The payoff of 'buy' or 'sell' will be harmony or discord

Composer and banker team up for opera created by stock market patterns. Matthew Reisz reports

November 15, 2012

A composer based at Plymouth University has joined forces with a banker to create a "reality opera" where singers make music by trading in a functioning stock market.

Alexis Kirke, research fellow in music at Plymouth's Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research and composer-in-residence at its Marine Institute, used to work as a computer programmer at a brokerage in London and as a quantitative analyst in New York.

"I was always fascinated by the sheer passion of trading floors," he says, picking out in particular "the open outcry trading floor, where the brokers communicate by shouting and waving their hands.

"You can get an idea of the emotions in the market just by standing and listening."

Most of Dr Kirke's earlier works relied heavily on technology. Cloud Chamber was scored for "violin and live subatomic particles". Sunlight Symphony attached sensors to Plymouth's seven-storey Roland Levinsky Building and transformed the changing light readings of the breaking dawn into sounds. Sound-Wave used a wave tank as a musical instrument. But the idea for Open Outcry came from a desire "to do something about people rather than computer-based".

In order to make it happen, Dr Kirke teamed up with Greg Davies, head of behavioural and quantitative finance at Barclays, who turned out to have been a keen singer since around the age of 8 ("the South African equivalent of a cathedral choir boy"). Dr Davies was able to secure financial support from his employer for the venture and to bring on board 12 singers from his own accomplished amateur choir, the Elysian Singers, which specialises in 20th-century and contemporary a cappella music.

Stock phrases and the visible hand

For their roles in Open Outcry, which will be performed at the Egyptian Hall of London's Mansion House on 15 November, each has learned six musical phrases, three for buying and three for selling. Yet they remain free to respond as they wish to the changing stock prices displayed on a screen. If two of them can agree a price, their tunes will match and harmonise; if everybody tries to sell at the same time, the result will be very discordant.

Although the shape of the "opera" is largely determined by the performers, Dr Kirke as conductor retains the power to bring on a boom or a bust if he thinks it would improve the dramatic arc.

"Finance is highly driven by emotion," explains Dr Kirke. "The singers are competing in a real market for real (albeit relatively small) sums of money. I have discouraged them from singing in an expressive way: I want the expressiveness to come from the real emotions of trading."

In finding the singers and modelling the market, Dr Davies believes he has taken on "a very creative role for someone whose day job is working in a bank". While denying any "political agenda", he hopes that Open Outcry will "break down preconceptions about the creativity and beauty inherent in finance and how markets work".

He adds: "The aggregate of thousands of people following a goal and their emotions leads to something really quite beautiful, a bit like huge flocks of birds that turn on a dime and create wonderful patterns."

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