Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Brainstaves: a string quartet on a mission

The Ligeti Quartet is presenting a programme at Kings Place tomorrow that's so extraordinary I just had to ask them how it works. This is string quartet work with a mission, a whole new concept for a new century. This concert is called 'Consciousness' and involves a collaboration with the neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr, using the musicians' brain activity to generate music. The works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Shiva Feshareki and Lutosławski all connect to the theme in ways of their own; in particular, Feshareki's quartet Venus/Zoreh is a planetary journey with a difference. The concert is part of Kings Place's astonishing Venus Unwrapped series. First violinist Mandhira de Saram has agreed to answer some of my questions...

JD: What inspired this programme and how have you chosen the pieces for it? 

MDS: Like most ensembles, we put an inordinate amount of thought into programming - we want to make sure that programmes are always challenging, thought-provoking, but (hopefully) with some sense of fun. After all we have a lot of fun planning them although we agonise and argue over details. Often our programmes are built around a particular piece or concept or around around a few pieces which we love performing. 

This programme, Consciousness, was inspired by discussions with neuroscientist and composer Cliff Kerr over a year ago about using our actual brain activity to generate music. We realised that some of our favourite pieces would show different ways in which composers as well as we, as performers, approach awareness and responsiveness, shared consciousness. Shiva spent a long time with us leading meditative exercises as an essential preparation for her piece. In fact, we found that after working with Shiva for just a short time, we became more aware whilst performing other repertoire too in terms of our receptivity to sound, noise, texture and our shared consciousness as a string quartet. 

Ruth Crawford's string quartet, and especially the third movement, uses as its compositional base an extremely new and unique (for the time - 1931!) sound world. Composers are still exploring the same techniques and concepts - her ideas were so new and meaningful that they are ageless! The dense writing in her music requires us to be totally 'in tune' with each other - a huge amount of rehearsal goes into preparing this music even though the piece is very short. 

In contrast to the condensed miniatures which make up Crawford's work, Lutosławski's only string quartet (both Crawford and Lutoslawski wrote only one work in this form) is a long work, which uses some aleatoric devices, but carefully controlled and calculated so that the outcome is always the same - like a chess grandmaster who has foreseen all possible moves. The result is that the performers feel they are playing in a quasi-improvisatory style, feeding off and interacting with each other, but in fact we are always within a grid of cues and meticulously worked out 'mobiles' or episodic material. 

The Ligeti Quartet perform on the Thames Estuary

JD: How does Cliff Kerr’s piece Brainstaves for string quartet and EEGs actually work? It’s difficult for a prospective audience to imagine what is going on when someone is 'using brain activity in real time to generate creative aspects of the music’ - please could you explain the technical side of it? 

Cliff Kerr
MDS: This is what Cliff says: "When musicians improvise, their brains create musical ideas, which are translated into muscle commands, sent along the spinal cord to the muscles, and then these muscle movements make music. But what if you were able to read the music directly from the brain? The concept behind Brainstaves is to use EEG headsets to record the electrical activity of the performers' brains, allowing the score for the piece to be generated in real time. The challenge here is twofold: to be scientifically accurate enough to do justice to the brain's bubbling activity, and to be musically sensible enough to keep the audience from reaching for their earplugs. To solve this, I created a structural and harmonic environment that is static, but within which each individual note is determined by mapping the amount of brain activity in different frequency bands onto a statistical distribution. The result is effectively an improvisation between the performers and their own brains - an exploration of the wild, wacky, and perhaps wonderful signals that are transmitted within, and between, our brains."

MDS: We are still working on the piece every day - it is certainly a collaborative process, three-way: Cliff, the LQ and our brains. That is not taking into account getting to grips with the tech - for example, the EEG headsets to a long time to get working in a way Cliff could actually use for composing a piece (the ones we have are actually to be used with a meditation app!). Over the next few days we will be developing the piece further and also using it as the basis for our workshops with Hearing Impaired children, an ACE funded project. The exciting (and stressful!) aspect of this piece is that we will always be sight-reading, even though we will have a sense of what the music might be like through pre-generated or fully composed examples. We have yet to experience how our brain activity might change during an actual performance as opposed to simulating this experience in rehearsals or workshop sessions. Perhaps we are in for a surprise, but, I know that Cliff (like Lutoslawski did in his quartet) has controlled parameters so that the feedback loop is always predictable in most ways, certainly in its sound-world and rhythm, even though individual notes change. 

JD: What’s most exciting to you about creating new music by linking with a scientific process in this way? 

MDS: This is something which is certainly stimulating, and more than anything generates even more ideas for compositions and collaborations. In fact, I think working with a scientist and the process of collaborating on a piece inspires a lot of non-scientific ideas, which I guess is the idea. We always want to find new concepts, sounds, techniques and ways of creating. The novelty and inventiveness which is needed to make this work is in itself important research. Scientists and composers sometimes work in similar ways and most often the process is as important as the result. For us, we would hope that between Cliff's and our own musical knowledge, the piece produced would be artistically successful, but the work we had to do to get there is as important to us as it will hopefully give us a model for developing further such collaborations. 

