Sunday, 10 July 2011

Ricardo Climent and Oxidising the Spectrum



Ricardo Climent was born in Valencia, Spain.  His developments in music epitomise what it is to be a scientist-composer, as he engages in scientific research for the purpose of composing a piece.  His work Oxidising the Spectrum (2004), calls for Climent to overtly work with scientific elements, as he experiments with microbial electrochemistry.

Climent’s compositional output extends from compositions for orchestra and ensemble to compositions for fixed media (tape) and artistic and scientific collaborations.  Climent’s focus in music can be seen to be overtly scientific as even his works for conventional instruments exhibit scientific motivation.  Biometric Fingerprints (2005), is a work for Brass quintet, the title of the work can be seen as being influenced by scientific developments, as it refers to a unique way of measuring fingerprints, focusing on how fingerprints can ‘stimulate a spiral musical event’.   His work for Clarinet in Bb and String quartet ‘working as a tape’, entitled emc2 (2000), can be seen as exclusively scientific in motivation, referencing Albert Einstein’s famous theory of mass-energy equivalence, e = mc2.   Climent states that this piece is research on how acoustical instruments can mimic the role of a tape; they are thus ‘working as a tape’.  Interestingly, this idea can compared with some of Edgard Varèse’s instrumental works, such as Intégrales, which pre-empts sound structures of electronic music and music for magnetic tape.  In Climent’s literary introduction to his work Trombonsis (1999), the composer explains the Thrombosis effect, which involves blood clots that form in veins, a biological concern.  The composer elaborates to say that this piece is ‘inspired by several human microcosmic phenomena’s which are visualised as imaginary landscapes in the composers mind’, highlighting that scientific concerns are to the forefront of his creative personae.   However, what is of interest for this study in particular, is Climent’s scientific collaborations; the experiments and compositions which overtly portray him as a scientist-composer. Oxidising the Spectrum, The Microbial Ensemble (2004), is perhaps an extreme example of a scientist-composer at work, as the composer works not only with scientific theories but conducts a scientific experiment with live microbes.  Climent delves into areas which are purely scientific, in an attempt to create a radically new musical composition, one which exhibits both musical expression and scientific conduct.  The composer explains that
‘the originality of the project resides in the fact that we do not employ any musical instrument, we simply compose the melody from the sounds generated by the microbes, as we can introduce variance by altering external conditions, such as the glucose or the temperature’.
Below is a photo of Ricardo Climent performing his sonic work Oxidising the Spectrum.  


 Immediately, one is presented with the image of a scientist, as the composer wears a white laboratory coat and gloves while performing the piece.  One can also see the arrangement of connecting wires from the microbes to micro-processors and the main computer, which monitors the activity of the Microbial Fuel Cells.

On the 15 July 2008, I conducted an interview with Ricardo Climent at the NOVARS Research centre, University of Manchester.  Throughout the interview, Climent talks about the development of music in line with science and technology, particularly in relation to his own work, Oxidising the Spectrum.  He also considers the concept of the scientist-composer and concludes that
‘These two figures of the composer and the computer-scientist, or physicist, have merged into a single person and formed this new composer-scientist that you talk about’.
Climent recognises the existence of the scientist-composer, but adds that he thinks it is something that has only happened very recently, in the last ten/fifteen years.  The evolution of technology is at a focal point in the twenty first century.  Climent identifies that it is only with modern technological advances that the scientist-composer can enter into limitless possibilities within the two disciplines.  The composer elaborates on what he believes the role of the scientist-composer is in contemporary composition.  He states that it is ‘no longer valid just to know about music’, claiming that composers must also be aware of developments in computer-science and electronic engineering.  Here, one can see that the phenomenon of the scientist-composer has developed further into scientific concerns, as composers must be aware of new developments in scientific fields.  However, was Varèse right in saying that in order for music to reach new possibilities, it was necessary to develop in line with science?  Climent commented that he thought purely instrumental music had reached a point that hindered it from continuing with the same creative and experimental force, and agreed with Varèse about the new possibilities that science would and have brought to music.  However, the composer claims that it is too early to say if science was the only route music could have taken, although he adds it is the route he has chosen to take. 


