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.”
University of East Anglia/Newcastle University
Consumers would be less likely to unlawfully file-share films and music if they were made more aware of the effort that goes into producing creative material. That’s the main finding of a study conducted by researchers at the University of East Anglia and Newcastle University with funding from CREATe, the UK research centre for copyright. It also found that greater risk of punishment and more severe penalties would reduce such behaviour.
A new method for the rapid diagnosis of poisoning in apparently drunken patients has been developed by scientists at Loughborough University and the University of Córdoba in Spain. The saliva-based test offers the potential to screen for poisons commonly associated with cheap or imitation alcohol and gamma-hydroxybutyrate, the “date rape” drug GHB. The research involved adding chemicals to fresh saliva collected from three healthy volunteers and then extracting them using an oral sampler.
University of Salford
The University of Salford has linked up with Manchester United Football Club to provide journalism students with first-hand experience of sports reporting. Final-year journalism students will work alongside Manchester United staff managing the club’s live image feed service and writing news stories, short features and player reaction reports at United’s home games for the club’s official website, ManUtd.com. Undergraduates will also work in the press box and get the chance to interview first team stars in the “mixed zone” where players meet journalists.
Royal Agricultural University
Joanna Price, current head of the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, will take over as vice-chancellor of the Royal Agricultural University later this year. The RAU last week announced the appointment of Professor Price to succeed Chris Gaskell on his retirement in September. Professor Price was previously professor of veterinary anatomy at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, and her research has focused on deer antler regeneration and bone’s adaptation to mechanical loading.
University of Durham/University of Bristol
A research project is aiming to answer questions about the differences between “healthy” breathlessness – such as that after exercise – and breathlessness brought on by a medical condition. The Life of Breath study, led by researchers from the universities of Durham and Bristol, will explore how clinicians and ordinary people understand breathlessness and where different attitudes towards breathlessness could have their roots. During the project, the team will examine breath and breathlessness in philosophy, literature and medical and cultural history.
Leeds Beckett University
Elite female runners are better at pacing themselves in marathons than their male counterparts, research has found. Findings from a study conducted by Leeds Beckett University academics showed that top female athletes were more likely than men to run at an even pace during long-distance races, and therefore would be less likely to drop out. It also showed that their conservative starting paces meant that there was a greater reliance on sprint finishes deciding medal places compared with men’s races. The study was published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
University of Exeter
January may be the worst possible time to start a diet, research into weight gain has suggested. Scientists from the University of Exeter modelled how much fat animals store in their bodies – by responding to food scarcity and the risk of being killed by a predator when foraging – and found that there was little incentive for them to restrict their body weight. It also predicted that the incentive to gain weight was highest when food was scarce, such as in winter.
University of Cambridge
Allowing more of the UK to become natural woodland and wetland could act as a major carbon sink that would offset 80 per cent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century, a study has found. University of Cambridge research also suggested that this would help to protect wildlife and reduce flooding. However, it cautions, this would require greater yields from existing farmland to offset the reduction in land use.