Last night I attended a Q&A session with Emily Howard, on the eve of the first UK performance of her orchestral work Calculus of the Nervous System which is being performed at tonight’s Prom (21 August 2012) by Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. At the Q&A session Howard was interview by Paul J. Guest about Calculus of the Nervous System and its position in her recent body of work.
Calculus of the Nervous System is the third of a trio of works which Howard has written all dealing with Ada Lovelace. Lovelace was Byron’s daughter and a strong character in her own right, she helped Charles Babbage with his work on his Analytical Engine and has been called the first computer programmer.
Finally the orchestral work Calculus of the Nervous System which is inspired by Lovelace’s idea that you could make a mathematical model of how the brain gives rise to thoughts and feelings. Howard’s orchestral piece was premiered in 2011 in Vienna by the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan.
Howard did a degree in Mathematic s and Computing and a scientific approach often infuses the way she writes music. Whilst Lovelace’s idea was the stimulus for the piece, Howard’s intention was to create a sequence of memories jumbled up in the way that they are in our brains. To help model this she used an exponential function to provide data to define the timings of the piece. Howard said that she likes using exponential functions because they provide data which are extreme. Howard is also interested in neural circuits and she used these to shape the music.
Each memory is a musical phrase which reoccurs in differing forms, sometimes radically changed, sometimes barely there, sometimes just a fragment, producing something unpredictable, just like our own memories. One of the features of the piece is that each memory has its own tempo.
A final element of the piece was Geoffrey Hill’s book of poetry, Clavics, which Howard was reading at the time of writing the work. Phrases from Hill’s poems stuck in her mind and became attached to some of the memories, some phrases appearing in the final score.
The piece that Howard wrote immediately after Calculus of the Nervous System was her opera Zatopek! This was performed as part of the New Music 20x12 commissions for the London Cultural Olympiad. A 12 minute opera which deals with the Czech runner, Emil Zatopek, in the 1952 Olympic Games. (See review) The requirement for the 12 minute length matched almost exactly the time for a 5,000m race. In fact, even in this piece Howard’s scientific interest came out as she used Zatopek’s lap times to structure the opera. It was the first work that Howard has collaborated on, working with a librettist for the first time, a process that Howard found stimulating and fun.
She has a new piece for the BBC Philharmonic in the pipeline, along with a work for the Elias Quartet and another for the Manchester Camerata.