If John Cage taught us one thing, it’s that music can exist beyond the boundaries of how we think of it. And that idea lives on in an intriguing little festival at Plymouth University – Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival – devoted to the common space where science and music overlap.
Effectively a public platform for research the university does year-round, it finds music in unlikely places. Last year I remember trying hard to be excited by small burping noises that were somehow bio-generated out of toxic slime mould. A real foot-tapper. And I’d accept that it’s a hit-and-miss affair to the extent that the science (which goes over my head) translates into viable performance.
But this year provided something closer to conventional entertainment: the theme being the human voice and how science can play with it. There was music by Eduardo Miranda that set texts in an invented language, complete with grammar and syntax; a concerto (also by Miranda) for beatbox and orchestra, featuring a female beatboxer of sonic virtuosity and sharp dress sense called Butterscotch; and an extended vocal duet based on algorithms derived from mapping the emotional contours of Lennon and McCartney lyrics, 1963-1980.
But the piece that summed up, strikingly and neatly, what the university is trying to do here had no vocal element at all. It was a purely instrumental score by Nuria Bonet, a composer born in Luxembourg (there can’t be many others), which took the all-too-familiar overture to Rossini’s William Tell and distorted its pitches, grinding them upwards in measures derived from collected data on climate change in the Swiss Alps over the past 150 years. To an unbriefed ear the result would have sounded like a lousy orchestra playing pathetically off-key.
But knowing that it followed rules, and what they signified, gave Bonet’s piece a sense of purpose, musically as well as morally. Sure, it was funny, and a touch pretentious. But it’s something I’ll remember, which is more than I could say for most of the new works I come across in grander contexts.
A new choral work, though, that deserves attention turned up in a London concert given at St Mary-le-Bow, in the Square Mile, by the Arcubus Ensemble: an accomplished a cappella group who have a close relationship with the composer Russell Hepplewhite. And on this occasion it was a vocal setting of Christina Rossetti’s Paradise: In a Dream poem, that pushed no boundaries, was far from cutting edge, and called for nothing in the way of slime mould … but demanded to be heard for being simply as it was: a thing of beauty, finely crafted. Good old-fashioned virtues shouldn’t be despised.
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