings of planetary systems (Distant Harmony) Euclidean distributions in harmonic structures and seating decisions (Take Your Seats) and hidden Markov chains in harmonic templates and in human sleep transitions (Transitions from Sound Asleep).

What distinguishes this portfolio from conventional ‘art/sci’ practice (see Kahn 2001, Wilson 2010) is that the communication of salient data is foregrounded and entirely systematic. Systems acknowledge Hermann ’s four criteria for data sonification (Hermann et al. 2011), here summarised as 1) repeatability (same data produces the same results) 2) rule-base (data is translated systematically) 3) relevance (pertinent data and translation systems are selected) and 4) recognisable (significant differences within or between data sets are recognised sonically/musically) – see for example the 3 Nocturnes in Sound Asleep. These ‘rules’ are serviced and maintained with a wide range of established compositional techniques and theoretical systems – but many projects forge novel compositional ideas that are readily adopted in conventional compositional practice. A small sample of such compositional techniques gleaned from the natural and physical world include micro-rhythmic waves (sourced from translating a complex Newton’s cradle), bonded melorhythms (from the orbital frequencies of planets), nested palindromic structures (inspired by the translation of architecture into music), note distribution frequencies (discovered while translating literature to pitch), heartbeat grooves from a range of animals, arpeggio exercises based on horse gaits (including the novel Icelandic tolt), and a non-serial, provable avoidance of repeatability (from Irrational Music), and musical palettes (from the translation of paintings). There are of course countless other techniques waiting to be found beyond the handful we have inherited in our musical cultures. Such discoveries (for me happily) displace the human from the centre of musical authorship and adjudication to an interactive collaborator in a wider world of musical patterns and patterns. Such insights blur the boundaries between science and musical communication, defuse obsessions with ‘talent’ and give voice to otherwise unheard patterns in the biological, sociological and natural worlds.

My initial explorations in this field were undertaken with great enthusiasm, but with little ability or perhaps incentive to articulate why such projects felt so compelling. I have only recently begun to formalise such reasons (should that be necessary) and they might be presented as (four Cs to complement the four Rs of sonification):

1) Visceral communication of data. We think nothing of gaining data about the world from graphs and tables, and yet the sonic domain is no less arbitrary or abstracted a medium, and in some contexts more sophisticated. For example, sound unlike a flat image, is temporally bounded, necessarily unfolding in time, and we as humans have developed sophisticated auditory predicative systems that may be readily exploited. For example the late flourishes in the systematic translation of climate change (Four Warnings) are genuinely alerting in the most primal sense. Te real-time realisation of population growth in Birth/Death (deaths in left hand of the piano, births in the right) engage in a way that the reported numbers do not, as does the spread and genomic evolution of disease (Outbreak, Chorus of Changes).

2) The cathartic ‘sounding out’ of otherwise hidden inner human experience (e.g. blood cell activity during leukaemia treatment (Bloodlines), the phasing and disrupted rhythms of insomnia (Sound Asleep) and the stressful schedule nurses’ work hours (Careful).

3) The endless sourcing of novel compositional techniques, and helpful constraints, which both quiet the ‘judging spectre’ of the creative process, and are transportable to ‘conventional’ compositional practice.

4) The formation of genuinely collaborative networks that dissolve the traditional delineations of scientist and artist, notions of exclusive creativity and knowledge, in the embrace of a universal conceptual and aesthetic language.

This portfolio includes a representative sample of many ongoing projects and has been subdivided into the more distinct Sound Asleep, Covid-19 Listening and Careful projects; alongside broad categorisations of geometric/mathematical process Geometudes, Biology & Nature, Earth & Space science, Human & Animal Behaviour and Slow Light – translations of images, artworks and skylines.

These are supported by documentation of Events & Presentations, the Technologies employed and some selected broadcasts and articles – Media.

Hokusai’s Wave in mid-translation.

Kahn, Douglas. 2001. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. 1st MIT Press paperback. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press.

Hermann, Thomas, Andy Hunt, and John G. Neuhoff, eds. 2011. The Sonification Handbook. Berlin: Logos Verlag.

Mermikides, Alex. 2021. Performance, Medicine and the Human. S.l.: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

Wilson, Stephen. 2010. Art + Science Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

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