Andrew McManus was selected this past year as one of six 2014-2015 Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Fellows after having received a 2013-2014 Graduate Collaboration Grant for his project Neurosonics: Rhythmic Stimulation of Epileptic Cell Cultures in collaboration with Tahra Eissa (PhD candidate, Neurobiology).
Andrew graduated this Spring 2015 with his PhD in Music from UChicago. We had a chance to catch up with him about his ongoing work on Neurosonics, his thoughts on electronic composition, and his experience as an Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Fellow.
Could you talk a bit about the germination of Neurosonics and what interest you had in working with a neuroscientist?
When I was nineteen I was diagnosed with generalized epilepsy. Fortunately I have my condition mostly under control now, but it’s absolutely been a challenge getting to this point. I’ve been wanting to engage with this subject matter for a long time as a composer, but it was only a few years ago that I became aware of the possibilities of using scientific data to manipulate electronic sound. This program provided me with the perfect opportunity for that.
What new materials or thoughts surfaced from your collaboration with Tahra?
Most of the sonic ideas grew out of what I observed in Tahra’s lab. I had an initial idea of how I wanted to use the data, but I couldn’t really nail down the possibilities until she explained and demonstrated her experiments. She had an idea of her own, however: the neurons generate rhythmic pulses when they’re stimulated, and these reminded her of drumbeats like those she plays in the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble. So I recorded her playing various rhythmic patterns on her darabukka, and these recordings became an important component of the piece.
How did you transform the data derived from the epileptic cells into something as dynamic and unexpected as Neurosonics?
The sounds are broadly divided into two categories: drum-based and neuron-based. Some are relatively straightforward: the beginning, for instance, features the raw neuron data as white noise and an unaltered clip of the drum recording. Things get more complex later, when I start to use the neuron data to modulate aspects of other sounds, including those of the drum. The specific techniques are called spectral analysis/resynthesis and convolution. While they do so in very different ways, both techniques employ data derived from one sound to change the frequency spectrum, amplitude or even the overall audio signal of the other.
In listening to the piece, there is a sense of both familiarity and strangeness, reminiscent of a film like Fantastic Voyage (1966) where the characters explore the interior of the body as one would a landscape. Do you have images or spaces in mind when you compose?
That’s a really wonderful image, actually, and I love that you heard it in the piece! I used very detailed spatialization techniques in Neurosonics to create some of its aural illusions, and my goal was to create a surreal, strange, and immersive space for the listener. Fortunately I was able to present the piece 6-channel surround format in a Computer Music Studio concert this past April, so that definitely heightened the experience.
I'm interested to hear your thoughts on electronic music and composition. Can you speak about the sounds generated in the piece and how you selected and choreographed the chosen instruments?
Once I had generated the sounds using the techniques I described earlier, I edited them into bits and pieces that I found compelling. Then I took those, along with some of the drum recordings, and juxtaposed them both horizontally (in linear time) and vertically (on top of one another). Ordering pre-made sounds in time like this is a relatively simple concept that dates back to the late 1940s, when Pierre Schaeffer began doing this by cutting and splicing magnetic tape to make what he called musique concrète (“concrete music”). But despite the simplicity of its concept, it can generate fascinating musical moments that would be very difficult to transcribe using the traditional concepts that written musical notation provides. This is why I find it exciting!
What was your experience moving from an Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Collaboration Grantee to being and Arts, Science & Culture Fellow?
Doing this allowed me to continue the work I started during the 2013-2014 academic year in a supportive, flexible environment that let me finish the piece. I really enjoyed learning about the work the other fellows were doing, and it was very helpful to my process.
Do you see yourself continuing to pursue trans-disciplinarily work as you leave the University?
Absolutely! In fact, I’m in the early stages of planning Neurosonics II. What I’d like to do is use many of the same sounds, but introduce a live instrumental ensemble on top of them. I see the ensemble - hopefully a string quartet - as providing commentary on the electronic sound world I engage with in Neurosonics I. It should add a more humanized - even emotional - take on the bizarre, surreal world of the electronic sounds. I’ll definitely provide updates on this as it progresses!
Andrew McManus is a composer of orchestral, vocal, chamber and electronic music. He received his PhD in Music from the University of Chicago, and his acoustic works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, eighth blackbird, Pacifica Quartet, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Spektral Quartet, Minnesota Orchestra and the New York Youth Symphony Chamber Music Program. His electronic works have been presented at the University of South Florida and the Aries Composers Festival (Fort Collins, CO). A native of Massachusetts, he holds a masters’ degree from the Eastman School of Music and a bachelors’ degree from Yale University.
The Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Fellows program is for UChicago students whose work is firmly anchored in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences, but for whom crossing disciplinary boundaries is integral to the particularities of their research, writing, artistic practice, or scientific inquiry. The Fellows meet monthly over dinner to discuss their work, and to exchange insights into their disciplinary methodologies and research practices.