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THE ART OF FUGUE AND THE SCIENCE OF SYMMETRY

Exploring the patterns that connect nature, music and everyday life

The Florian Quartet and Justin Greenhalgh

 
 
 
 
 

Good science, like good art, needs creativity! Through live performance, clear explanations and visual examples, this performance looks at some of the ideas that connect music and science, ranging from the maths of pattern formation to the ways even musicians rely on experiments. By the end of the presentation, you will understand not only the workings of some amazing natural phenomena, but also be able to make sense of some of the most complicated music ever written.

Your guide through this pattern-based musical extravaganza will be engineer and science communicator Justin Greenhalgh, with performances and demonstrations throughout given by the Florian Quartet.

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In the final years of his life, the composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote a complex, long and abstract piece called “Die Kunst der Fuge” – or The Art of Fugue. More than 250 years after his death, Bach’s music is still revered for almost mathematical sense of process and proportion, and this piece is perhaps the ultimate example of a thought experiment exploring the possibilities of musical structure. Starting with a single theme of disarming simplicity, he gradually subjects it to a huge variety of transformations, weaving a musical tapestry of ever-increasing complexity. Listening to this music is a serious cognitive challenge! But how can science, and an investigation of the deep structure of sound, help us to make sense of it? And what might this process tell us about the relationship between science and the arts more generally?

By building visual models of key aspects of the piece, together we develop a musical function box – a tool that we can use to manipulate, play with and understand Bach’s musical material and what he does with it. Delving into The Art of Fugue using this physical language opens up a whole new field of questions. What types of symmetry does the composer draw on? What does he do when the basic transformations sound wrong? What do these visual representations tell us about music’s relation to other aspects of the natural world? And most practically, can building and playing with sonic objects genuinely help us to make sense of this complex piece? We hope to answer some of these questions, and to ask plenty more besides!

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First Performed at Brighton Science Festival 2017.

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