The Dyson Symphony — A song of sound and science

The story of the unusual collaboration between a traditional, 80 piece orchestra and one of Britain’s leading technology creators to redesign the sound of music using technology.

Dyson on:
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Apr 23, 2018 · 11 min read

When it comes to technological advancements, the traditional orchestra hasn’t progressed much in the past 300 years. But what happens when you combine the engineering power of a modern manufacturer with the creative energy of musicians? The answer is far more challenging than a vacuum cleaner being switched on to play in time with the woodwind section of a philharmonic.


A grander overture

The violinists are tuning their strings, trumpeters are wetting their lips, and the conductor is tapping his baton for silence. The coughing and muttering of the audience settles as the auditorium falls silent in anticipation. And then suddenly, cutting through the quiet, a vacuum cleaner is switched on.

No, a custodian hasn’t unwittingly stumbled into the auditorium. This vacuum is centre stage; it is actually part of the orchestra, not being used to clean, but for the sounds it makes as an instrument.

Of course, vacuum cleaners aren’t usually noted for their musical qualities. Normally people don’t gather in concert halls to admire the cacophony of a stage being cleaned. Nor do they usually enjoy a fanfare of electrical fans or a duet of hairdryers.

And yet on the 13th November 1956, people did just that when the composer Malcolm Arnold performed a new arrangement at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Pictures of the rehearsal show as hard-nosed music critics like Sam Wanamaker and John Amis are reduced to tears of laughter as Arnold presents his work.

The piece, A Grand, Grand Overture, has come to be known as one of the greatest jokes in the history of performance music. Just as the full symphony orchestra and organ begin to reach their musical climax, they are all drowned out by the supplemental instruments of three noisy vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher. Then each ‘appliance player’ is systematically ‘silenced’ by a rifle shot before the ‘real music’ can continue uninterrupted.

Although it was undeniably amusing at the time, it could be argued that Arnold’s piece was nothing more than a parody juxtaposition of so-called beautiful music and ugly sounds. His use of appliances as mere noise makers is nothing more than the blast of an out of tune instrument or the ill-considered cough of an audience member — an interruption. It does not try to make a genuine instrument out of technology, or to fuse the worlds of modern technology and classical music. But is such a challenge even possible?

A chance discussion about “Arnold’s failures” after a charity opera performance at Doddington Hall triggered two men’s desire to answer this question once and for all.

The men in question were concert’s conductor, Toby Purser, and Sir James Dyson, who was hosting the event. Both agreed that it was (theoretically) possible to supplement an orchestra using appliances as instruments rather than just gimmicks.

But they wanted to go one step further and so decided to hold a composition competion to create an original piece of music that would “fuse classical music and Dyson technologies together”.

Both agreed this would take the shape of “a piece of Dyson music” inspired by and using the technology at the core of Dyson products. Neither of them imagined that months later the winning entry from this competition would be played at one of London’s most prestigious venues by instruments that didn’t exist before that performance.


A competition in composition

Unlike most composition competitions, there was no music to judge. Instead, entrants were asked to pitch an idea for a “piece of Dyson music” that would express the processes and values that the company uses to create technology. The winner would then get the chance to turn their musings into a melody.

16 candidates met with Toby Purser, Sir James and some of Dyson’s acoustics experts to discuss their ideas about how to make a piece which combined science and sound.

But according to Toby the “standout winner” was composer, David Roche, who brought “an incredible enthusiasm about using Dyon technology and a great idea about the creative process the company uses to design its products.”

Aged just 27, David has already had his work performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orion Orchestra, London Graduate Orchestra, Cambridge Graduate Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Grand Band, and The Assembly Project. He has also written “music about teeth, pioneering medical devices, strawberry picking robots, and balloons”.

Of course like all good invention stories, David’s Dyson composition began with a problem that needed solving. Namely, how do you make a piece of music about vacuum cleaners that doesn’t just contrast their overpowering noise with the idealised qualities of orchestral instruments?

To answer this question he turned to science, writing, for the first time, in a laboratory rather than a studio.

In order to fully utilise “the sound of a Dyson” David first had to explore what was sonically possible with the company’s technology.

During the composition of his piece David worked with over 50 Dyson sound engineers to understand the precise tones their technologies make. In particular, he found himself dissecting the core technology in almost every Dyson product: the motors.

