Making music from physics: a different kind of composer-in-residence

Drew Mulholland explains how his unique role at the University of Glasgow is at the heart of cross-disciplinary conversations

January 21, 2016
Caves of Kilhern, Kilhern Moss
Source: Alamy montage
Far out: Drew Mulholland visited a Bronze Age cairn and a Neolithic burial chamber to record the outer magnetic fields

Many university music departments may retain a composer-in-residence. But how many science faculties can say the same thing?

Perhaps only at the University of Glasgow, where Drew Mulholland fulfils this role for the School of Physics and Astronomy and also for the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences.

His recent compositions have included a performance for a “laser harp” – a harp played by blocking laser beams rather than plucking strings that was designed by staff and students in the physics and astrophysics department. For the piece, Mr Mulholland created a graphic score using alchemical symbols from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s histories of natural philosophy and John Dee’s “magical” symbolism.

He has just completed an album made up of the sound of the outer magnetic fields, which was recorded using a very low-frequency receiver at sites around Scotland that included a Bronze Age cairn, a Neolithic burial chamber and a Second World War decoy installation.

In a more traditional vein, Mr Mulholland was commissioned last year to compose a cello duet commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos, which marked the British army’s first use of poison gas during the First World War. For the composer, the piece had a particular poignancy because his grandfather was a stretcher-bearer during the battle and lost two fingers from his left hand when he was shot, ending his passion for playing the violin and the bagpipes.

To some observers, having a composer-in-residence outside the music department might sound like something that is nice to have, but perhaps not essential in a time of reduced public spending.

But Mr Mulholland argued that a composer-in-residence could play an important role in the functioning of the modern university.

“The idea is that it is cross-disciplinary, that you start to have musicians talking to physicists, astronomers and geographers,” he said. “It’s seriously trying to get away from the idea that, ‘I’m in this ivory tower; what would I have to say to a microbiologist?’

“None of us are at a university because we fell into the job; we are here because we are incredibly passionate about what we are doing, and all of us want to spread the word about what we are doing.”

Mr Mulholland, for his part, has been at Glasgow since 2008, when he joined the institution from Glasgow Caledonian University on a Leverhulme fellowship.

He combines his composing activities with his activities as an honorary research fellow in the geography school, lecturing in psychogeography: the study of individuals’ emotional and behavioural responses to their environments.

Mr Mulholland is regarded by many as the godfather of the psychogeography movement, and it is a common theme in many of his compositions, a relationship that harks back to his previous musical project, an experimental low-fi electronica outfit called Mount Vernon Arts Lab.

A 2001 album, The Séance at Hobs Lane, under the project’s banner was a journey “into a world of abandoned Underground stations, Quatermass, 18th-century secret societies and the footsore reveries of a modern flâneur”. Mr Mulholland also found success in a series of collaborations, including with Adrian Utley, the Portishead guitarist.

It is clear that Mr Mulholland’s role is very different from that of a composer-in-residence who is expected to provide a piece for the university orchestra once a year – and yet that is exactly why, he said, it is so important.

“I know it’s a bit edgy, but that’s where movement comes from; that’s where innovation comes from,” Mr Mulholland said. “If I was a 17- or 18-year-old and I heard about some lunatic doing this stuff, I would want to investigate it. Some people would look at the buildings here [at Glasgow] and think it’s really stuffy and stuck in the 19th century, and it’s not at all.”

Returning to the theme of relevance, Mr Mulholland acknowledged that other universities in the UK support similar initiatives, but he said he worried that this might be lost as institutions become “sausage machines” focused only on producing employable graduates.

“If you look back to the first principles of universities, they were founded on the liberal arts, they were not designed to be business houses,” he said. “The fact that I’m here at Glasgow shows that there is still some semblance of adhering to a liberal arts education, which I fervently believe is very important.

“A broad base of different disciplines that you can jump between and take things in a different direction is incredibly important.”

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Print headline: Artist writes the sciences into music of the spheres

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