RS-phD-opportunity A fully funded PhD studentship is available to carry out research with Dr. David Glowacki on the interface of biology, computer science, and molecular physics. The student will be based within the University of Bristol’s Centre for Computational Chemistry (CCC); however, the project will involve funded trips to engage with international collaborators in the USA (Stanford University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory). The Royal Society is amongst the oldest and most prestigious scientific academies in the world. This PhD funding provides substantial intellectual freedom to carry out research aimed at understanding the role that atomic dynamics and fluctuations play in enzyme catalysis, which is a topic of intense debate.
Last week, danceroom Spectroscopy made its West Coast premier at the Stanford Art Gallery, and it’s looking beautiful! If you get a chance to check it out, it’s all free – and it will be on from 4 – 20 Sept 2014, open every day from 11am – 6pm. dS itself is set up, in all its glory, along with an accompanying exhibition of photos taken by dS photographer Paul Blakemore over the years. You can find more details at this link.
A recent story about my attempts to crowd-surf during a 2013 performance of Handel’s Messiah in Bristol (originally published in the Independent) became a national headline in the UK over the weekend. Nearly a year later, that story is now going viral across the internet. Seems there’s not much to talk about in classical music over the last 11 months.
The back-story here is as interesting as the image of some science nerd carried away crowd-surfing during Messiah. In 2013, Bristol’s Old Vic theatre ran the ‘Bristol Proms’. The idea was to relax the standard classical rules to reach new audiences. This approach is a result of simple economics: with public arts funding being slashed, art is feeling the heat to generate profit, and classical music is no exception. A classical concert is an expensive affair, and the age distribution of typical classical audiences spells a real risk of the art form drying up. And that’s why Universal Music threw its weight behind Bristol’s Proms. As one of the planet’s largest distributors of classical music, they can see the writing on the wall.
Each night of the Proms, Old Vic theatre director Tom Morris marched out onstage to preach the new paradigm: “Enjoy a beer in the pit, chat when you like, clap when you like, whoop when you like, engage with the music as you like, and no shushing other people.” It was a nod to the music’s roots, given that modern classical audience protocols are less than a century old.
As an international artist with a longstanding interest in cultural theory, I’ve become increasingly fascinated in analyzing how modern power works across societies, institutions, and organizations. One of the most important starting points is to determine whether power is maintained from the top-down, or from the bottom up. Michel Foucault, one of my favorite social theorists, often referred to the so-called Panoptic model of power. He argued that power nowadays is not enforced from the top, but rather from the bottom, with everybody keeping an eye on everybody to enforce the norms. However, the bottom-up system is also more complex, because it requires that the participants internalize the rules in order to enforce them.
So what better chance to examine the mechanics of modern power than at the Bristol Proms? The conditions were perfect: the theatre director had taken it upon himself to establish new rules for an audience that is notorious for its maintenance of rigid norms. How would the audience respond to the director’s new rules? Were the rules any more than a gimmick? Who ultimately did hold the power here, the audience or the director? And to what lengths might audiences go to enforce their rules?
On the final evening, I attended Handel’s Messiah with two friends. The previous night I had been onstage introducing a collaboration undertaken with violinist Nicola Benedetti. Using a system called ‘danceroom Spectroscopy’, the vibrations from Nicola’s violin were analysed in real-time, letting her violin modulate a visualized molecular simulation. During my onstage collaboration at the beginning of the night, I made a joke, “So the rules are a little bit different tonight. I hope to see some crowd-surfing in the pit,” which got a good laugh from the crowd. My artistic contributions with Nicola earned me a complementary seat, but I chose instead to stand in the pit with my friends.
In line with the instructions delivered by the director at the beginning of the show, we permitted ourselves to freely engage with the music. Standing in the pit, the performers were nearby, and we fed off of their tangible emotion and energy. But the audience did not approve. During the Hallelujah (Praise the Lord!) crescendo, I raised my hands in praise and let out a cheer, reveling in the intensity of the 30-strong choir only a few meters away. That’s when I was knocked down by a punch to the kidneys. It wasn’t delivered by venue staff, but by a middle-aged white male audience member – a classical vigilante of sorts. As I fell to the floor, I banged my head on the stage. The man bent down and said something to the effect of, “You shut up and get the hell out of here, asshole.”
My response was simple: “If you want me to leave, then you have to forcibly eject me. I’m following the rules that were given at the start of the show.”
