I will probably repeat this many times, but one of the challenges at Researchista is to keep my excitement down. Since I started this blog and our Facebook page, I met so many interesting people and the things we discuss are sometimes simply mind-blowing (bam) and this is one of these cases… So, from the left to the right we have 1 half musician/Researcher, 1 composer and 1 half Researcher/musician-amateur, who… how should I put it… joined their forces to create music out of the sounds that human body makes. Wait, what? I will stop here and let you discover this on your own…
They created “Microsonic” – an interdisciplinary project based music and on microbial communication, or shortly: music & microbes, how original is that! 😀
The story behind: Both artists and scientists seek to understand aspects of the complex world around us. Despite this common ground, artists and scientists are too often separate in their endeavors. The Academy Honours Programme for Young Artists and Scientists (Netherlands) promotes cross-disciplinary approaches and interactions. The idea is to bridge this gap by bringing together ten artists and ten scientists of diverse backgrounds where they can discuss themes, amongst which: the role of art and science in society.
It was here at this workshop back in 2015 where the three of us met. It was already late, we changed the décor in the meanwhile to a pub, when we got involved into a discussion about communication, its musical aspects and how microbial organisms (e.g. bacterias) are communicating.
The beautiful thing about music is that it is an ultimate abstract art form that is not tied to specific images that connect easily with other disciplines from arts and science. And so, the idea to collaborate on a musical project inspired by microbial communication (aka microbes and bacterias) came into being.
Research about microbial communication via sound signals has only received limited attention due to its technical challenges. Even though electronic devices capable of detecting sounds on microscopic length scales get more advanced every day, the technique is still in its infancy. It is already possible to hear the sound of a large group of microbes – which sounds like white noise – but the devices still need to be developed further to be able to hear the sound of single isolated microbes. Because little is known about this form of communication, Lucas saw a role for himself to play as a composer. Since the communication is inaudible for us human beings, Lucas started to explore how a musical composition out of how this microbial world could possibly sound.
The Opinion article “When microbial conversations get physical”, Gemma Reguera discusses various forms of microbial communication, which formed the basis for the composition. It appears that the microbial microcosm is a rich sound world on its own. Reguera states that “every particle in a cell has a unique natural frequency of vibration and therefore produces a distinctive sound, very much like voice tonality and pitch in humans”.
Sound waves are generated when objects vibrate. Experiments with yeast cells not only demonstrate that intracellular motions were sufficiently strong enough to propagate across the stiff cell wall, but that they could also generate reproducible acoustic signals.
For our project Microsonic, Lucas composed a soft musical piece, as to give the audience the feeling of a hidden sound world. The public is invited to join on a sound journey into the human body. The microbial world slowly fades into their world. A tape with real sounds stemming from the human body is added to the composition to give the translated communication of microbes a real context. The sound journey starts off with a kind of white noise – unclear, almost inaudible and a bit scratchy – and you start wondering what it is. It is the sound of blood streaming through a vein. Then the zooming starts: more and more internal body sounds are heard, including the creaking of human nerves. But also, by further zooming in you will hear the sound produced by millions and millions of microbes. There the musicians come into the picture. The playing instruments symbolize the several sound signals that microbes use to communicate. Slowly, you get introduced into their microscopic world.
More and more pitched signals become distinguished, first only short ones, but as we zoom further, we hear longer ones as well. The microbial sound world becomes richer and richer; higher and lower pitches occur and the dynamic contrasts intensify. When listening carefully, you will hear that microbes make connections and communicate by taking over each other’s signals. So does the musicians – based on live improvisation. It is at this moment that you as human being can get a glimpse of the communication of microbes and maybe even feel part of their conversation. The composed journey ends with a collective ‘vibrational mode’, when a certain group of microbe cells are ‘in tune’.
The challenge for our composer Lucas was that he was used to thinking in terms of melodies and chords. However, microbial communication via sound signals is not a musical process – still produduces patterns and sounds. As a result, he had to change his approach to composing and relinquish control. Instead, he created a number of frameworks in which the musicians had freedom of movement and become part of the creation process. The subject of communication lends itself very well to this way of making music. The musicians improvise while listening and reacting to each other; they have to communicate to let it work.
here it how body sounds from within…. https://soundcloud.com/user-354620747/research-on-music-microsonic
Our project is an example of how arts and science that both have the urge to understand and express the complex external world can reinforce each other. This demands certain effort, yes, but is even more rewarding. So had our composer Lucas to let go of his usual approach towards composing. And it is exactly this that makes interdisciplinary collaboration extremely interesting – since it questions the usual approach and way of working. But there is more, interdisciplinary collaboration can support inspiration in each other’s work and reinforce the expression of the complex mechanism in our (microbial) world towards a public. All we can say, go out, open your eyes, take the risk to look outside your usual box”.
The post is written with Eva van Ooij, Ruth Schmidt (Dutch Institute of Ecology) and Lucas Wiegerink, and was presented at the PAS – Parcours of Art & Science Festival of Maastricht University in 2016. Many thanks to the members of Ensemble 88 – an ensemble specialized in contemporary music. The musical performance was accompanied by a presentation on microbial communication by Ruth.
With love for Research,
More of Lucas’ compositions:
“The occult beauty of the finite is about that realisation that what is dear to us is also fleeting, and the beauty that lies in such transience. I was inspired to write this piece by the illness and passing away of my mother. As her health worsened, I became increasingly aware of the small pockets of beauty in our lives. Living under the illusion that everything lasts forever, these are easy to miss. But as one faces the loss of something precious, the world is brought into sharper focus”.
Being Arthur: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvTeIy4w-xc&feature=youtu.be
Kameroperahuis in collaboration with Dutch Touring Opera and Opera Days Rotterdam