In a small studio in Plymouth city centre, a strange creature is about to give a historic performance. The creature is neither plant nor animal; neither fungus nor mineral, and yet it’s set to star in an intricate piano duet. It is, in fact, a slime mould, and we’re gathered to watch the world premiere of BioComputer Music – the first piece of music composed for an interactive biosystem.
Eduardo Reck Miranda (background) plays BioComputer Music while PhD student Ed Braund adjusts the equipment (image credit: Lloyd Russell, Plymouth University)
This unconventional collaboration was one of the highlights of this year’s Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth, which celebrated its 10th anniversary with a programme of music inspired, and even created, by biological processes. Hence the slime mould.
The slime mould in question is Physarum polycephalum – a canary yellow, single-celled organism that looks and behaves like something out of a horror film. Although composed of only one cell, the slime mould has the ability to form an oozing, gelatinous substance that slowly engulfs anything in its path. It typically feeds on the microbes in rotting plant matter but, weirdly, it’s also quite partial to oat flakes.
BioComputer Music is the brainchild of the festival’s co-director Prof Eduardo Reck Miranda, who is also head of Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR). Miranda’s biocomputer comprises a slime mould that’s been cultured in a customised circuit board, complete with tasty oat flakes. Changes in resistance across the slime mould’s tendrils are converted into electrical commands that activate electromagnets placed on the piano strings, creating sounds.
But the duet is a two-way process, and Miranda’s piano part is also converted into an electrical signal that’s fed back to the slime mould, allowing the organism to react and subtly change its tune. The result is an eerie, otherworldly duet that David Cronenberg will surely be snapping up for the soundtrack to his next film. (On the subject of films, The Creeping Garden is a fascinating, beautifully shot documentary about slime moulds that was also shown at the festival… it’s well worth checking out.)
Elsewhere at this year’s festival, Miranda also premiered Corpus Callosum – a musical representation of the composer’s brain activity as he listened to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. There were no slime moulds in this piece. Instead, the music was provided by the university’s Ten Tors Orchestra, divided into two to represent the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Also in the same concert, we were treated to the dynamic, arresting DNA by Lithuanian composer Linas Baltas, Anandi Sala Casanova’s haunting The Hidden Sea, inspired by Plymouth itself, and Alexis Kirke’s Orchestral Processing Unit – an exuberant, fugue-like piece that recast the musicians as elements in an electrical circuit.
The musical highlight for me, though, was Unfolding | Clusters, an audio-visual installation by Federico Visi, Duncan Williams and Giovanni Dothel. This piece explored amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a devastating disorder – also known as motor neurone disease – in which degeneration of the motor neurones leads to progressive paralysis and ultimately death, usually within only three to five years. Data relating to the disease’s development was here converted into a pulsating soundtrack of multilayered electronica, with the piece becoming more disordered and dissonant as the nervous system gradually lost control over the muscles. It was an evocative representation of the disease, and a powerful way to get people talking about ALS, for which there’s still no cure.
And that’s really what makes this festival such a fantastic event. The music provides an accessible and creative way in to the science, helping people to explore complex topics ranging from neuroscience and genetics to maths and ecology. BioMusic was a captivating fusion of science and art, and proof that beautiful music can come from the most unlikely of places – even amorphous blobs of slime.
James Lloyd is editorial assistant at Focus magazine