Saturday 5 October 2013

Tales from Babel: Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing

The Clerks Group
Tales from Babel, the new concert programme by Edward Wickham and the Clerks, is part concert part scientific experiment. The Clerks regular repertoire involves much renaissance polyphony, with many things happening at once and often multiple texts. So, when Edward Wickham was introduced to the Brungart test, which is used to check whether air traffic controllers can focus on a single voice amidst many, it seemed a natural extension of the repertoire. Wickham commissioned a new work from Chistopher Fox, the result is Roger Go to Yellow Three which they describe as 'a musical experiment in auditory streaming'.  And if the title puts you off, just think of it as the Cocktail Party Syndrome put to music!

The Cocktail Party Syndrome is the way humans can concentrate on one thing in a welter of information, and the concert aims to test this. During the Clerks' concert, audiences are invited to tell the performers what they are hearing, using electronic handsets to provide data collection and feedback. As someone who trained as a scientist, I find this completely fascinating. How much to we really apprehend when presented with complex aural landscapes. Not a lot, I suspect.

Back in the 1970's I attended The Ring sung in English performed by English National Opera, my first exposure, and frankly I couldn't understand a word that was being sung even though it was supposed to be in English. The Wellcome Trust has some rather amusing mis-hearings (or mondegreens as they are called; the technical term for misheard lyrics after a famous mishearing of the words 'laid him on the green' as 'Lady Mondegreen', in the Scottish ballad The Bonnie Earl O'Murray) on their blog. My own favourite remains the pop song (sung by a troupe which included Sarah Brightman) I fell in love with a star ship trooper, which we all thought sounded far more like I fell in love with a draught excluder.

The Clerks have a scientific team on board. Sarah Hawkins is Director of Research in Speech and Music Science at Cambridge and a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, Antje Heinrich’s research interests are centred around spoken language comprehension, and how aspects of speech intelligibility change with age, Sarah Knight has recently submitted her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Their results so far can be seen on the Tales from Babel website. In an interview quoted in the Guardian, Wickham said 'What I thought I knew, I don't any more, I thought people understood a lot more than they do'.

If the science doesn't appeal, then the concert also has some terrific music. The programme features motes from Medieval England and France, songs by Josquin Des Prez and Antoine Busnois, plus Fox's new piece. The first half of the programme tells the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, whilst the second includes Fox's 20 minute work, plus settings of the Renaissance song Fortuna desperata by Josquin Des Prez, Antoine Busnois and Heinrich Isaac.

Further information from the Tales of Babel website. The Clerk's tour starts on 8 October at Birmingham Conservatoire, and then moves on to the Royal Academy of Music, London (18/10), Durham (23/10), Glasgow University (24/10), University of York (30/10), Holywell Music Room, Oxford (8/11).

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