Bjork's Biophilia Has Come True, This Guy Plays Piano Duets With Mould Fungus

Meet the Sonny & Cher of fridge life.

I’ve had a pretty stormy relationship with mould. Obviously, I hated it at first, when it made my barely week old cheese look like it had been slowly regurgitated by The Hulk. Then I gained respect for the fungal fur when I found out it was responsible for bread, beer and, as every novelty Scottish tea towel will tell you, penicillin. Eventually though, I learned to despise it again, permanently, when it formed on the inside of my shower curtain and made my bathroom smell like the apocalypse.

Professor Eduardo Miranda seems to have found a much more enduring and passionate relationship with the crusty fungus than, well, anyone else really. He’s planning a piano duet with a slime mould in a piece titled “Biomusic” at the 10th Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival. This is nothing new for Professor Miranda, head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) at Plymouth University, who’s also been attempting to create a way for the disabled to communicate musically through brainwaves.

The professor’s duet partner, a real live wire named Physarum Polycephalum, is a yellow single organism that feeds on bacteria and fungal spores. They’ll be playing together through a biocomputer that will capture the electrical energy (and therefore movement) of the mould and translate this into sound. The mould slime will also react to Miranda's piano phrases and change its shape to respond.

I talked to Professor Miranda about being the fridge shelf version of Sonny & Cher, whether mould can replace us all, and how his next discovery could change lives.

Noisey: Hello Professor Miranda. Let’s begin with music. When did your interest in making sounds start?
Professor Miranda: I have always been fascinated with making noise with electronic equipment. When I was a kid, I built my own electronic noise synthesiser. I couldn't end up being anything else but an electronic noise maker and composer of experimental music.

When did the more technical parts come in?
Making music with computers was a natural progression for me. My first encounter with them was in the early 1980s when I got hold of a Sinclair ZX81 computer. Since then I have been programming computers to make sounds and compose music. I am fascinated with the possibility of building systems that can actively listen and react; that is, musical machines that can hold a musical dialogue with me.

Do you think they’ll replace us one day?
I don't think computers can replace musicians. I see computers as tools for my creativity; super musical instruments.

So, why bring science into mix?
The problem is that I no longer find digital computers interesting. They are too hard to program to do the things that I want them to do. Thus, approximately two years ago I started looking into ways in which I might perhaps build a different kind of computer. I soon found out about a whole new world: the world of unconventional computation.

What is unconventional computation when it is being explained to someone like me?
There is a bunch of scientists out there trying to build new types of computers based on chemical reactions, DNA, quantum physics and microorganisms. I started to look at how these future computers might be used for music. Computing technology has been very influential to the music industry we have today, and I believe that future computers will continue to have a major influence.

How does the mould duet come into this?
In my computer music research lab at ICCMR we are developing a new computer using a slime mould called Physarum polycephalum.

What makes this mould so special?
This organism, which is unicellular, but is visible to the naked eye, expands its body in search of nutrients. What is interesting here is that its body conducts electricity and it is possible to steer its development to form wires. So, we are developing ways to use the slime to grow biological electronic circuits.

That all sounds great but how does it translate into a romantic duet?
We have used this method to build what we refer to as the ‘biocomputer’ and I have composed a piece of music with it, entitled "
Biocomputer Music". Upon entering the recital room, the audience will see a grand piano furnished with electromagnets wired to various pieces of equipment interfacing the piano with the biocomputer. As I perform on the piano, the biocomputer listens and reacts and plays a response on the same piano via the electromagnets. The electromagnets vibrate the strings of the piano directly, producing a distinctive timbre.

What’s the future of this project?
The next steps are going to be quite tedious, as my team and I will have to conduct a number of experiments to find out how we might be able to make more sophisticated machines with the slime mould. My goal is to make this technology more widely available, so other musicians can have a go as well.

Can the mould play different genres?
This depends on how the system is programmed. In principle, it can be used for any genre of music. At the end of the day this is just a new musical instrument; musicians can play whatever they like on a piano, guitar or sampler. It is the same thing here with the biocomputer. However, and this is very important for me, I am interested in exploring what would be the new genres that such new kind of instrument might bring forth. My composition ‘Biocomputer Music’ has no clear genre. Most people will probably not like it at all because it is difficult to relate it to anything they already know, but I am not at all bothered about that.

A bit like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music then? What other music-related projects are you working on?
I have been developing brain-computer music interfaces. I published a book last year entitled Guide to Brain Computer Music Interfacing and I have a CD out called Mother Tongue. I’m also developing systems for people with severe physical disabilities to allow them to make music.

How can music help them?
At ICCMR we are developing brain-computer music interfacing systems, which are systems that allow people to play music with brain signals. These are electrical signals produced by activity in the brain, which are detected with sensors placed on the scalp.

Like those devices that allow people to mentally make music?
No. People should not confuse our work with 'sonification' of brainwaves. That is, a number of music technologists have designed methods to convert brainwave information into sound or musical notes. These methods are arbitrary and the user does not have much control of what is happening. We are developing systems whereby the user have full control of what is happening. In order to do this we are developing methods to enable people to produce specific electrical brain activity patterns that can be used as commands. These commands are then expressed as MIDI signals to control music software and create sound from that.

That sounds like the future to me.

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