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In Writing

Biocomputers and slime mould circuits

March 2015

Emily Bick journeys to the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research in Plymouth and finds dialogues between slime moulds and composers, geological data becoming music and more

The Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) at the University of Plymouth is a strange and wonderful place, even when it’s not hosting special events. Here, researchers’ projects range from creating a brain-computer interface that allows people with limited movement to compose music, to inventing robots that sing to one another. The annual Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival showcases some inventive uses for the centre’s developments. Working to the theme of BioMusic, the programme this year combined research, composition and data to produce some startling new art at the intersection of music and technology.

The annual festival brings together current and former students, researchers and visiting international guests. Its audience is mostly made up of students, musicians and curious locals, though one enthusiast who travelled down from Finland to attend this year’s festival is a sign of its spreading reputation. Yet Plymouth’s relative geographical isolation is partly the reason for its success. Over the last ten years, it has allowed ICCMR director Eduardo Reck Miranda to curate an interdisciplinary programme of artists working independently of larger schools of practice and prevailing trends.

The festival opened with The Creeping Garden, Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp’s documentary film about slime moulds. These blob-like unicellular organisms are part animal and part fungoid in their behaviour, extending tubular filaments in search of food sources and reproducing by releasing spores. In time lapsed film, the filaments appear to pulsate, like the tentacles of sea anemones. Jim O’Rourke provides an electronic and space-filled score that evokes these ethereal movements and suggests a subtle alien intelligence while avoiding horror film cliches (though there is a funny bit of footage early on, of mystified Texan newscasters freaking out over the discovery of a slime mould in someone’s back garden).

The film also introduced Miranda’s Biocomputer Music, a dialogue between the slime moulds and the composer. In the piece, Miranda plays a piano, and these sounds are fed into a laptop that translates them into small voltages that are sent to circuits, connected by a slime mould (Physarum polycephalum) stretching across them to connect two food sources. The slime moulds register these signals, and their responses pass through another set of software that triggers electromagnets to descend over the piano’s strings, causing them to vibrate without an attack. As a result, the biocomputer’s ‘voice’ has a floaty, expansive quality as it decays. Miranda uses an iPod interface to trigger the slime mould circuits that control the specific note ranges on his piano. Their responses depend, in part, on past events. Researcher Ed Braund, who designed the biocomputer’s circuit boards, explained that the slime moulds were only able to store information temporarily. They behave like “memresistors”, their response to each new stimulus part-based on the one that preceded it.

Algorithms can anticipate and simulate slime mould behaviour, but living organisms are key to this piece – just as everyone in the room is crucial to a performance of John Cage’s 4'33". The slime moulds have some natural variation: they are affected by heat or moisture; too much stimulation, and they can dry out or back away from the food source, thereby breaking the circuit. By choosing to voice his dialogue with the biocomputer through the piano – in both prepared and unprepared modes – Miranda cannily brings Cage’s ethos into the technological present.

Setting up a living biocomputer instead of an algorithmic simulation that randomises its potential reactions adds a pleasing sense of humility to the work. Slime moulds are still little known. Until a few decades ago, even the curators at London’s Kew Gardens didn’t know how to classify them. But recently the slime mould has generated interest through the way its chemical signalling qualities allow it to build efficient networks between itself and its food sources. Slime moulds have been used to create rudimentary logic gates, and the work of Professor Andrew Adamatzsky at the University of the West of England has shown that they can also help model rail and transport systems.

But recasting these novel properties as a kind of prefab emulator would spectacularly miss the point.

Biocomputer Music was followed by an installation of Alexis Kirke’s Fast Travel, which places saxophonist Katherine Williams in a virtual sea – a foyer area bounded by speakers and microphones, linked to a network of artificially intelligent agents representing humpback whales swimming through the space. Williams’s actions triggers the whales to respond with songs of their own to communicate with other whales in the area. While the whales’ behaviour is rules-based, the complexity of Kirke’s system ensures that no two performances of the piece will ever be identical.

Elsewhere, in the university’s planetarium, Federico Visi, Duncan Williams and Giovanni Dothel’s installation Unfolding|Clusters, transcribed the misfolding of proteins that causes the paralysis of ALS, or motor neurone disease, into a Raster-Noton sonic palette of bleep and skitter. As the dissonance and breakdown of the score increases, the accompanying graphics fill the planetarium’s dome with frenetic grid patterns.

The weekend closed with Mike McInerney and Shaun Lewin’s Piano:Forest – an interaction between a pianist, field recordings and the live electronic interpretation of five layers of geological data mapped from an area of woodland, from insects at ground level to the drones of an orbiting satellite. The audience is fenced in by speakers, as the composition moves through the layers of forest. Its sonic clusters drift past or menace the listeners, enclosed in an ecosystem subsumed by insectoid pressure-cooker swells, with swoops of crunching and ruffling foliage. An impressive combination of both a tech and data sublime, Piano:Forest is overwhelming in its multilevel sound design. The underlying suggestion of the surveillance architecture necessary to gather the bulk of data and coding powering the work adds to its vegetal attack. The performers here become both arch pagans and number-crunchers at GCHQ, and even then, the force of Piano:Forest takes over.

Compositions based on data run the risk of sounding less interesting than the descriptions of the conceptual thought gone into their construction. Britt Brown put that very question to Holly Herndon in The Wire 374. To be fair, it’s a question that almost any conceptual artist or composer must deal with. In Plymouth, the festival’s programme served up projects that combined form and function, nature and data. And the programme notes enhanced the listeners’ experiences of these works rather than define them. Clever work. And moving.

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