Hacking the symphony with Andrew Pelling to create a unique mash-up of technology and music

Andrew Pelling. Photo: Colin Rowe

University of Ottawa physicist, biologist, all-around technology hacker and Ted talker Andrew Pelling knows all about the power of music.

He went to an arts intensive school. He also played the flute. And his partner is a violin maker who plays in community orchestras in the area.

But that’s not why he was asked to take part in a unique experimental process and classical music concert called the Symphony Hack Lab put together by the National Arts Centre. For the NAC, the Hack is the culmination of ideas and discussions that began about a year and a half ago. The NAC Orchestra had wanted to mash music up with science and technology and explore the experience of orchestra  using different senses. A study guide, developed for teachers to help prepare their students, is available on the centre’s website nac-cna.ca.

Doing things differently is definitely in Pelling’s wheelhouse. He is a Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics. He runs an independent, street level research lab called pHacktory which explores the edges of what is possible. He is also the guy who grew a human ear on an apple.

“We are interested in working with other organizations or individuals on projects that probably are never going to work but you you never know. And we like trying stuff,” he said in an interview.

“The NAC initially wanted me to help host the event and contribute to some of the ideas that would be involved. I’m always looking for a good time.” Not surprisingly his role grew.

“It has kind of evolved.” In addition to co-hosting the concert this weekend, along with Catherine Emond of the Museum of Science and Technology, Pelling’s team has designed something that will complement the music that will be played.

The inspiration for Pelling’s creation is the mid-20th century French composer Olivier Messaien who had a condition called synaesthesia that meant he saw colours when he heard music.

“It seemed to be a fairly straightforward thing to hack together, translating orchestra sounds into colours,” Pelling said. “So I ended up building a small light installation that will be part of the show.” These are taking the shape of white cubes that change colour.

An early version of the light cubes.

He will join Jesse Stewart, an innovative music maker in his own right who has made a wheelchair sing and carved a percussion instrument out of stone, violinist Adrian Anantawan, percussionist and maker Reynaliz Herrera and a percussion quintet.

“It’s one big fun time,” Pelling said. “It’s a Symphony Hack and let’s see what happens. This is not the way you would usually experience the symphony. I have to hand it to the NAC to try something like this I wouldn’t have expected it. It’s cool.”

In advance of the concert on Feb. 3, there was an instrument-making session organized by the NAC, Canada Science and Technology Museum and Stewart recently, as part of the build-up to the concert.

“When the NAC first approached me they asked if I could do anything with a symphony what would I do?

“My first thought was you listen to a symphony, so what other senses can we engage. Put in ear protectors so you can’t hear anything and now you have to experience the symphony with your remaining senses.. We played with that concept to see how far it can go.”

The pHacktory folks brainstormed all manner of possibilities, involving smell and touch but the realities of a one-hour show in Southam Hall led to the cubes.

Pelling believes that as artists are breaking down barriers and mixing media, so too are technology-makers.

And as that happens the two groups are inseparable.

“I don’t think you can separate culture from technology. There is a feedback loop that goes both ways,” he says. “Our culture influences how we design technologies and technologies influence how we behave and interact with each other. It’s not a benign computer that just sits there. There is a lot of richness there.”

He is typically self-deprecating when asked why he does what he does.

“I get bored really easily, blame a short attention span.”

But seriously: “I really like new ideas. I work on a lot of new projects but there is a methodology there. I am a scientist always. i break down a thing using the scientific method as a rigorous framework in which to operate. There is always a hypothesis that I am testing, it doesn’t matter what the question is, but it does matter to me that there is a method.”

He is also someone who begins projects and leaves the finishing to others … “better engineers and designers can then take up the project and finish it. My talents are best used on the ideation, the early stage stuff.”

His project wth the NAC is not gimmickry. It’s serious business.

“What I have found over the years working so often with artists, despite the fact I am a scientist, we work in identical ways. We have different words to describe our methodologies but we are always working the same way. We have artists in our scientific lab all the time. They contribute to the science and scientists contribute to the art.

Ultimately we all are just asking questions. We have artists who have made discoveries and scientists who have made art installations. There is no real difference to me. It’s arbitrary semantics.”

The creative instinct is there, he says. It’s innately human … the very first person who discovered fire was likely also painting in his cave.

“It’s nice to tap into that. Our culture has forgotten that. I say this all the time. I don’t think we value curiosity any more. We pay it lip service. I feel it’s the one human trait that is the engine of discovery and problem solving. It defines us as human beings.”

While he studied at an arts intensive school, Pelling discovered science.

“I got interested in biology and math. These things resonated with me and I pursued it.”

One thing Pelling is sure of: “I don’t care if I’m going to embarrass myself, I am still going to do it. I learn from failures. This has been important for me as a scientist.”

As for the large white cubes, seven were built over the holidays.

The have coloured lights inside them. Bass frequencies will been in blues and purples while higher frequencies in the reds. Each cube has a different colour and the lights get brighter depending on volume.

“Where will we take this experience? We are already talking about how the light cube idea can be shrunk down so the people can play with sound and colour themselves. We might partner up with a company in town to manufacture that. And we have a lot of ideas how to scale the light cubes up into a version two and a version three.”

Pelling’s first art science collaboration also involved sound.

“I was recording how cells move and I was recording that data and converting that into sound. I could hear the cells moving. I ended up working with an artist who created these big objects that lit up based on how the cells were moving.”

And now he’s come full circle with the Symphony Hack Lab.

Symphony Hack Lab
Where: Southam Hall
When: Feb. 3 at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.