Seminal research into musical ‘illusions’ influences new piece for Contemporary Music Festival

A piece of music exploring the contrasting ways sounds are perceived by different listeners is to premiere as part of the Contemporary Music Festival 2019.

The acclaimed BBC Singers will perform Illusions, by Lithuanian composer and University of Plymouth Visiting Research Fellow Linas Baltas, in the festival’s Gala Concert on Saturday 23 February.

The piece opens the concert, which is to be recorded live for BBC Radio 3, before a performance of festival Director Professor Eduardo Miranda’s new opera, Lampedusa.  

Illusions takes as its starting point the research of Diana Deutsch, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

Deutsch, an international authority on the psychology of music, discovered a range of paradoxes – or illusions – showing that the way people hear even simple musical patterns can differ strikingly.

Baltas is a researcher in the University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), who has appeared as a guest at the festival over the last five years. He has taken Deutsch’s discoveries and used her ideas as a springboard, creating his own illusions of different types in the piece.

The key to Illusions is Baltas’ playful experimentation with meaning, language, and its constituent sounds. The piece is entirely a cappella, with lyrics made up of words that have meaning in Latin, Lithuanian and English, as well as phonemes – individual sounds – and syllables that are used in classical Latin, Icelandic, Hindi and Mandarin.

With these phonemes, Baltas builds a style of music he calls ‘polyphonetic’ – where singers produce different sounds, from different languages, simultaneously. He also takes inspiration from the natural world when he recreates sounds including that of an iceberg becoming ‘beached’ on a shoal, as recorded by the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He uses syllables associated with clocks and the passing of time, while subtly playing with the tempo of the piece, to give the illusion that time itself is speeding up.

He said:

“My idea for a piece to fit into the festival theme of Multiverse came from an interest in the work of Diana Deutsch, who carried out important research into how music and the mind interact.

“Later I had some new ideas about how I could use sounds from different languages to express the different possibilities and parallel meanings in a single musical moment.

“It will be an honour to premiere this piece with a performance by the BBC Singers, who are absolutely top class performers. Everyone knows and loves the singers, and they are internationally renowned from their performances at the Proms and around the world.

“This should be a real celebration for Plymouth.”

Running over the weekend of Friday 22 to Sunday 24 February 2019, the festival is organised by the University of Plymouth’s Arts Institute in partnership with the ICCMR.

With a theme of Multiverse, the 2019 edition is aimed at helping us understand how the mysteries of quantum science relate to daily reality, through musical interpretations of the quantum world. Now in its 14th year, this annual celebration of contemporary music has developed a national reputation for combining artistic creativity with scientific development. The event was formerly known as the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival. 

Linas Baltas 'Dining'

Performed at the Contemporary Music Festival 2017

Peninsula Arts Sinfonietta and four singers, conductor: Simon Ible

Contemporary Music Festival 2019: MULTIVERSE

MULTIVERSE is the theme of University of Plymouth Contemporary Music Festival (CMF) 2019, which celebrates the internationally renowned research combining music, engineering and the life sciences developed at the University of Plymouth’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR).

MULTIVERSE proposes a weekend of musical interpretations of the quantum world.