Whizzing rockets, the hadron collider, the periodic table and the Guttenberg printing press are not things that immediately come to mind when thinking about a musical piece. Yet these and other discoveries in science are both emotive and life-changing. Now part of our everyday experiences, these moments have in many cases defined an era, a way of thinking, a way of life. With this in mind the music begins to take shape; the crackling of fire (played by Evelyn with plastic bags) leads to a warm chordal 'hug' from the strings as mankind finds a way to create warmth, and cook raw food; the excitement of particle beams colliding at close to the speed of light conjures up an orchestra hurling musical notes toward Evelyn's serpent cymbal;  the percussive sound of inking up printing plates on the Guttenberg press is answered by the orchestra representing the actual printed music page, firstly the woodwind, followed by strings then the brass. In reality then, the music and the percussive elements almost suggest themselves the more deeply we think about these pivotal discoveries.


Certainly many challenges arose; the piece, only 21 minutes long, had over 90 sounds to include. This sketch from my composition notebook shows how the momentum would build, starting from sparse textures evolving into denser soundworlds as events in the scientific timeline become closer together.


The science, in places, informed the musical decision-making process creating new compositional devices. For example how does one portray the periodic table in few seconds? We hear Evelyn talking about three elements, over whispering strings that unfold into heavy brass alluding to the weight of lead. But how does one decide exactly what notes should sound out? In this case a 10-note tone row[1] was created arising from the decimal system used for atomic weight.


Using the periodic table with this tone row we can devise a system of correlating notes to each of the elements, so for example the atomic weight of Hydrogen is 1.008. Looking at the tone row we see that note 1 is D , note 0 is C sharp, and note 8 is Bb. These notes were used to create an ethereal thematic fragment under the Hydrogen section.



Music arose in other ways, out of the feeling of devastation from the nuclear bomb, the emotion of the Kings speech, and the excitement of a firework display (sketched out in pictorial representations then orchestrated). Most of all, the science led the music (allowing a continuity of form as the timeline unfolded), suggesting rhythms, harmonies, melodies and textures; the percussion sometimes sparking off the orchestra and vice versa.


It was important that the Sounds of Science, evoking these scientific events through the use of percussion, audio, and orchestral elements, retained its musicality. Working with such an emotive and awe-inspiring subject matter allowed this to happen.


Finally, as with much scientific advancement, the Sounds of Science was born out of an amazing (and joyful) collaboration; historian and supreme ‘storyteller’ Chris Lloyd, and the wonderful virtuosic musician and sound creator Evelyn Glennie. 





With thanks to John G. Cramer, Professor of physics, University of Washington for discussing his electronic simulation of the big bang which greatly helped in the opening of this piece.


[1] The first note of the tone row was to be C-sharp as from a previous composition Soundwaves of light it was calculated that Hydrogen, (with a bit of tuning) has a light frequency that can be matched to this note. For more information on this piece and the physics behind it look on my website under orchestral works.