Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The brain is wider than the sky: Minerva Scientifica examine the work of Rosalind Franklin

Minerva Scientifica: The Franklin Effect
Minerva Scientifica: The Franklin Effect; Electric Voice Theatre; Anatomy Museum of Kings College London
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 27 2015
Star rating: 4.0

An unusual idea, using music to describe science

Last night in the Anatomy Museum of King's College London, the Electric Voice Theatre presented their work in progress 'Minerva Scientifica:The Franklin Effect'. Performed by Frances M Lynch, Penny Desbruslais, Julian Stocker, and David Sheppard this project looks at the lives and work of historical British women in science and how this has impacted on women today.

This is the third of the Minerva Scientifica projects. The concept began back in 2012 with 'Mary Anning' (Victorian fossil collector and palaeontologist) by Judith Bingham for the vocalist Alison Wells, gravel and rocks, It was followed in 2013 by 'Miriam', a piece for solo voice and bass clarinet, by Karen Wimhurst, which celebrated the life of Miriam Rothschild, who was a leading authority on fleas.

This new project brings together living scientists and composers to examine the work of Rosalind Franklin, an X-ray crystallographer at King's College. Although she was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA, for which James Watson and Francis Crick received a Nobel Prize in 1962, the part she played in this story was played down at the time and has only subsequently come to light.

With the emphasis on collaboration, pairs of women (composer and scientist) are working closely together via group workshops to produce music that in some way explains the science being researched. There is also a focus on pairs within the music - representing the pairs of strands of DNA, and anti parallel movement to denote DNA replication.

The concert began with the performers up on the balcony chanting 'The brain is wider than the sky' and was followed by a jazzy, doo-wop work by Lynch discussing the 'golden hands' which Franklin was said to possess. After a video from the project's patron and mentor Judith Weir there were talks by the composer/ scientist pairs about their work. In between each of the pieces was a recorded recitation of the names of women who have made important contributions to science.

Minerva Scientifica

The first piece was the collaboration between Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Prof Elizabeth Kuipers (Psychology) who were inspired by the X-ray image, 'Photo 51', and the idea of genetic mutation. Frances-Hoad wanted it to be accessible and to reflect the music Franklin may have been accustomed to listen to, so gave it hints of barbershop. The first of three short movements focussed on Franklin's biography by Brenda Maddox, with a sliding, slippery feel. The second was based around the first two lines of the paper describing DNA and used contrary motion in the voices while the performers pulled two ribbons across the floor. The third was a description by Watson of the moment he saw photo 51, and incorporated both the previous musical ideas.

This was followed by a piece by Lynne Plowman and Dr. Claire Sharpe (Renal Sciences). Sharpe works on the gene K-ras which is essential for the function of normal cells but when mutated it becomes a force driving the growth of cancer. Essentially they used the genetic sequence as a score but with some transformations, such as transposing the pitch up a fifth or layering, to increase the available material.

Kate Whitley and Prof Mairi Sakellariadou (Physics) worked together on aspects of quantum physics such as string theory (vibrating strings represented by interference between very close notes), loops quantum theory, and the geometry of space – “can you hear the shape of a drum?”

The final collaboration was between Shirley Thompson and Prof Ellen Solomon (Genetics) who focussed on DNA replication and when it goes wrong. Using lots of pairings the performers walked past each other as the sound slowly mutated.

While each of the four works had their own focus there were also a lot of similarities of content, and how they sounded, presumably because of the workshop environment used for generating compositional ideas. An audience question and answer session after the concert gave the Minerva people a chance to explain what they wanted to do with the project before it finishes at the end of the year. This included making more of the theatrical elements, possibly including more video but keeping it centred about the music.

It is an unusual idea to use music to describe science – full plaudits for all the participants. It will be interesting to see where this project ends.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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