Music of the future

This weekend, brains will be making music — and not in the usual way. The Thinking Music Festival, Plymouth University’s annual Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival, starts this Friday, and its focus is to explore how advances in science and computer technology are changing music — from how it’s understood, to how it’s listened to, played and performed. We spoke to professor, composer and music researcher Eduardo Reck Miranda, one of the festival’s directors (Simon Ible, Director of Music at Plymouth, is the other) about some of the performances, and what the 21st century might hold in store for music.


Where did the idea for the Thinking Music festival come from?

Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival has always had a theme, since its first edition in 2006. This year’s theme is Thinking Music, an invitation to all participants to think about music: What is music? How does it affect us? How might music sound like in the future? While we are encouraging participating composers and performers to take risks, and to venture into the unknown, we are calling audiences to actively listen, open their minds and emotions to new approaches to music, and engage with new music.

Thinking Music is allied to the project ‘Brain-Computer Music Interfacing for Monitoring and Inducing Affective States’, which is an ambitious research project funded by EPSRC, that my team at Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research and scientists at University of Reading are conducting into gaining a better understanding of emotions and music.

The title ‘Thinking Music’ is taken from your book, which is launching at the festival. Can you explain what the book is about and why you felt compelled to write it?

My book tells the inside story of my large choral symphony work Sound to Sea, for orchestra, percussion, organ, choir and mezzo-soprano. It includes the complete score of the symphony and a CD with the full live recording of the premiere last September with Ten Tors Orchestra and fantastic mezzo-soprano Juliette Pochin. I describe in rich detail the concepts and processes with which I engaged in the composition of the symphony. In contrast to my previous more specialist books, where I cautiously adhered to the academic convention of writing in the third person, Thinking Music is a book in the first person. It is aimed at the general audience, as well as musicians, in particular aspiring composers. To present the technicalities of the compositional methods behind Sound to Sea, I also attempt to spell out the more whimsical ideas that lurked in my mind while I composed the piece. I have come to believe that those whimsical ideas are as important for my creative processes as the elucidation of the computer-aided technicalities of my compositional methods. I’m very pleased with the overall design of the book, which was carefully put together by University of Plymouth Press. It’s a beautiful publication, in the style of a coffee table arts book, but with a CD and the full score of the composition for those who can read music and wish to follow the score while listening to the piece.

What are some of the most unusual performances festival goers can expect? Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

I would say that all pieces in the festival offer something unusual or adventurous in one way of another, ranging from electroacoustic music inspired by Peter Randall-Page’s gigantic sculptures, to music composed in collaboration with a person suffering from dementia. But I would say that the most unusual piece of them all will be Activating Memory, which is a piece of mine for eight performers on stage: a string quartet and a brain-computer music interface quartet. A brain-computer interface is a device that allows one to control machines using electrical signals detected from the brain. The brain-computer music interface quartet involves four people wearing a brain cap, furnished with electrodes, which reads information from the performers’ brains and transforms this information into music. My research team and I worked with g.tec, a manufacturer of biomedical technology, to design an extraordinary system that converts brain information into musical scores. During the performance, the brain-computer music interface quartet will generate musical scores to be performed by the string quartet in real-time. Each of the four brains will generate a part for a musician of the string quartet. This is the first time ever that such pioneering way to make music will be shown in a public concert.

How does the research project ‘Brain-Computer Music Interfacing for Monitoring and Inducing Affective States’ fit in?

As I mentioned earlier, this project is aimed at gaining a better understanding of emotions and music. We all have an intuition that music affects our emotions, but how this actually happens, neurologically, is not well understood. We are particularly interested in understanding how music can change our emotions. If we could predict how a certain rhythm or melody or combination of timbres, and so on, affects somebody’s emotion, then we might be able to use music more objectively as an aid to therapeutic programmes for people suffering from emotional problems, such as overwhelming mood swings, depression and so on. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop technology for building brain-computer music interfaces that would allow for monitoring and inducing emotions using music. It is an ambitious goal, but as the popular saying goes: nothing ventured, nothing gained. What is really exciting here is that this research is being conducted in a musical research lab!

Given the festival aims to explore ideas emerging from cutting edge research, do you have any predictions for the future around how music might evolve?

The development of sound recording technology has revolutionised the music of the 20th century; for instance, the notion of a DJ would have been unthinkable in the 19th century. We are definitely witnessing tremendous cultural changes nowadays due to the increasing high-connectivity of our planet. Today, people can play music together from different locations: it’s possible for a violinist of a string quartet to play a concert live in Plymouth, with a violoncellist in Paris, a violist in Rio de Janeiro and another violinist in New York. However, one thing that strikes me is that although technology is having a profound influence on how music is stored and distributed, it has had little effect so far on how it is created. If you think about it, essentially, the way in which the music we listen to on most iPods today is not radically different from the way in which the music our parents listened to on vinyl records was created 30 years ago. My hunch is that in the 21st-century, we will witness the emergence of different ways of creating music using these new technologies and this will most probably result in new kinds of music as well. For instance, the idea that people would be able to create music with signals detected directly from their brains would be inconceivable one hundred years ago. This is becoming reality today.

What do you ultimately hope to achieve through the festival?
Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival is firmly establishing itself as an important platform in the UK for new music exploring ideas emerging from leading edge research. And this is what the festival is about. A distinctive feature of our festival is that we nurture local talent and develop a local audience. Our aim is to create an exciting and sustainable environment for musical research and creativity based in the university, and contribute to the cultural development of the South West of England and beyond.

Thinking Music, Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival 2014 runs at Plymouth University from Friday 7th to Sunday 9th February. For more information, visit the festival website. You can also keep up to date by following Peninsula Arts on Twitter:@PeninsulaArts.