Seafood sustainability inspires digital music

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Two UBC professors and Peter Wall Faculty Associates have come together to translate issues around seafood sustainability into digital music through the UBC Laptop Orchestra.

“I do believe that scientific knowledge needs artistic media for packaging,” says Dr. Hedy Law, UBC School of Music professor, who collaborated with Dr. William Cheung from the UBC Fisheries Centre, alongside Keith Hamel and Bob Pritchard from the UBC School of Music for the Peter Wall Institute Roundtable, Seafood in an Uncertain Future.

Together with the UBC Laptop Orchestra, they have created two musical works using live instruments, electronic sounds and video projection which present different interpretations of the interplay between nature and humans with respect to oceans, fishing and the Earth’s ecosystem.

“If Beethoven used the chorus in 1824 in his Symphony No. 9 to have people sing together and to express solidarity, so too can we, of course, in 2014, use digital multi-media in the form of the UBC Laptop Orchestra to raise awareness of seafood sustainability,” she explains.

The UBC Laptop Orchestra, led by Pritchard, code their own computer instruments or audio/video processes. Those systems are then controlled through gesture tracking of traditional instruments, dance, piano or string performance, or by using webcams, Kinects, Wiis, accelerometers, game controls, custom circuits, Arduinos, iPhones, iPads, or other tablets.

Cheung first became interested in Law’s research into nonverbal media of gesture and music when they met as Early Career Scholars at the Peter Wall Institute.

“William and Yoshi found the nonverbal dimension of my work appropriate for the project, specifically that waves, water currents and fish can easily be depicted by music without text,” says Law.

The composition of these pieces have been months in the making. Hamel has been working with his students and the Laptop Orchestra over the fall semester to complete the compositions.

But both Cheung and Law agree this is just the beginnings of a project which has already motivated them to move onto the next stage of research and artistic creation.

“This is a good example of transdisciplinary collaboration, through which the five of us are co-developing new knowledge,” says Cheung. “From my point of view, we are innovating ways and dimensions to represent and communicate issues regarding ocean and seafood sustainability. Similarly, I have been learning a lot through this collaboration. I truly believe that the outcomes of this collaboration will go beyond this roundtable and concert.”

Law says this is not a case of science “influencing” art.

“Nowadays disciplines all learn from each other in multi-directional and nonlinear ways,” she continues. “I think this is one of strongest messages I get from the Peter Wall Institute at UBC.”

UBC musicologist, Hedy Law, talks about the inception of the project through her research into non-verbal communication.

“Real collaboration between scientists and artists are absolutely crucial in the 21st century. None of us can do it all these days. We must set aside our pride and learn from other disciplines,” says Law.  

The musical works were presented at a public event on December 11, 2014, entitled Can we eat seafood in the future? held at the UBC School of Music Barnett Hall.