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Particle physics inspires classical composer

16 Nov 2011

In an exciting new collaboration, the internationally renowned composer Edward Cowie is teaming up with particle physicist Brian Foster and the violinist Jack Liebeck. Cowie has been commissioned to produce a major new series of works for violin that will trace the history of particle physics from the late 19th century through to the present day. This video offers an exclusive insight into the creative process as the trio meet at Oxford University to discuss the work and Liebeck and Foster to make their first tentative efforts at playing the music.

Cowie is no stranger to physics, having studied the subject at Imperial College London before focusing his energy on more artistic activities. He has long believed there are deep connections between mathematics and music. And in this latest work, called “Particle Partitas”, he has composed a series of 20 short pieces that he says are directly inspired by particle physics.

“The music is shaped by the activity of particle physics,” explains Cowie in the film. “In terms of the way subatomic particles are observable in their collisions, in their traces, in their impacts, music can do the same thing. You can make music that has a device into which it is forced to impact – fragments fly off it and they have behaviours, which can parallel.”

Cowie’s collaborator Foster is a high-profile figure in the particle-physics community. Based at Oxford University, Foster also holds the Humboldt Professorship in association with Hamburg University and the DESY lab, as well as being affiliated with CERN. Foster is also a keen violinist and he will be familiar to readers from his involvement in “Einstein’s Universe”, a music–science show that was documented in this video from 2010.

Completing the trio is Liebeck, who previously worked with Foster on “Einstein’s Universe”. Liebeck is a highly regarded classical violinist who has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras. He is signed to Sony Classical and last year was awarded the 2010 Young British Classical Performer or Group prize at the Classical BRIT Awards.

For the performances of “Particle Partitas”, the music will be interspersed with short lectures by Foster on the history of particle physics, and he hopes that the shows will be of great interest to the general public. “There will be a narrative there that will explain the development of physics and particle physics,” says Foster. “I think it’s a fascinating story with the various extraordinary imaginations of the scientists who really took the leaps of understanding.”

All three collaborators are aware of the potential pitfalls of art–science collaborations, but they are confident that “Particle Partitas” will offer something engaging and unique. Musician Liebeck is already impressed by what he has seen so far. “Sometimes, I suppose that something inspired by science could end up being dry and theoretical, but there seems to be a lot of colour and interest in [this work],” he says. “I’m really looking forward to digging deeper into the depths of the music.”

The trio will now practise the music and Foster will prepare his lectures, with a plan to perform the show during the 2012/2013 concert seasons. Foster says that the debut performance will be in the UK, but he then hopes to take the concert to particle-physics facilities in Europe and the US, including DESY and CERN.

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