Lord Mayor of Manchester launches new research centre PRiSM at the RNCM

Manchester’s Lord Mayor Eddy Newman opened the new RNCM research centre for Practice & Research in Science & Music (PRiSM)

October 2017

Bringing together researchers and practitioners in composition, performance, music perception, mathematics, big data and other disciplines, PRiSM fosters and promotes research through creative collaborations between the sciences and music. Founding members are Dr Emily Howard, Dr Michelle Phillips and Professor Lynne Dawson from the RNCM, Professor Marcus du Sautoy from the University of Oxford, Professor David De Roure from Oxford e-Research Centre and Professor Lasse Rempe-Gillen from the University of Liverpool.

The PRiSM team with Lord Mayor of Manchester Eddy Newman and Lady Mayoress Naomi Newman, RNCM Director of Research Barbara Kelly and RNCM Principal Linda Merrick

‘We see PRiSM as a 21st century version of the Enlightenment, an opportunity to break down artificial barriers, to bring together music and science as colleagues from different disciplines share experiences that will lead to new insights for all of us,’ said Emily, Director of PRiSM and a Senior Lecturer in Composition at the RNCM.

‘Many people throughout history have talked about the enduring connection between mathematics and music, but it is my belief that this goes much deeper than the obvious links between number, harmony and rhythm,’ added PRiSM Co-Director Marcus, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. ‘This new centre will give researchers across a range of disciplines the chance to explore the connections and differences between our practices.’

The launch day was full of musical events, conversations, digital installations and world première experiments at the RNCM, supported by Oxford e-Research Centre, Manchester Science Festival and New Scientist.

Beginning with Th3 Ma8ic 4lute, a PRiSM collaboration with the RNCM’s School of Vocal Studies and Opera, Marcus explored the fascinating and sometimes unexpected links between Mozart and mathematics. For example, the composer had a long-held fascination with numbers and geometry. Mozart labelled himself ‘Lover of the house of numbers’, and would specify the number of kisses at the end of each letter sent to loved ones, arguably in accordance with various mathematical calculations. Marcus also suggested that the structure of Mozart’s music itself was influenced by various mathematical principles such as square numbers and Fibonacci sequences.

The discussion involved considerable audience participation. At one point a group of volunteers were asked to construct a triangular prism from bamboo sticks and rubber bands while RNCM vocal students provided Mozart accompaniment, illustrating the structural crossover between geometry and music.

Audience participation at Th3 Ma8ic 4lute

The day’s second event, In Conversation’, launched this year’s Sir John Manduell Research Forum Series featuring a question and answer session with Emily and Marcus. Questions were posed by Penny Sarchet, Senior Editor at New Scientist.

For composer Emily, who was torn between music and maths as a student, and opted for an undergraduate degree in mathematics and computer science followed by postgraduate studies in composition at the RNCM, collaborations with mathematicians and scientists are important for her creative process. For mathematician Marcus, who fell in love with maths from a young age, played trumpet throughout his teenage years and who remains passionate about music, a mathematician is a pattern-searcher and this, he believes, is the link to the world of music. He also stressed the overarching importance of arts education, and how we must fight not to lose it.

Emily Howard, Marcus du Sautoy and Penny Sarchet in conversation

Launch day attendees were given the opportunity to try out the newly developed Math Music Match web application inside a specially-constructed installation. Developed by Marcus and composer Jamie Perera, participants were invited to listen to sounds, read the proofs and attempt to match the sound to the proof. University of Manchester student, Ynyr Harris, shared his first impressions after trying out the application for himself: ‘It’s fantastic. I’m a physics student also passionate about music so think it’s a really interesting idea.’

PRiSM Math Music Match/The Sound of Proof installation

The day’s main event, The Music of Proof: What does Maths Sound Like?, a trailblazer for the Manchester Science Festival, took place in a sold out RNCM Concert Hall.

After taking to the stage, Marcus and Emily explained their different professional backgrounds and special working relationship. They outlined their first PRiSM collaboration – The Music of Proof – as exploring the similarities in aesthetic and structural qualities between proof and composition. Marcus had proposed the idea of mathematical proof as being inherently musical, and in response Emily had created a set of miniatures for string quartet, Four Musical Proofs and a Conjectureby considering the question: ‘What if I approach writing music as though I am proceeding with the construction of a mathematical proof?’

Following on from the world première given by the Piatti String Quartet at New Scientist Live in London, the Mathias Quartet, made up of RNCM students, gave an accomplished Manchester première of Four Musical Proofs and a Conjecture.

Marcus du Sautoy and Emily Howard onstage with RNCM students The Mathias Quartet

The evening concluded with the world première of the PRiSM Perception App. Designed by Michelle Phillips, Matthew Wilcoxson and David De Roure, the interactive app was created by PRiSM and Oxford e-Research Centre in collaboration with the EPRSC ‘Fusing Audio and Semantic Technologies’ project.

RNCM pianist Maria Luc took to the stage to perform Gyorgy Ligeti’s Fanfares. At this point Marcus and Emily invited the audience to take out their smart phones and tablets with the PRiSM Perception App installed. Audience members were instructed to respond to the piece of music by discerning different sections during Luc’s exhilarating performance. After this inaugural PRiSM Experiment, RNCM’s David Horne shed light on some of the musical processes within Fanfares while Michelle expressed her excitement about the potential for data gathered by the perception app, and what it may reveal about how we perceive structure in music: ‘Not only should we learn much more about how audiences separate musical information into sections as they listen, we’ll also be able to explore whether the way that they segment music is related to their individual differences [like] age, preferences, or level of training in specific professions,’ she said.

Maria Luc performs Ligeti’s Etude Fanfares

It was so exciting to see such a mixed audience. Science geeks coming to the RNCM for the first time listening to new music mixing with music students and professionals,’ added Marcus. ‘For me this kind of project captures the future of research where disciplines are sharing their languages, insights, creations and challenges.’ 

RNCM Principal, Professor Linda Merrick, concluded: ‘The launch [of PRiSM] is timely, given the RNCM’s commitment to research and its recent REF rating as the leading UK higher education institution overall for impact in research. It’s a privilege to be supporting and developing such an exciting venture, and we are delighted to host PRiSM at the RNCM.’

To find out more about PRiSM and their next event The Music of Proof: The Second Movement on 24 October as part of Manchester Science Festival, click here.