With the help of Ben Mercer and Tom Ridley, two acoustics and sound experts at Dyson, David was given a ‘motor auraliser’ — a curious piece of software which “is designed to faithfully reproduce the sound that a V9 motor makes” — the same motor that is found in Dyson’s Supersonic hairdryer.

“It is interactive,” Ben explains “to such an extent that you can change the speed of the virtual motor in real time — you can even control it from a keyboard and play a tune on it.”

The V9 motor produces a range of noises from the rush of air through its impeller to the “whine” of fast rotating components. Ben and Tom also provided David with “several settings for the auraliser, which meant that he could change the frequency and volume to reflect “snapshots of V9’s noise signature at different stages in the motor’s development,” allowing David to genuinely explore the science behind how “that distinctive Dyson sound” was created.

He then altered the pitch a Dyson V9 motor produces in order to functionally use “Dyson ‘sounds’ as music.”

But he did more than just adapt the sound of the motor to complement the range of an orchestra. Every note, pitch, and frequency the traditional instruments play are all actually selected from the same family of sounds that go into the Dyson technologies. Essentially the piece is written in the language of Dyson.

As he explains: “I didn’t want to just supplement an orchestra with technological noises; instead the technology sounds are the music, the devices are instruments. With this piece of music,” David says explaining his piece, “I wanted to a produce something that expressed what I find exciting about the creative process — whether you’re making a new piece of technology or music. Or both.

“There is a serious and exciting component to Dyson that I discuss in the piece I’ve written about them,” he adds “it’s a discussion about the importance of failure and design process. You do things wrong until you get them right, that’s something I feel is part of my own creative output. That idea of persevering is an extremely positive thing and lets you constantly develop as an artist, or through technological advancement — or in this case both. Adding current technology to an orchestra is just a new way of developing art.”

What’s more, David isn’t the first person to envision updating the orchestra.

Technology has played a much more regular role than you might imagine in shaping the world of music. Instruments in particular are limited by the extent to which they can be technologically advanced.

Arguably it’s always been the case that they have simply followed wherever technology led. This is well documented; from David Edward Hughes’ invention of the microphone in 1877 to Cher’s first use of auto-tuning back in 1998 when she asked us if we “believe in life after love?” And both are just examples of technologies that shaped music as an industry. There are as many examples of technology unlocking the new acoustical and compositional regions of music.

One famous example involves perhaps of the world’s most renowned piano makers, Steinway & Sons. In 1854 Albert Steinway perfected and patented the last major addition to the grand piano: the ‘Sostenuto pedal’. Steinway’s invention allowed a pianist to selectively extend some notes without affecting any others being played. It allowed pianists to fundamentally rethink what was possible in their compositions and by 1857 it had become so popular that the concert piano would never sound the same again.

Although David would modestly recoil from such a comparison, his most recent piece he has moved music’s technological dial one notch closer to 11.

But that is just the beginning. His piece, named ‘Acoustical Anatomy’ after a term used by one of the acoustical engineers he met while touring Dyson, also has a couple of extra limbs in the shape of two unique and hitherto unheard instruments.


An instrumental interlude

Written into David’s piece are two parts which were written to be played by instruments which no one has ever played on stage before, and which at the time of writing were unbuilt — let alone playable.

Their creation started as a genial competition between Dyson engineers to create brand new instruments. Six teams designed, built and played their instruments competing, at first, purely for inventor’s bragging rights.

However, when David was visiting Dyson’s Malmesbury campus, where he was going to unveil his new composition, six musical contraptions were wheeled out for him to inspect. From a violin made using the plastic casing of a hand dryer to an air guitar that you play by tilting it up and down like a glam rock’n’roll star would with their electric guitar, each new instrument gave a short demonstration.

David, admired them so much that he decided to entirely rewrite his composition to include them on stage at the Cadogan Hall for the grand debut.

Two devices particularly tickled David’s keys. They were ‘Cyclophone’, a 6ft tall pipe-organ and ‘Amp-sichord’, twelve bladeless fans with a set of motorised plectrums used to play three tuned guitar strings on each.

