Master of Queen’s Music composition brought to virtual life through interactive online project
The UK’s highest-ranking composer has joined one of the country’s leading new music ensembles and students at the University of Salford to create a unique interactive online project.
Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, oversaw the recording of his piece Eight Songs for a Mad King by the University’s official MediaCityUK Ensemble – Manchester-based contemporary music group Psappha – in the Digital Performance Lab at the University’s MediaCityUK building.
This definitive recording has now been combined with gaming technology to produce a web-based virtual environment which forms part of The Space, an experimental digital arts media service supported by the BBC and funded by Arts Council England.
Users can navigate around the 3D virtual environment and click on more than 70 objects to discover a wide range of additional information about the composer, the music, musicians and aspects of the life of George III on which the score is based.
Moving closer to individual musicians on screen brings out the sound of their instrument, and the site also features a film of Psappha giving a complete performance of the piece, along with a number of other short films about the work.
Eight Songs for a Mad King was written by Salford-born Sir Peter in 1969 and is derived from tunes played by a mechanical organ owned by George III. The King used the organ to try and train bullfinches to sing the tunes; and in Sir Peter’s piece a flautist, cellist, pianist, clarinettist, violinist and percussionist act the parts of the birds, with a baritone vocalist playing the role of George III.
Sir Peter advised the Psappha ensemble at the Digital Performance Lab for two days, during rehearsals and recording, before a third day of filming, and the project also offered the opportunity for students from a number of the University’s courses – including MA Documentary Film-making, MSc Audio Production, BA Television and Radio, and BSc Media Technology – to work alongside the distinguished composer.
The University’s College of Science & Technology MediaCityUK Co-ordinator, Ben Shirley, who oversaw the project with Psappha’s Artistic Director Tim Williams, said: “It was a real honour working with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on the Eight Songs for a Mad King project, which allows you to navigate the composition in many ways.
“Technical development for the resource was carried out by Professor Terrence Fernando’s team at the University’s ThinkLab and visitors to the site can explore many aspects of the piece online using embedded information, including video and audio, which allow you to find out about the piece, its composer, the history of the King and how musicians approach performing this challenging work.
“With staff and students from many areas of the University collaborating on the project, it’s also a great example of what we are doing at MediaCityUK.”
Sir Peter commented: “To have the piece recorded and communicated in this new way is very significant for me. I think the music and the virtual encounter with the protagonists will offer something very special and I hope it will engage people who wouldn’t have considered this type of music before – an audience that wouldn’t perhaps go to a concert.
“The project allows them to interact with the whole performance – with the singers and the players – and experience the piece differently. It may even interest them in the possibilities of music expressing things in themselves which they hadn’t thought were expressible in music before.”
Tim Williams said: “Psappha has developed its digital output over the past five years with its performances being viewed in more than 52 countries. The Space has given us the opportunity to experiment and to reinvent the way we view and interact with music. Eight Songs for a Mad King is a work Psappha has performed more than 60 times across the world and to develop a virtual environment for this work to inhabit, working closely with the composer, is a golden opportunity for the Ensemble.”
To experience the virtual Eight Songs for a Mad King world, visit http://thespace.org/items/p00013qj.