Handeled during the Messiah


image by artist Becca Rose – http://www.beccarose.co.uk


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Hidden Fields Trailer!

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!

Another national outreach award for danceroom Spectroscopy!

DS FESTIVAL -158-compressed

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 ChemistryNVIDIAArts Council EnglandStanford University, the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England, and Watershed.

open Access interactive MD research paper!

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:

Royal Society of Chemistry Research Award

RSC - Advancing the Chemical SciencesSome 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!

Maple Hartree Fock Quantum Chemistry Program

Here’s a little project that I’ve been meaning to finish for awhile now, to aid my own learning and anybody else who is interested: it’s a Maple script for a restricted closed-shell Hartree Fock program, which you can download here. (To open, right-click the link, save it locally, and then open with Maple – else you just get a bunch of XML) I wrote it using Maple 16, so it should work in v16 or later. Maple is inexpensive for those working in education, and it includes loads of convenient mathematics functions that are transparent and easily call-able, which saves lots of work!

At the moment, it uses an SCF procedure to solve a simple HeH+ wave function in a basis set of contracted Gaussian functions. It includes detailed comments, and follows closely the text on p 106 – 176 of the book ‘Modern Quantum Chemistry’ (MQC) by Szabo & Ostlund. This Maple script could easily be extended to larger molecular systems, but the time required to calculate the two-electron integrals will mean that you’ll spend a lot of time staring at your computer screen! Incidentally, it turns out that Maple 16′s standard integrate command is pretty speedy for evaluating the overlap & kinetic energy integrals. For two-electron and nuclear repulsion integrals, it’s not so good! So I’ve used the analytical formulas in Appendix A of MQC.


Basis functions corresponding to the lowest energy converged eigenvalue of the HeH+ Fock matrix

dS installations: Bristol, Germany, and London


Hidden Fields dance performance, the ‘whirlpool’ scene

The past few months have seen a range of exciting danceroom Spectroscopy & Hidden Fields activities. For example, during 24 – 26th October 2013, we partnered with the Watershed Media Centre in Bristol to carry out the first ever dSFest, installed in a 21 meter diameter, 360 degree projection dome. During 4-6 January 2014, we had an installation and set of performances at the ZKM | Centre for Art and Media Technology in Germany. And over 1-2 March, we’re participating in a digital arts festival at London’s Barbican Arts Centre. There’s been a whole host of interesting media content associated with these events, including articles in The Guardian, Imperica, and the Huffington Post. And our dS photographer Paul Blakemore has recently put together a stunning photo essay describing some of the amazing shots he’s been able to capture…


dS Fest, Bristol, in the 21m diameter 360 projection dome

Royal Society Research Fellowship


Extremely exciting news! I’ve been awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship!! The Royal Society is the British national academy of science, and allegedly the oldest scientific academy in the world. It was established in 1660 with a charter from Charles II (hence Royal). Originally called the “the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge“, it was devoted to the “Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning”. Its earliest meetings were organized by Robert Hooke (of “Hooke’s Law” fame), and one of its earliest presidents was none other than Sir Isaac Newton himself.

My research fellowship is to carry out a programme entitled “Beyond equilibrium: Ultrafast solution-phase dynamics and enzyme catalysis”, building on several of the scientific problems I’ve been thinking about and working on of late. After two rounds of cuts, I had an interview in April. The setting, Royal Society HQ in London, is a nice piece of real estate, that’s for sure. In mid-May, I was offered the fellowship, with a start date of 1 October 2013, hosted by Bristol University! These fellowships are an amazing opportunity: they provide 5-10 years of funding, and a tremendous amount of intellectual freedom, so just my cup of tea!

Click here for a link to the University of Bristol press release.

Kloster Seeon: Transatlantic Frontiers in Chemistry 2013

the theoreticians, in the Bavarian alps (photo courtesy of A. Alexandrova). From left to right: D. Glowacki (Bristol), T. Jacob (Ulm), T. Miller (CalTech), A. Alexandrova (UCLA), A. Tkatchenko (Berlin), B. Strodel (Julich), and L. Jensen (Penn State)

Theoreticians in the Bavarian alps (courtesy of A. Alexandrova). From left to right: D. Glowacki (Bristol), T. Jacob (Ulm), T. Miller (CalTech), A. Alexandrova (UCLA), A. Tkatchenko (Berlin), B. Strodel (Julich), and L. Jensen (Penn State)

It’s all been hectic (more on why later!) so my posts have been delayed. But I wanted to mention a fantastic conference that I attended in August, held at the Kloster Seeon monastery in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Jointly sponsored by the Royal Sociey of Chemistry (RSC), the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh), the aim of the meeting was to bring together some exciting early-career chemists across the UK, USA, and Germany in order to facilitate international networking across diverse chemistry disciplines. The venue was amazing: Kloster Seeon is the site of a 10th century Benedictine monastery, located on an island in the middle of a pristine lake in the Alpine foothills, where I took early morning swims.

I presented in a session entitled ‘Applied Theory’, and had the opportunity to hear loads of amazingly talented scientists discuss their research across biochemistry, materials science, soft matter, theory & computation, organic chemistry, etc. One particular morning, I took a lovely early-morning bicycle ride through the Bavarian countryside along with some fellow theoretical chemists - Alexandre Tkatchenko (Berlin), Anastassia Alexandrova (UCLA), and Thomas Miller (CalTech). The latter two I will be visiting shortly in Los Angeles!

I took the scenic route back to Bristol, through the Austrian alps (passing through Salzburg and Villach) en route to Venice, where I wandered the city exploring the 2013 Biennale. I eventually made my way to Milan to fly back to Bristol.

Telluride Meeting


rainbows over Telluride, singles (left panel) and doubles (right panel)

Between 29 Jul and 1 August 2013, I attended a meeting in the beautiful town of Telluride, Colorado, which is nestled in the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 8,750 ft (2667 m). The meeting was held at the “Telluride Science Research Centre“, and was focussed on “The Role of Dynamics in Enzyme Catalyzed Reactions”. My presentation built off a paper I wrote with some Bristol colleagues. The meeting was extremely interactive: each speaker was scheduled for 60 mins – but for most talks, there was at least as much discussion and interruption as there was presentation! For several of the attendees, I had some level of familiarity with their published work – e.g., Sunny Xie (Harvard), Amnon Kohen (Iowa), Jiali Gao (Minnesota), Judith Klinman (Berkeley), Sharon Hammes-Schiffer (Illinois), and Peter Wright (Scripps) – a pretty qualified set of folks… and they certainly grilled me! It was good fun. I also met some scientists I hadn’t know before – e.g., Pratul Agarwal, Chris Cheatum, Feng Gai, Brian Dyer, and Bob Callender – all of whom were great. The full meeting participant list is available here.

The night before my talk, I was sitting in a cafe putting the final touches on my presentation… and a massive bear nearly walked into the cafe! I reckon he smelled food left over on some plates that hadn’t yet been cleared away! Luckily, the cafe patrons slammed the door shut in time so he couldn’t get it. Good thing too: I was zoned out wearing my noise-canceling headphones, and I was sitting right next to the door he tried to walk through!