JD: Please tell us more about Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Venus/Zohreh’ - and how come you were touring planetariums? How does the music relate to the planets? 

Shiva Feshareki, winner of a British Composer Award 2017
Photo: Mark Allen
MDS: The planetarium tour came about as the Ligeti Quartet, Sam Bordoli and Sound UK wanted to commission a new 'Planets' as a homage to Holst's piece. By complete chance, we realised that the 100th anniversary of Holst's planets would coincide with this project. So we commissioned a diverse range of composers from different musical backgrounds, selected a planet for them and paired them with a scientist who is an expert in their particular planet. Shiva and Dr Philippa Mason brainstormed and looked at data together, as did the other composer-scientist pairings. The idea was that each Planet would be inspired by science rather than Astrology, as in Holst's Planets.

Shiva's programme note: VENUS/ZOHREH is one exponential crescendo in volume, intensity, speed, and pitch exposure. Within this expansion a rich array of direct expression is exposed. The piece was composed using a variety of techniques such as plotting pitches, dynamics, duration, and rhythmic ideas as graphic shapes, that together create one overarching shape. The realisation of the composition draws on deep listening exercises that bring together other physical elements related to sound such as movement and space.
After collaboration with the Venus expert and geologist Dr Philippa Mason, the composition was crafted using the same methods as used to extrapolate information about Venus through what we know about Earth. The emotional journey behind the piece is inspired by my mother Zohreh. Zohreh in the Persian language translates to Venus, or the Morning Star. Therefore, the scientific journey behind the composition is forged through the collaboration with Dr Mason, and the spiritual journey is from my mother Zohreh. These energies combine to create VENUS/ZOHREH.

This piece is dedicated to my mother Zohreh as well as Envision: a planetary mission to Venus which aims to measure the rate and nature of geological activity and its influence on atmospheric chemistry. The piece was commissioned by Sound UK for the Ligeti Quartet.

Other composers approached their planets in different ways.  For example, Mira Calix literally translated geological data into notes, Richard Bullen concentrated on the 4 moons of Jupiter, Laurence Crane the 'iciness' of Neptune etc. All were hugely inspired by their meetings with experts on their planets. 

JD: What most appeals to you in the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger and Witold Lutosławski?

Ruth Crawford Seeger
MDS: Ruth Crawford (this piece was written before she married Charles Seeger) is a landmark piece of music, probably one of the earliest examples of writing a string quartet using this kind of modernist language. The piece is so tightly constructed, full of expression as well as fun and absolutely amazing to play even though it is technically challenging. The third movement especially is groundbreaking - a crescendo of rising cross-swells which arrives at a climax and quickly descends and dies down. A few days ago in rehearsal we were thinking that the effect created in all 4 movements is like a backwards tape! But written a decade before tape was actually invented!

The Lutosławski requires a very different kind of quartet mentality. Whereas the Crawford requires that we are absolutely synchronised, the Lutosławski allows us at least a sense of freedom even though he has in fact calculated outcomes so carefully that the piece always sounds the same. The composer did not want the players to see a full score for the piece (I have to admit, that when we first learned it, we did cheat), The effect of this is that when we do actually play together, and this is indicated in the individual parts, it feels amazing to play into that string quartet sounds, and then we drift away again. 

JD:  How do you see the current upsurge of interest in music by women? Do you think it can transform our musical landscape? 

MDS: It is high time that diversity is embraced in classical music (and in any other discipline). It is quite obvious that we have in no way reached a point where women are commissioned as much as men. It should not be considered a vogue or trend but something that should have always happened, a mistake which is now being corrected. in order for there to be equality, we need to redress the balance perhaps more in favour of women and minorities before finding a real balance. We aim for a 50:50 balance in our programmes and actively seek out composers to commission. 

JD: The Ligeti Quartet is doing some truly fascinating programmes - do you see yourselves as an ensemble with a mission? What would be your mission statement? 

MDS: We certainly do have a mission! The music we commission and perform, we feel, is thought provoking. We try to programme in ways which challenges the audience to listen actively, find connections, images, stories and engage with what we, the performers are doing - in fact, encouraging the audience to make some of the same kind of decisions and choices that we make when interpreting a piece. It is a three way interaction between composer, performers and audience (sometimes four-way if we consider the space/acoustic) I guess our mission is to invite as many people as possible to enjoy the music we love with us and to defy those who feel that new and challenging music has no meaning. Music is constantly evolving and we enjoy being a part of this.

Ligeti Quartet: 'Consciousness', Kings Place, 9 May. Booking here: