Monday, 28 January 2013
TURNING INSIDE OUT - CLASSICAL MUSIC AND PARTICLE PHYSICS
Talk given by Ariane Koek Cultural Specialist at CERN at the Association of British Orchestra’s annual conference, Leeds January 25th 2013 on a panel called Breaking the Mould – with Will Gompertz BBC Arts Editor; Mark Baldwin Director of Ballet Rambert; and Neetia Jones video artist and director.
With thanks to Fabiola Gianotti, spokesperson and Pippa Wells – both of the ATLAS experiment, CERN – physicists and musicians.
I am here to turn things INSIDE OUT AND PROVOKE.
- For a start I am here from CERN – the world’s largest particle physics lab. Science here at the Association of British Orchestras annual conference at Leeds. That is crossing a boundary or two. What am I doing here?
- I am also the only arts person in an organisation of 680 institutions from 100 countries around the world – 10,000 people at most and some of the brightest people on the planet.
Let me explain. I work at the world’s largest particle physics lab – CERN just outside Geneva – the home of the Large Hadron Collider - the largest machine on the planet - 27 kms long - doing the largest experiment on the planet to unlock the secrets of the universe and how we came into being. You can’t get much bigger than that.
I am unusual that I am not a physicist – or a man – amongst 10,000 people. But I am an arts person. Deliberately embedded in the organisation and doing what I teasingly call CERN’s other great experiment. Called Collide @CERN, it is the laboratory’s first home grown artists residency scheme, making creative collisions between the arts and science, by giving artists selected in open competition the time and space to be taken outside their comfort zones and be immersed in the multi-dimensions of particle physics.
I argue that I am working with elements even more elusive than the Higgs Boson Those elements are ingenuity, creativity and the human imagination. Science has had the formula for the Higgs Boson in physics since 1964 – but not for creativity – which is the very essence of breaking the mould which is the title of this session at the ABO conference which is all about thinking right outside of the box. Turning things inside out in fact.
So let’s do this by looking at how Particle Physics and Classical music are natural partners. And what they can learn from each other to take each other further?
When I asked one of the world’s top physicists what the experience of listening to – and playing classical music is to her – she said “It is like jumping into the infinite space of the universe.”
Those are the words of Fabiola Gianotti , who is the spokesperson for ATLAS – CERN’s largest experiments on the Large Hadron Collider and one of the places the Higgs-like particle was discovered last July. She was runner up to president Obama as Time Person of the Year 2012. She could have been a classical concert pianist – but had to chose between a career in physics and one in music. She chose physics but plays the piano to this day.
For her music is like physics – it steps out of tangible reality into beyond the visible and our limited visual reality. You can’t see notes, you can’t see particles. They exist in different dimensions beyond human scale – in the infinite.
Likewise, both particle physics (and maths) and music have a language/notation which not everyone understands or has access to – a language which describes the invisible which is beyond our sight, which is unusual in our visually dominated age.
But the similarities between classical music and physics don’t just end there.
First off is the way in which both classical music and physics are organised. Particle physicists work in collaborations of individuals – just like an orchestra. Say that statement straight off without context and it sounds bizarre. But it’s true. Physics works in big collaborations – even bigger than an orchestra, with in the case of the ATLAS experiment which Fabiola and Pippa work on having 3000+ scientists individually working together. Like an orchestra, the soloists/individuals are working towards the common goal and are subsumed in delivering the final result – live and kicking. In the case of an orchestra, a live finished piece. In the case of ATLAS, analysing the data from 10,000 collisions per second between protons under the ground and piecing them together to form the whole picture of the formation of the universe.
Both orchestras and particle physics collaborations evidently strike a balance between the individual and the ensemble. It is about individuals of excellence working together, with precision and in synchronisation for the final results.
Secondly, there are similarities in composition. The rules of symmetry rule particle physics as much as they do classical music with its rules of harmony and motifs. Particle physics is founded on the principle of symmetry – unchanging principle rules which match. Particles repeat in physics like scales or motifs. There has to be structure to make things happen and make things harmonious in both science and music. But then what is essential to both is to twist and turn the rules inside out– to break the symmetries in physics which is the act of creation. That is how the universe came into being - by symmetry breaking - according to particle physics. Real uniqueness and creativity is about breaking these symmetrical rules. Or as Pippa Wells physicist and musician from ATLAS at CERN says, just like Beethoven did, by breaking the symmetry and the rules by taking the tiny motif of the 5th symphony, breaking, twisting and turning it into a bigger structure.
