Just back from an amazingly inspiring event at Snape Maltings, Suffolk…. TEDx Aldeburgh, hosted by Thomas Dolby. I was invited to present in a programme of really fabulous speakers and performers - Jennifer Stumm, Akala, Vincent Walsh, Hannah Brock, Peter Gregson, Nitin Sawhney, and the Modified Toy Orchestra… superb. For my allotted 18 minutes (which created a healthy boundary to make sure I was concise) focused on my passion to combine visual art and music, my approach to using technology in this quest, and how the work I was showing referenced the ideas of graphic scores. I took along my Piano Migrations installation to demonstrate, and there was flutter of interest around the twitchr online project too…. see the video here.
I was inspired to hear Jennifer Stumm expressing joy in what are technically ‘flaws’ in the design of the viola, and how these ‘failures’ are what give the instrument its individual, expressive qualities that speak more of ‘human-ness’ rather than striving for ‘perfection’. Akala was stunning in his ability to fluently demonstrate how the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s sonnets can work rhythmically equally well with a grime beat or hiphop. His assertions on who are and are seen to be custodians of knowledge was thought provoking – and highlighted in how he has introduced many young people to Shakespeare. Professor Vincent Walsh, neuroscientist, talked to us about creativity and the brain – a tricky topic, but very well presented with a focus on the importance of giving the brain downtime in order for the background processing to bubble away and give rise to new ideas… don’t forget about Archimedes stepping in the bath.
I was transfixed by the beautiful performance by young (aged 12!) Hannah Brock on her Chinese harp, the Guzheng, which was aptly followed by some thought provoking ideas around tuning systems, and how we percieve ‘pitch’ by Peter Gregson. Peter’s presentation looked into the subjectiveness of pitch and examined how tuning systems have evolved over time – eg. just intonation and well tempered – to the modern phenomena that is ‘autotune’, – so-called ‘perfect’ tuning. However, with all the complexity of tuning systems, there is no such thing. Reflecting back to Jennifer Stumm’s assertions that it is the ‘imperfections’ that encompass the real beauty of the viola, a performer’s relationship to pitch and tuning is very much part of their identity. That shifting and subjective phenomena of what a G# actually ‘IS’ gives us the essense of what makes an individual and engaging live performance by a listening, breathing, expressive human being.
Nitin Sawhney was enigmatically inspiring by sharing how he came to music, why he plays music, and finished with an intense, solo acoustic guitar version of his song Prophesy. We were then treated to Brian Duffy’s demonstration of how he has sonified the light from the stars by looking through telescopes at the night sky and then translating the frequencies of the light into sound frequencies. My favourite part of this was hearing him talk about the ‘pulsar’ – a rotating neutron star – discovered by Jocelyn Bell – (I am very taken by the story of her discovery which was recently featured on a BBC documentary). Anyway – if the rotation speed of the pulsar is fast enough, it can generate a pitch – so Brian asked a scientist to find pulsars with various pitches to work in a piece of music… clever stuff… The day was rounded off with an excellent upbeat performance by Brian’s Modified Toy Orchestra – hurray for barbie-arm-potentiometers…