Reviewed: Sensing Memory festival at the University of Plymouth

Aural pill-popping.

What does music do to your brain? Photograph: Getty Images

Sensing Memory festival
University of Plymouth

When was the last time you listened to music? Perhaps you blocked out the morning commute with your iPod, or kept yourself running at the gym with a good playlist. It’s a rare day when we don’t consume at least some music, almost inconceivable to live our digitised lives without a personalised soundtrack. But why do we do it?

Faced with this simple question, our greatest writers and thinkers have been reduced to platitudes. Delius talked of music as “an outburst of the soul”, while Thomas Carlyle (ever the Victorian) coyly had it as “the speech of angels”. The truth is that we still understand very little about the physical, scientific experience of music in the human mind, and attempts such as Daniel Levitin’s recent This is Your Brain On Music to synthesise theory and practice offer more questions than conclusions. Yet instinctively we all understand something of the relationship between emotion and music, know how to medicate our mood with aural pill-popping – one track to bring us up, another to bring us down. But only a subjective web of associations, memories, cultural contexts and social conditioning can explain why one person’s musical marijuana is another’s poison.

The University of Plymouth is home to the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), a department working at the junction of technology, music and neuroscience, exploring whether it might be possible to harness music’s power to quantifiable, medical ends. “We believe,” explains the project’s director, Eduardo Miranda, “that by having a better understanding of how the brain processes music we may be able to compose music to help people achieve specific moods or states of mind.”

The work of the ICCMR doesn’t begin and end in the lab. The university’s annual Contemporary Music Festival this month will showcase a collage of musical responses to the theme “Sensing Memory” – the creative, artistic face of scientific process. While some works will take a more familiar approach to the festival’s theme, playing with notions of memory and re-memory within recognisable musical structures and forms, others offer something more experimental.

Miranda’s Symphony of Minds Listening falls squarely into the latter category, “remixing” Beethoven through his own mind and those of a ballerina and Gulf War veteran. He asked each volunteer to listen to the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 while undergoing brain scans. These scans were then used to create a system of composition that sees Beethoven’s original music turning in on itself in a meta-symphony of subjective response. “I wanted to use the brain activity of listeners to recompose a piece according to how they were hearing it,” he says. The result is a three-movement sequence of variations that all retain something recognisably of the original but whose differences speak to the multiplicity of the musical experience.

If, instead of hearing someone else’s emotions mapped on to music, you’d rather see your own, then Alexis Kirke’s short algorithmic film, Many Worlds, offers audience members that chance. “I was thinking about the problems of quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s suicide – of the observer affecting the observed – and wanted to tell a story on film that would enact this for the audience,” Kirke explains.

A selection of volunteers will wear biosensors monitoring their heart rate, muscle tension or perspiration, and their physiological responses to the action will generate one of four different narrative pathways and conclusions – interactive film but one whose interactions take place at a subconscious level. Kirke, a mild synaesthetic, also wanted to explore the interplay between senses in generating emotional response, using soundtrack to psychological ends. Is he consciously steering his participants towards particular choices? “I hope I’ve given them absolute freedom of choice but we’ll have to see.”

Nick Ryan’s As above, so below, Part II takes a more personal approach to the theme. Rather than explore the reactions of an audience, Ryan takes himself as subject, delving into family history and his own memories to create a two-part meditation on the relationship between lived, sensory reality and the constructed reality of family legend and memory. “I was born in Kenya,” Ryan explains, “but only spent six months there because my father was killed in a tragic accident. A lot of my music has been fuelled emotionally by the idea that there is somewhere very beautiful in my cognitive memory that I haven’t experienced sensorily. The piece is about the difference between cognitive memory – constructed from stories, photographs and anecdotes – and sense memories that I gathered in a recent trip back to Africa.”

While Part I is written in the filmic tradition of soundtracks, Part II will eschew melody and narrative-style musical description in favour of a more abstract soundscape. “I’m planning to extract and analyse the tonal information from sound-recordings I made – crickets, lawnmowers, tea-harvesting machines – and then I’m going to score them. The orchestra won’t imitate them directly but will be playing inside and around the natural sounds, which will be part of the piece themselves. I see it as a tone-poem – a series of musical still lifes.”

The festival teems with compositional creativity, but if ICCMR’s research goes to plan surely musicians would become redundant. Not according to Miranda. “Computers can generate very interesting music but there are certain things they don’t know. They don’t realise that pianists only have ten fingers, that certain patterns of notes cannot be played on a violin, so you have to intervene. Computers create music according to rules but for true art you will always need that extra element that is human. Computers can help composers function differently, will help to keep pushing the aesthetic forwards, but at the end there will always be a human artist and musicians shaping the thing, giving it context.”

Sensing Memory runs from 22-24 February