What did you do before joining dBs?
My academic background is in Cognitive & Computational Neuroscience, specialising in the Auditory Psychophysics of coloured-hearing Synaesthesia (where people experience sensations of colour associated with musical notes) and later Auditory Object formation (how our ear-brain de-mixes the auditory world into a foreground vs background). My undergraduate work in synaesthesia formed a chapter of the now standard textbook on the subject and the wikipedia page on Chromaesthesia (not written by me!) mentions test subject MH—that’s my mum! I was also Managing Editor of Cambridge University Press’ flagship journal The Behavioural & Brain Sciences, where I was based in New York for a year.
Why did you first get into Electro-Acoustic Composition and Instrument design?
Designing and playing modular synthesizers makes me the 50:50 mix of my composer/pianist mother and mechanical engineer/designer father. Two early ‘sound memories’ informed that—lying as a baby under mum’s grand piano as she played, feeling vibrations hit all over my body from the soundboard above me, and then aged 5, dad showing me a silver box, telling me to press this (a flap opens), insert this slab of plastic, close the flap, press this orange button, and say something. Then press this (whurrr) and this (click)...and I heard myself speak. I’d never seen a tape recorder before but I knew once a sound happened it was gone forever…so this was a time machine. I’d learnt then that you could combine sound and electronics to make the impossible happen.
Any special areas of interest?
Aside from the CogSci areas, my musical background is piano/keyboard and composition. I’ve written for choir, piano, orchestra and chamber and explore work combining those acoustic approaches with semi-improvised modular synthesiser parts. Latterly that’s materialised into designing Eurorack modules which combine the classical playing tradition I come from with the generative systems approach to composition at which modulars excel. This Performable Process ethos underpins both my company Stochastic Instruments and the Modular Research Group I founded at dBs. We incorporate those design/manufacture/marketing/business skills into lecture/seminar work with students together with the more standard aspects of music history, aesthetics, theory, composition and synthesizer sound design.
What do you love most about what you do?
School was ‘arts’ vs ‘sciences’ and ‘safe’ careers were banker, lawyer, Forces—so combining arts, science and technology, at the highest levels of scholarship, to do Rock’n’Roll(!) and make a steady, viable income from that is very special. Better still, dBs means working alongside, learning from, and counting as friends world experts in their field. Best of all is the thrill of watching students traverse the 7 year arch from FE (where we impart the knowledge), through Undergraduate (where we challenge it) to Masters where we generate new knowledge and shape the future of our shared discipline together as subject experts.
Tell us about your proudest career moment?
A sixth-form Michael Nyman project becoming the basis for the main scholarly text on him and my undergrad thesis being deemed innovative enough for publication as a major textbook chapter were early thrills. Then, studying composition under Michael Finnissy, I had a choral work selected for concert performance: afterwards I overheard the Head of Music ask Michael “Who’s our star composer then?”—“Oh he’s not even one of ours! He’s neuroscience!”. Setting up dBs’ Berlin school [Now Catalyst] with an event at the Embassy was pretty amazing, as was winning International Moodler of the Year(!) Latterly being asked to headline Illuminate was amazing, seeing SIG in famous Eurorack cases (J.J. Abrams, Tobin, Devine, London Grammar…) and winning Best Module 2021 is incredible—but my greatest pride is nurturing the next generation of professionals in the field I’ve dedicated my career to.
What do you get up to outside of your role at dBs?
Besides running SI I love sailing and surfing around Plymouth’s unique world-class watersport surroundings. I still fence épée/foil (once upon a time Nationally) but alas middle age spread put paid to any Olympic aspirations! I love comedy clubs, walking, fossiling and astronomy and, again, we’re fantastically lucky Plymouth has them all: 20 mins from a National Dark Sky Site free from light pollution where you can see galaxies, nebulae, stellar nurseries and a solar eclipse on another planet! I play keyboards in Super8 and gig improvised modular as HeadCell. Finally, I’m involved in animal advocacy, championing sentiocentrist veganism and neuro-ethics.
Tell us something our students may not know about you?
Some fun ones! Bram ‘Dracula’ Stoker was my 3-greats uncle and Sir Robert Peel (PM, founder of the police—not the band) my 5-greats uncle. My year in New York was amazing (sad too: I saw 9/11 first hand) and my incredible landlady (‘60s New York Jazz Club owner and Black Panther activist!) had the most astonishing stories you’ve ever heard (Miles Davies, John Lennon, Mick Jagger…). I was also a Continuity Extra/Runner on Sir Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film Twelfth Night, acting and hanging out with a bunch of thesps like Helena Bonham Carter, Richard E. Grant, Ben Kingsley and Imelda Staunton.
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