And thus it came to pass that I was forced out of Handel’s Messsiah by two classical audience members during the Hallelujah chorus. The previous night I had been onstage to rapturous applause. Now I’m being assaulted and dragged out. For praising the Lord, I guess.
The Theatre director immediately came out to find me. He offered apologies, and asked whether I wanted to sneak in the back and watch the remainder of the show with him in the director’s seat.
I declined. I was too shaken up and actually in quite a bit of pain. One of my friends, himself a classically trained musician, was speechless.
The post-show response was even more surreal: a steady stream of audience members and performers, having seen my exit, tracked me down to congratulate me for my performance. Brilliant, they said. It seemed so authentic – an excellent bit of staged violence in the pit. Most refused to believe that it was in fact genuine physical assault.
Responses to my cheering are fascinatingly polarized. Several folks, including musicians, thought that it was just the sort of thing that needed to happen, and that it was a good step toward liberating the classical art form; plenty of others were very unhappy at the disturbance.
Nevertheless, my preferred mode of enquiry is the scientific method: formulating and testing hypotheses by conducting experiments both in the lab and beyond. My preliminary results hint at two conclusions related to classical music:
- It is the audiences (not the director, and not the performers) that run the show. They have internalized the norms and they enforce the norms. The norms that they have internalized might only be a few generations old, but they are very strong.
- The extent of internalization is strong enough to lead to violence in the form of physical assault, an excellent example of how it is actually we the people that perpetuate the very violence that we despise, in line with observations made by theorists like Zizek.
As far as I know, we have yet to see a sustained classical crowd-surf. I took baby steps to pull it off, but didn’t even come close. Shuffling of the feet combined with a little bit of cheering quickly catalyzed enough violence to get me ejected. The image of some science nerd crowd-surfing at a classical concert is simply too good to let go, and I sincerely hope that I do live to see the day when somebody can carry it farther than I managed. The amount of support that I have received over the past few days gives me confidence that I will see this happen.
But beware. This is dangerous territory. Science can be profoundly disruptive, especially with crowds this tough. And you can rest assured, there are even tougher crowds out there.
Adam Laity has put together an awesome little trailer for the most recent version of Hidden Fields, made using the danceroom Spectroscopy framework. Hidden Fields interprets dancers as fields whose movement creates ripples and waves in an invisible sea of energy. The result is a gentle piece comprised of interactive graphics and soundscapes, both of which respond in real-time to how the dancers use their movement to sculpt the invisible fields in which they are embedded. Enjoy!
Good news! danceroom Spectroscopy (dS), the interactive molecular dynamics project I started three years ago, has earned its sixth award in the last 18 mos! This one as part of the UK’s national Engage Competition. dS aims to open ways for a greater appreciation of the subtle beauty of the invisible atomic world. dS developed from my research into high-performance computational quantum dynamics: by visualising participants as real-time energy fields, it allows you to step into a real-time, interactive and immersive atomic simulation, where movement generates sound and image. dS has formed a major attraction at cultural and educational settings within the UK and internationally, elegantly merging research in science, technology, high-performance computing, and art to all sorts of people.
dS owes this latest success to the support it has received from number of partners, including EPSRC, the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, NVIDIA, Arts Council England, Stanford University, the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England, and Watershed.
It’s been awhile… but the first danceroom Spectroscopy scientific research paper has been published as part of the Faraday Discussion Volume 169. The paper is available for open-access download at this weblink. One of the paper’s highlights – and something which I’m really excited about – is the extension of dS to allow users to interactively chaperone the dynamics of small proteins, achieved through a software interface with the OpenMM hardware-accelerated force field library maintained at Stanford University. In some preliminary user studies, we observed that users were able to accelerate some simple protein conformational changes by nearly a factor of 10,000 compared to standard blind search molecular dynamics! We already knew that people love dS, but now we’re opening up the possibility of transforming it into a simulation methodology that lets people help us tackle research problems related to biochemistry and health. Here’s a video showing the interactive protein dynamics in action:
Some good news! I was awarded the 2014 Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) for “theoretical work on energy transfer processes in chemical reaction dynamics”. These prizes are awarded annually to scientists less than 7 years removed from their PhD, with the stated aim to recognize “the most meritorious and promising original investigations in chemistry and published results of those investigations“. Part of the prize involves a sponsored lecture tour, to take place sometime during 2013-2014. The other two 2014 awardees included Dr Matthew Fuchter (Imperial), and Erwin Reisner (Cambridge), both of whom are engaged in some fascinating work!