The development of new technologies have proven central to the phenomenon of the scientist-composer, as composers were permitted to experiment with new techniques of sound synthesis and sound recording.  Varèse was limited to the technological advances of the late 1950s, but since the 1980s and 1990s an abundance of new technology has been invented and used by contemporary composers.   However, with this abundance of technology, has the musical aspect survived? Or alternatively, are composers so overcome with new technology that musical creativity has been sacrificed?  Climent states that composer should not always be challenging new technologies, but instead, should remain a ‘step behind and look for something very creative’.  He maintains that technology is merely a tool in composition, and highlights the limitations that accompany it.  The scientist-composer recognises problems with using and relying on scientific technology, stating that compositions can be lost as new technology is invented and replaced.  Compositions like Varèse’s Poème électronique are currently being recovered from their original existence and transformed into the digital era, as was highlighted in chapter two with the Virtual Electronic Poem project. Throughout the interview, Climent discusses new ideologies in music, and how the advent of technology has affected musical composition.  As a scientist-composer, he is aware of new developments in scientific fields and utilises these scientific advances in his musical compositions. 

During the summer of 2004, after Climent had composed Oxidising the Spectrum, the Spanish media became interested in his work.  As translated from Spanish, journalists wrote about how he composed ‘a work from the acoustics generated by microbes’.  They highlighted that the work was ‘much closer to science than to art’. Generally, the media’s interpretation of Climent’s newly composed work was slightly misconstrued, but it succeeded in creating new interest in his work.   Journalists highlighted Climent’s radically new and progressive work, quoting the General Society of Authors and Editors (SGAE), who emphasised that this initiative ‘supposes a unique and pioneer-like experience’. A close analysis of the composer’s work will reveal the true scientific and musical elements involved in this composition. Climent’s proposal for Oxidising the Spectrum issues a detailed description of the technology used for composing this piece, as well as an explanation of how the life span of microbes can be manipulated and altered in order for the composer to gain control of musical parameters.

Oxidising the Spectrum ‘is a sonic installation which explores the possibilities of microbial electrochemistry in the compositional environment’.  In preparation for this composition, Climent studied in a chemical laboratory for a year under chemical engineer Dr Quan Gan, Queens University, Belfast.  The purpose of his years’ study was to enable him to understand how microbes behave, and to what stimulus they react.  The composition involves a ‘small ensemble of microbial performers’, this consisted of four strains of microbes, of which Climent manipulated in order to create music.  The microbes, also known as microorganisms, that were used for his experiments were P. vulgaris.  In order to understand the experiment one must be aware of key facts about microbial behaviour.  The graph below displays the life span of a microbe, unaltered by humans.  The microbes rapidly develop and then more steadily decline until they die; a process that is musically quite boring.


This is a process of voltage charge and discharge and is one of the key principles of this musical composition. A Microbial Fuel Cell (MCF), Climent explains, ‘is capable of generating electricity, which can be converted into data to control several musical parameters’. Below is a diagram of a Microbial Fuel Cell circuit, as provided by Climent in his proposal for this piece.  It explains the movement of elements throughout the Microbial Fuel Cell, as the exchange of electrons create electricity.






 Climent manipulates the conditions of the cell in order to control the level of voltage charge; attempting to control the number of electrons which pass through to create electricity. The composer highlights that ‘the manipulation of the musical parameters was thus not created through software but by biological means’.  In order to present the microbes as musically interesting, Climent manipulates the conditions of the cell by destabilising its optimum conditions.  He destabilised the microbes by feeding them or starving them at different times, using a carbohydrate such as glucose.  This would cause the cells to start a process of voltage charge and discharge, and would create a more varied curve in the music.  The graph below presents a comparison between a stable microbe, which has been unaltered by humans, and a destabilised microbe which has been manipulated through methods highlighted by Climent.  As one can see, the curvature varies significantly.  Both microbes rapidly produce voltage charge; however one can see that the destabilised cell produces erratic levels of voltage charge, leading to the formation of a more musically interesting curve, this was what Climent aimed for when manipulating the microbial cells.


Climent also used changes in temperature to stifle the microorganisms; optimal temperatures are approximately thirty-five degrees celcius.  Other ways of destabilising the cells included changing the mediator’s (thionin) concentration and combining different cells which would react with one another to create musical parameters such as pitch, pulse and timbre.  Destabilising the cells would create varied voltage signals, which were then boosted using Operational Amplifiers and then sent to a micro-controller which converted them into digital data.  Climent’s experiments with the microbes were merely one part of the challenge that he faced in creating the piece. 

