Dark Matter

CMS experiment at CERN, very large circular scientific instrument against a black background

Birmingham Ensemble for Electroacoustic Research

BEER stands for ‘Birmingham Ensemble for Electroacoustic Research’, and for this concert the members were Scott Wilson, Konstantinos Vasilakos, Luca Danieli, and Winston Yeung, all from the University of Birmingham’s Electroacoustic Music Studios. Their aim had been to sonify live data streamed from the CMS detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, but unfortunately the collider wasn’t actually running that week, so data from a previous experiment using the same detector was used instead. The data contained information regarding the number, direction, velocities, and energies of approximately 6,000 particle collisions occurring inside the collider, all of which happened in less than a second. Running the data through algorithms coded by the four performers in real time provided enough material for two roughly half-hour long sets at the packed Birmingham Open Media space.

The first set started off quietly and slowly, with some very nice deep synths and gentle bleeps. Rougher noises entered mid-way through, but a sense of pattern and cohesion was retained throughout. Things got more frenetic and chaotic in the second set, with more abrasive timbres and less regularity to the timing and pacing of events. Despite the surface impression of chaos, I could still follow ideas as they developed, an impression of form being perceptible even in the midst of apparent randomness.

At first I wasn’t sure I could hear any connection to the CERN data, but as I listened to the stream of sounds coming from the numerous speakers, seeking out patterns and shapes in the noise, I realised that this is perhaps very close to what the scientists at CERN do when they analyse the collision data from the collider. You could say that there’s a certain aesthetic to the scientific enquiries undertaken at CERN that shares a sort of family resemblance with the aesthetic of BEER’s music: not an aesthetic of the technological sublime, as one often sees in representations of the massive detectors in the collider, but rather one based on distributions of intensities, timing, and the relationships between events. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that the CERN scientists’ forerunners in medieval times considered music to be one of a ‘quadrivium’ of studies alongside arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

I’ve seen BEER perform several times now, and this concert felt like the most coherent and confident I’ve heard from them. The four musicians worked together as a cohesive unit, and the impression of palpable form brought the music a couple of steps forward from where it previously stood. As Danieli aptly put it, things just seemed more “senseful”. While remaining an intriguing context, the computer wizardry receded further into the background, leaving the music to stand simply as music; the way this music made perceptible a certain way of thinking underlying the CERN endeavour was impressive and enlightening, shedding light on a matter that often remains in the dark. Great work!



Image: CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, © 2008 CERN

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