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Duet for Violin and Sub-Atomic Particles
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How to Play a Duet for Violin and Radioactive Particles

By Olivia Solon, Wired U.K.

Composer Alexis Kirke has created a duet between subatomic radioactive particles and a live violinist.

Kirke is a member of the University of Plymouth’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, led by professor Eduardo Miranda. Kirke’s keen interest in quantum mechanics led him to collaborate with the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England.

In order to achieve the subatomic part of the duet, radioactive material (radium 225) is placed into a cloud chamber, a device used by physicists to observe particle trails.

The cloud chamber is a self-contained environment filled with a supersaturated alcohol vapor, which is cooled with liquid nitrogen. When radioactive material is placed into the chamber, charged particles pass through the supersaturated air at close to the speed of light and leave behind numerous ions as they go. Each of these ions becomes a nucleation site for droplet condensation, creating a visible track of tiny droplets indicating the trajectories of the charged particles.


In the duet, a camera above the cloud chamber follows the particle tracks and converts them into synthesized music, which accompanies the violin. Fellow Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research members Anna Troisi and Antonino Chiaramonte worked with Miranda to produce a visual-recognition-to-sound interface called the Cloud Catcher. This tracks the subatomic particles and uses them to control levels on a digital sound synthesizer in real time.

Meanwhile, Kirke recruited professional violinist John Matthias, a Radiohead and Coldcut collaborator, to be the human part of the duet. An amplified version of the violin part was also sent to an electromagnetic field system positioned near the particles. Thus Matthias’ playing creates a variable force field in the chamber, influencing the way the particles behave. This ensures that the duet between radioactive particles and violinist is as dynamic as possible.

The Cloud Chamber will debut at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival on Feb. 11. This year the festival has a theme of “Re-Sounding Science” and explores the creativity of scientific apparatus, the technological tools of 21st-century music creation and neuroscience.


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