As the composer gained a level of control over the microbial behaviour, it was now time to transfer the results of the microbial activity to a computer.  The previous part of the experiment permitted the composer to become a worker in a chemical laboratory, now Climent must further his knowledge and learn about new computer software.  For the purpose of this work, Climent used a software application called Max-MSP.  Max-MSP is an interactive music and multimedia software application programme, of which Climent used as a blank canvas for the development of software that would ‘transform the sound of the microbes’.  The photo below shows the software running on the main computer, to the right.  The photo also includes other technological devices: to the bottom left of the image is a mixing desk; the device on the middle left hand side is a Basic Stamp micro-controller; and to lower middle part of the photo is an A-D converter.


In order to realise the sound of the microbial activity, Climent uses organic sounds such as water. One will find a two minute recording of Oxidising the Spectrum on Climent’s website acousmatic.org.  The clip begins with sounds of gushing water, representing the sounds of microbial charging and discharging.  Throughout the recording, Climent uses sounds of water, orchestral instruments, a female voice and electronic sounds to embody the microbial activity.  The electronic sounds are quite similar to that used by Edgard Varèse in Poème électronique.  In fact, at 0’27’’, Climent includes a quotation from Varèse’s electronic work, as he claims that this inclusion really sounds ‘like bacteria talking’.  The microbes quickly generate a pulse in the music, for which Climent uses György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes (1962).  Climent states that he used the cell from the metronome and ‘transformed it in real time’.  As the composer was dealing with microbial cells, he asserted that he ‘also metaphorically wanted to hear the sounds of cells of a composition’.  Therefore, he used the two aforementioned compositions by Varèse and Ligeti to extract cells of which he would transform in real time, in order to represent the sounds of the microbes.  The work has only been performed live twice, once at the Tropical Ravine in Belfast Botanic Gardens, and again in Temple Bar Music Centre in Dublin.  A produced recording of the work does not yet exist.  One might ask why Climent has only given two live performances of this piece.  The composer explains that although his experiments with scientific elements have provided him with a radically new and diverse composition, such efforts are not appreciated by airport authorities. Climent expresses how travelling to countries with microbes and other chemical products has proven difficult and opposes health and safety regulations.  Thus, a problem has arisen for the phenomenon of the scientist-composer, as composers must choose their scientific experiments wisely, so that it does not result in sacrificing performances of the finished work. 

In order to evaluate the musical and scientific agenda of this work, one must consider key aspects of both a musical work and a scientific experiment.  A scientific experiment is usually conducted by a scientist in order to test a theory or demonstrate a well known fact.  The experiment must be repeatable as otherwise it cannot be standardised.  Scientific experiments are carefully monitored events, which follow set rules of procedure.  In light of this, can Oxidising the Spectrum be considered to engage in methods of scientific conduct? Climent refers to this piece as ‘speculative research’, stating what is important is ‘the process and the advancement of research in the area’.  Climent defines arbitrary rules when conducting experiments with the microbes, as he changes the parameters of the experiments to suit his results.  As previously discussed, Climent manipulates the optimal conditions of the Microbial Fuel Cell in order to produce erratic changes in voltage charge and discharge, resulting in interesting motifs in the music.  By modifying the growth pattern of the microbes, Climent gains a degree of control over the results of the experiments.  Scientists, alternatively, do not change the parameters of their experiments to suit their results, as otherwise the experiments would not be repeatable and could not be standardised for testing a theory.  This is not a fault on Climent’s part, nor does it diminish the validity of his work, it merely presents Climent as a composer, who uses scientific elements but does not follow scientific conduct, and is therefore not a scientist. Climent displays a concept that has developed as part of musical consciousness; he is a composer who uses science as a vehicle for artist expression. However, perhaps one could consider this work as a microcosm.  Climent creates a scientific experiment within his own set parameters, he experiments with microbes and manipulates them accordingly, is that science? If one views this piece as a microcosm, perhaps to some degree it is science.  However, Climent does not behave as a scientist; his goals for this work are musical, and he is therefore not a scientist, but a musical composer.  Climent’s experiments with microbes can be seen as merely another tool for composition, the laboratory experiments allow the composer to realise new and exciting forms of musical composition.

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