Thirdly, music is totally based on the laws of physics. Without physics, music would not exist. One of the first analysers of sound was both a physicist and a musician. He was born in 1756 – the same year as Mozart, and died in 1829 – the same year as Beethoven - and he laid the foundations for that discipline within physics that came to be called acoustics – the science of sound. He was Ernst Chladni, who in 1787, published Entdeckungen über die Theorie des Klangesor - Discoveries Concerning the Theory of Music. Among Chladni´s successes was finding a way to make visible what sound waves generate. With the help of a violin bow, which he drew perpendicularly across the edge of flat plates covered with sand, he produced those patterns and shapes which today go by the term Chladni figures. What was the significance of this discovery? Chladni demonstrated once and for all that sound actually does affect physical matter and that it has the quality of creating geometric patterns.
So we can see the ways in which physics and classical music share commonalities – and in fact are natural partners. It is no accident that many physicists are musicians too – seeing and constructing patterns in sound and acoustics. Similarly many musicians I talked to here at the conference said how they had done physics at advanced level GCSE, and had to choose between physics and music. There is an inherent affinity and love of the patterns of the invisible and ineffable.
But what can classical music learn from physics, in order to break the mould and turn the perception of classical music as regressive and outmoded inside out?
What I have found so exciting working at CERN is that every day I am challenged to defend the arts and think about why the arts matter. It is exhilarating to justify what you take as a given because it makes you think about this in a different way every time you are challenged.
For a particle physicist, challenge, questioning and never staying still is what life and furthering knowledge is all about.
So I would like to end with these provocations which are inspired by working with particle physicists and what I, as an arts person, have learn't from them. Turning things inside out again.
Openness - For a particle physicist, this means you have an openness and constant questioning, which propels you to going beyond what you are doing now and what you already know and familiar with. And doing it. Do you do this? How often?
Surprise - You are open to surprises about nature. And are constantly surprised by it. Nothing is given or a constant truth.
Doutbt and Questioning - You are open to doubt and questioning everything. Everything is there to be questioned. The accepted and the done thing is always to be doubted and questioned to you push beyond boundaries. Perceived wisdom and ways of doing things are there to be challenged, never accepted, for the good of culture.
Technology and Innovation - You are open to new developments in technology and instrumentation, new experiences – including new spaces – and working across boundaries – just like we symbolically do at CERN and at the LHC. Do you embrace new technology for performance as well as in your programming or instruments?
All these qualities – of never accepting, always seeking challenge, and the joy of surprise are at the heart of particle physics. It is what made the laboratory accept to have an arts specialist in their midst in the first place.
So how open are you to new venues?
To new instruments and new technologies – like 3D sculptures through sound?
To working across culture not – just within your field?
To creating new experiences which take classical music outside the domain of the live performance?
To creating classical musicians in residence at a school, a hospital or shopping centre?
Are you ready to turn things inside out? And by doing so, really confounding your critics and taking classical music further?
Some ideas to get your thinking going inside out
One of the beauties of classical music is the live performance of an orchestra – the interactions between the musicians. A glance, the way a hand goes across a bow, a flick of the head, a touch even – these show how the live human element of interactions between all the members subsumed to making the piece works. It makes live performance fascinating. It is a human drama of endeavour.
One of the most inspiring recent examples of a classical orchestra embracing new technology was the Philharmonia Orchestra's installation at the Science Museum, London called 'Universe of Sound.' Recorded with 37 cameras, this multi-screen digital immersive experience in the upstairs galleries was designed so the audience could feel what it is like to be a member of the orchestra – whether flautist or string player, conductor or timpanist. It was a triumph in showing also the subtle interactions of body language too which make the live experience even more thrilling.
But what if we turned that inside out – banned the orchestra and made them invisible behind screens from the audience? Then projected them back in different places – ceilings, walls, floors?
Or what if we broke through the sanctity of a performance of Beethoven’s 5th by intersecting dancers at certain points and deliberately breaking up the uninterrupted performance, like the Antigel Festival does provocatively in Switzerland?
However, these ideas do not work on their own – they need the skills and aesthetics of a great producer. But they are examples of thinking beyond and differently and engaging with the multi-dimensionality of experiencing music, which John Cage characterised as Listening, Watching and Writing – and to which the contemporary composer Matthew Herbert at this conference also added Multi-media immersion.
Classical music can really break the mould. Mozart was after all the rock star of his age. Stravinksy’s the Rite of Spring scandalised all who heard – and saw the accompanying ballet. By reclaiming its roots of disruption, provocation, and avant gardism – breaking out of its fossilised historical cave – orchestras can take the lead in releasing the revolutionary heritage and dimensions of music. Inside Out.