Sunday, June 29, 2008

the fragmented orchestra

each year europe has a city that represents its cultural centre. this year it is liverpool, a city on the northwest coast of england and not very far from the official golden fish birthplace and cultural imprinting centre. one element of the celebrations accompanying the distinctions accruing to being named europe's cultural centre is a project that is absolutely mind-boggling in its complexity and then also very lovely in its execution and outcome.

melding science and art has often produced results that require a degree of compromise on the part of the viewer or listener as it is recognized that the object of the work is to challenge extant parameters or to reinvent new ones. this often makes both the process and the product "difficult". the fragmented orchestra is the brainchild of jane grant, john matthias and nick ryan. fans of radiohead and coldcut will recall the name of john matthias who has played with both those bands. jane is a visual artist working with film, sound, video and installations. nick is a composer, producer and sound designer.

so what is the fragmented orchestra? well it is an idea based on the organization of the human brain. as information triggers a response that results in the firing of neurons within the brain’s cortex, so information that is fed into the vastly larger scale brain of the fragmented orchestra triggers a response.
the "neurons" of the fragmented orchestra are placed in 24 locations around the united kingdom, ranging from football stadia, highway crash barriers, school playgrounds and an offshore buoy with a ringing bell. here's a map of the various locations and objects where neuron units have been attached. at each location, a small ‘neuron unit’ has been attached to the surface of an existing physical structure. can you remember banging sticks along metal fence rails, or chucking rocks at the sides of empty waste bins? if you do then you can start to see how each, if appropriately linked could be used as resonant sound sources that could in turn send the signal generated through whatever action is required and then reassembled at another location as a sonic pastiche.

as it is, all of the neuron units are connected to each other, via the internet, to form a tiny ‘cortex’ and can then ‘fire’ signals back and forth when stimulated by sound. when a ‘neuron’ fires, fragments of sounds from its location are transmitted to the central venue in which each neuron unit is represented by its own loudspeaker. what’s very cool about this is that performers, including individuals and groups from near each neuron site, can play each neuron unit and listeners can listen to the resultant array created by the cortex at work. 

i find thinking like this exciting from the perspective of a lay person who has long admired the product at the interstice of art and science. bringing large and diverse setttings together into a techno-aesthetic framework organized around the workings of the neuron is masterful in itself. bringing that insight to life is beautiful.

the fragmented orchestra recently won the prs foundation for new music award. the new music award judging panel said; “the brain is never silent, it filters, selects and makes connections. the fragmented orchestra uses these neural patterns in the same way to allow us to hear the uk as music.” a brief documentary complete with a sample of what we can expect from this project can be viewed here . . . .

No comments: