Scientists Are Making Music with Slime Mold and Whale Songs

Experimental biomusic takes center stage at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth, UK.

Down on the southwest coast of England, the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival recently celebrated its tenth birthday. Run in collaboration with Plymouth University and the Interdisciplinary Center for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) which is housed there, the festival is an epicenter for musical experimentation and research into far-out sonification and musification techniques.

This year's theme is biomusic, a niche field of centered around biological processes that inform and create musical compositions, be they artificially intelligent virtual whales jamming with a saxophonist, a biocomputer run on slime mold doing a duet on the piano, or data collated from British woodland ecosystems turning into music.

Over the weekend, a series of gala performances explored some of the concepts and ideas that the students and professors at Plymouth University had been working on over the past year. The festival's directors, Simon Ible and Eduardo R. Miranda, both work at the university as director of music and professor of computer music, respectively.

Biocomputer music. Images by Lloyd Russell, Plymouth University

One of the most talked about and popular pieces at the festival is professor Miranda's biocomputer music, which involves a biocomputer run on slime mold—a kind of "fungus animal"—a curious, single-celled polyphyletic organism that has thousands of nuclei and produces electrical signals when it searches for food. Because of this property, scientists are using it in robotics research and biocomputing. If it sounds straight out of a Cronenberg movie, that's because it could well be—except that it isn't science fiction.

For Miranda's duet—which he called a world's first—a microphone captures what he's playing on the piano, which is then translated to the biocomputer, which uses slime mould cultured on circuit boards. An iPad provides commands for the computer to play notes back to Miranda based on the input it received. It then plays the piano via electromagnets which vibrate the wire strings.

Because it isn't actually hitting the keys, the sound it creates is quite unique. The music made by the slime mold's interactions, for all its performative and extravagant-looking setup and design—electromagnets and yellow wires pour into the exposed grand piano, making it look like a strange hybrid lifeform—is understated and minimalist. "I'm interested here not in the attack of the sound, I'm interested in the after. Those sounds that vibrate after you attack it. That quality of sound that normally we don't associate with the piano," Miranda explains.

It's eerie, haunting, Lynchian. Miranda notes how it sounds almost electronic, even though it's entirely acoustically created: "For me as a composer it produces quite an interesting tension—there's the noise of the piano and now I have an instrument that is the piano but does not produce the piano sound. And that interacts with me, it's a double identity. It's also quite interesting that I'm interacting with a machine that's kind of alive, semi-alive so to speak." he says. 

Another interesting figure working at the university is Dr. Alexis Kirke, a research fellow in computer music who the BBC has called, "The Philip K. Dick of contemporary music." One of his pieces at the festival was called Fast Travel, which involved creating artificially intelligent humpback and blue whales using multi-agent modelling which then interacts with a live saxophonist. In the AI whales', eyes the human musician is seen as the dominant whale and, using a collated database of different whale songs, the whales respond in different pitches and intensity to the notes the saxophonist plays. 

Fast Travel

The AI software not only simulates whale songs but also their movements, which are visualized on a nearby screen. Played in a large reception area in one of the buildings at Plymouth, the whales encircle the audience while their songs ripple out from various speakers placed around us, creating the uncanny sensation of being underwater.

Another piece by Kirke was called Orchestral Processing Unit, which turned an orchestra, the Ten Tors Orchestra, into a very simplified "computer" which could do simple calculations, adding three plus three, using melodies. The idea is based on a concept of Kirke's called melodic processing, and works on the idea of computation using melodies instead of silicon chips. It's like programming using music, where different notes and sequences can act as input values.

Kirke himself sees it as a more intuitive way of computing. It's still early for this kind of research—which Kirke is conducting using a quantum computer at the UK's Bristol University, made accessible via the internet—but the way it could work, for instance, is by showing computer errors through bad-sounding melodies. Alternately, a happy sounding melody would show that everything's parsing properly.

The projects are all parts of various different concepts being explored by scientists under the banner of "unconventional computing." Another idea of Kirke's involves looking film screenplays as one would computer programming, representing different characters as different inputs. "Every song is a program, every movie a calculation," Kirke tells me.

It's all highly experimental, but the work being done does have practical, real-world consequences. The whale performance, for instance, has been taken up by biologists at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who are using Kirke's research to look at the evolution of actual whale songs—the most complicated mammalian form of communication next to our own—which in turn could benefit research on the evolution of human language.

The slime mould from the biocomputer

As for the slime mold biocomputer, for Miranda, it's about exploring the new musical possibilities, but the longterm goal involves the production of a machine that wouldn't require a conventional battery—instead, the power would come from the slime mold's chemical reactions. A slime mold's favorite food is oats, so perhaps the smartphones of the future might be powered by breakfast grains.

Kirke and Miranda are both scientists and artists, trained musicians and composers, but also experts in artificial intelligence, so the result is a multidisciplinary convergence where each feeds off the other in a semi-symbiotic way, a neat reflection of the very same biological processes they study.

As for what's next, they're already working on 2016's festival. Miranda and a researcher are currently looking into building a virtual human vocal chord which will eventually be able to sing. Miranda is collating anthropological data based on how Neanderthal vocal chords were structured, in the hopes of recreating a virtual Neanderthal throat, getting it to sing, and eventually building an entire virtual Neanderthal choir. In the process, he could very well unearth a sound that hasn't been heard in 40,000 years.

Biocomputer music

To find out more about what professor Miranda is up to visit his website. For more on Dr. Alexis Kirke visit his site. And visit Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival website to learn more about the festival.


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