Dark Matter: Music Meets Physics

This blog post written by Scott Wilson was originally published on March 22nd, 2018, on Esprit Orchestra website. Esprit Orchestra is Canada's only full-sized professional orchestra devoted to performing and promoting new orchestral music.

Several years ago, my friend and collaborator Konstantinos Vasilakos approached me with an idea to develop a collaboration between CERN and our laptop group, the Birmingham Ensemble for Electroacoustic Research. The idea was to develop ways of transforming data from experiments at the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s largest particle accelerator – into electronic music and visuals, allowing us to hear and see the results of this cutting-edge research into the nature of the universe. This was under the auspices of art@CMS, an established international project for collaboration between art and science. They connected us with physicist Maurizio Pierini, who along with Kostas Nikolopoulos and Tom McCauley has served as physicist advisor and collaborator.

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In the original stages of the project, we worked with what is called live coding; essentially making music by writing computer programmes in real time. This is done in such a way that they can be re-written ‘on the fly’, while they are running. The physics data formed source material for our improvisations, and our goal was to explore the unique character of these particle collisions by rendering their salient aspects in sound, creating surprising results and challenging us as performers to respond musically. This evolved into a fruitful and ongoing project, leading most recently to this new work for orchestra, electronic sound, and video for Esprit. While not an improvisation, it uses similar approaches to produce orchestral material as well as electronic music. Working in SuperCollider (the environment we use with the ensemble, of which I’m an active developer), I developed initial sonifications which I then converted to musical notation. These formed the core material of the work, both in terms of orchestral writing and electronic sound. The orchestra parts consist both of music derived from these (in whole or in fragments), and a variety of responses to them, inspired by the fascinating musical characters they exhibited. In some sense this work must be intuitive: Particle collisions do not sound like anything, except as made audible through an algorithm which maps aspects of the event to sounds or musical materials.

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The visualizations posed a similar problem: We cannot see sub-atomic particles, as they are beyond that level of reality in which sight can be said to function; outside of the mechanisms which make ‘sight’ possible. All we can do is capture their traces, render their geometry. Many of the techniques historically utilized for this (the predecessors of today’s advanced particle accelerators) result in images which are beautiful and strange in their own right, and the mysterious tracks that can be seen in cloud chambers have been a powerful inspiration to me in this work.

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The completed piece is in three movements. The first, Clouds, is based around a melody derived from a single particle collision – a sort of slow-motion version of both that event and the accompanying electronic sound. The second, Particles, is based around different sonifications with unique musical characters, which inspire orchestral responses. The final movement, Tapestries, weaves together lines of music derived from different physics events into a rhythmic interplay, inspired by Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow’s words: “Tapestries are made by many artisans working together. The contributions of separate workers cannot be discerned in the completed work, and the loose and false threads have been covered over. So it is in our picture of particle physics.”

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