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REVIEW: New Music by Emily Howard and PRiSM

Claire Frampton reviews Calculus of the Nervous System, an interdisciplinary event which took place on the 18th November in the Holywell Music Room.

Calculus of the Nervous System was an exciting showcase of musical works by contemporary composer Emily Howard and the PriSM team, hosted by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities). Emily Howard, Professor of Composition at the RNCM, is an Oxford Maths and Computer Science graduate, who directs PRiSM – a centre for creative collaborations between science and music. The pieces performed in this concert were inspired by 19th century mathmatician and pioneering computer scientist, Ada Lovelace, who worked on an early computer with Charles Babbage as well as developing ideas relating to computerised music.

Entering the performance space at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, the stage was set out for an orchestral performance, as well as featuring a machine with cylinders in a rectangular frame at the back of the stage. This turned out to be a playable machine, encompassing the themes of the evening and evoking historical computers – this was part of the performance of a new composition, Alter. The pieces were relatively short and were accompanied by panel discussions with Howard and other academics. In one discussion, it was explained that the image on the front of the performance notes was taken from one of Lovelace’s and Babbage’s doodles on beer mats about finding patterns in data. This is a document held by the Bodleian Libraries.

The first piece of the evening, Howard‘s Ada Sketches, written in 2011, was performed by the Britten Sinfonia and Soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons. The text expressed Lovelace’s perspective on mathematics and the development of the analytical engine. Towards the end of the piece, the lyrics imagined Ada’s thoughts about her place in history, asking if the world would remember her name. Beginning with spoken vocals describing by mathematical formulae, the piece featured percussion which mimicked the sound of the machinery. During the developmental section of the work, the music became more dramatic, with the acceleration of the percussion imitating the machinery sounds, building towards an exciting climax. The piece ended with spoken formulae.

The second performance featured new works commissioned by the Barbican, But What Are These Numbers? (Howard) and Alter (PRiSM, led by Robert Laidlow) which premiered in November 2019. Alter began with a musician operating the machine at the back of a stage, turning a handle so that the internal cylinders rotated through the mechanics. This created a whizzing sound, like aircraft taking off, while the added vocal part sounded like the screeching of unoiled cogs. Each section explored different ways of recreating the sounds of the machinery. The harp provided a mellow sound in one contrasting section, accompanied by a calmer, operatic vocal. Later on, the machine player explored different features, such as a release of steam, and a clicking handle. Marta Fontanals-Simmons sang over a recorded vocal element.

But what are these numbers? was inspired by Lovelace’s letters to her mother, papers which are held in the Bodleian Library. Howard explained during the panel session that, in structuring her piece, she chose to use an algorhythmic approach which is jumbled and re-organised throughout the piece. The beginning was dramatic and discordant; the vocal part could hardly be distinguished from the rest of the texture. In quieter sections, effects of the sound of machinery were made by brushing cymbals, and towards the end the sound of the gong was prominent.

This event was a rare and interesting opportunity to hear these pieces performed. It also offered a way to engage with the heritage of the Bodleian archives through a live medium. The evening proved that though events marking the bicentenary of the death of Lovelace happened 4 years ago in 2015, she is still an inspiration for new musical works; the unique way she combined science, technology and music is still a fertile source of interest to academics in these fields.

Thanks to Professor Ursula Martin and TORCH for the featured image which is taken from the paper that Lovelace and Babbage are discussing on their “beer mat”. It was originally published in Commentarii academiae scientiarum Petropolitanae 8, 1741, pp. 128-140

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