The task of bringing together an 80 piece orchestra to play alongside Dyson machines fell to Toby Purser. The 43 year-old is the founder and lead conductor of the Orion Orchestra, which gives talented music college students and recent graduates “experience working at London’s leading concert venues, giving them the chance to work under the highest professional standards.” It would be the Orion Orchestra’s task to actually play these new instruments.

Talking about the aims of the collaboration, Toby simply says: “I didn’t have any preconceptions about it. I would like it to prove that technology and music can work together harmoniously, without sounding gimmicky.”

He continues, “I think it’s very important to stretch boundaries and see what can be done and so does Dyson. A xylophone is just pieces of metal, which have been pitched. So, we find out what the pitch is for a cyclone, or an motor, or what’s needed for a Dyson Multiplier to move some wind chimes, it’s all still serving a musical purpose. That’s the easy bit, making it sound good is the challenge.”


The symphony of Dyson

Speaking to the audience on the night of the performance in February, Toby described bringing a “Dyson symphony to life”. The most significant influence on the project was “the permission to fail” which Sir James Dyson instilled.

“As we attempted to perfect each individual element,” Toby continues, “we were allowed to not get it right, and where necessary, to start from scratch entirely.”

Of course, neither Toby, David, nor any of the orchestra’s players (and certainly not the Dyson engineers whose experimental instruments were centre stage) wanted to fail on the night.

Quite the opposite, both Cyclophone and Amp-sichord enjoyed their debuts. Some might say a little bit too much.

In order to pump enough air through its pipes, Cyclophone takes a little while to ‘warm up her voice’. Cyclophone bellowed air through her pipes for a good 30 seconds before first note appeared like some operatic soprano doing her breathing exercises.

Likewise, Amp-sichord appeared to have been possessed, or programmed, by Jimi Hendrix when, during its demonstration, it spontaneously decided to riff for a full seven minutes. Entertaining though the solo was for the giggling crowd, the engineers mercifully decided to pull the plug on the exhibition.

When the time came for David’s music, which he described “bright and celebratory”, the devices were both used to for the piece’s narrative arc which was meant to convey the progress of Dyson’s 25 years of technological invention.

To a layman, one repeated tone in particular will prove to be the most memorable from the entire score. This was an unforgettable (and clearly mechanical) sound which is unlike anything in a traditional orchestra, but probably very familiar to more modern music lovers.

Something which might have passed unnoticed was that this somewhat familiar tone was actually the ‘synthesised sound of a Dyson motor’ whirring into life. It was produced using a scientific understanding of which pitches and frequencies are most attractive to the human ear — and which, coincidentally, are used to make Dyson motors not just quieter but “nicer”.

Consequently, it is not a criticism to say that the “piece of Dyson music” had a distinctive sound. David’s composition is an almost whimsical score that evokes the metropolitan hustle and bustle of Gershwin. But since the score used never before played machines, it isn’t surprising that it doesn’t resemble anything you have heard so far.

As David says, “sounds are all musical. It might worry some people to use a motor, but it’s not so different to the sound of waves, which everyone thinks is beautiful. They’ve both got rhythm, they both have pitch. It just goes to show, anything can be a musical instrument and we should constantly think about what makes something sound beautiful.”

After the performance the Cyclophone in particular caught the imagination of the children in the audience who queued up to try their hands at a breathy ‘Mary had a little lamb’ or a very clicky ‘Chopsticks’. For the same reason nobody really compares the sound of a violin with an oboe, a piano with a saxophone, an electric guitar with a drum set, an instrument is only as good as the person playing it and the music written for it.

Who knows, by next year Dyson may have produced an entire orchestra to play at the Proms.

This article was originally publishing in Dyson on: magazine. Watch the video explaining the full story behind the Dyson Symphony to learn more about the people who helped to make this curious experiment a reality.

Dyson

Dyson is a fast growing technology company. Employing thousands of engineers and investing £7 million a week on research and development means we have plenty to talk about. We want to share our most important news, stories, and issues as we develop the future of Dyson.

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Dyson on:

Dyson’s quarterly publication about design, engineering and technology. Follow us @dyson_on to see what makes us tick.

Dyson

Dyson

Dyson is a fast growing technology company. Employing thousands of engineers and investing £7 million a week on research and development means we have plenty to talk about. We want to share our most important news, stories, and issues as we develop the future of Dyson.

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