A string quartet amidst an ambisonic sea of sonified rat neurons.
Composer: Andrew McManus
Pathways, bursting was written for the Spektral Quartet with support from a NewMusicUSA Project Grant and the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. It is part of a long-term, multi-work creative project that has grown out of my collaboration with Tahra Eissa, a neuroscience graduate student at the University. Tahra’s lab puts rat brains on tiny electrode arrays, stimulates them and studies their behavior, with the goal of better understanding epilepsy in humans. More information is available here.
I took an interest in her research because I have epilepsy myself (thankfully it’s under control), and I’ve wanted to creatively engage with it for quite some time. All of the electronic sounds in pathways, bursting bear some relationship – from straightforward to complex – to the neuron data. The pulses of white noise, for instance, come from direct sonification, while fluttering sine tones come from using it to manipulate pitch. More complex procedures are used in the realm of ambisonic spatialization, where sounds vibrate erratically in 3D space. I’ve assembled these diverse sounds into textures that often become harrowingly dense, even when the electronics are not particularly loud. This certainly is part of my intention: after all, this project is about overloads of electrical activity in the brain. Portions of the electronic track are uncomfortably loud, overwhelming, and even violent. But part of my motivation for this project has always been to communicate aspects of my own experience with the condition, as it has been quite harrowing at certain points in my life. I’m also motivated to communicate this on behalf of others with the condition. So instead of mediating the experience of the electronics, I’ve set up the quartet as a lyrical foil, particularly in the latter portion of the piece.
When the electronics reach their loudest, most explosive point, the quartet reenters following over 5 minutes of silence, struggling against the overwhelming electronics. The quartet continues to push back, in fits and starts, as the electronics subside. Their jagged, erratic polyrhythms slowly become more regular, and they eventually achieve a much more peaceful space, one that I think realistically counterbalances the violence of the electronics. But in this final passage, there’s a slightly brightened consonance that bolsters the quartet’s role as a relieving counterweight to the harrowing electronics, one that may even provide an affirmative message in the end – even as it resolves to the justly tuned odd partials of B flat (5/7/9/11/13).
The Spektral Quartet premieres pathways, bursting at the University of Chicago on May 5, 2017, with a repeat performance on May 12 at Constellation Chicago.