Plenum: Projecting music and science into the light
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Hertfordshire
Unit of AssessmentMusic, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing, Information Systems
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media
Summary of the impact
Plenum is an algorithmic work composed by Rob Godman in 2010 as
part of a collaborative art-music installation. It was performed six times
between 2010 and 2013 at sound and light festivals in Poland, Estonia and
the UK, at the Cambridge Music Festival, and at an Australian contemporary
arts venue. Audiences totalling over 240,000 heard the work, with website
visitors extending its reach to over 300,000; the Durham Lumiere alone, of
which Plenum formed an integral element, created an estimated £4.3
million for the local economy. Festival and arts curators have described Plenum
as `thought provoking' and `inspiring'.
Rob Godman, Senior Lecturer then Reader in music since 2005, composed an
early version of Plenum in 2010 as part of a collaborative sound
and light project with Professor Simeon Nelson (Art). The entire work was
substantially revised in 2011.
The starting point was a 2-dimensional animated physics model on which
the visual element was to be based. The original concept was for an
algorithmic projection to `drive' the audio, with the intention that the
audio and visual elements should be perceived by an audience as being
generated in real-time — i.e., for the art/sound work to be `live'.
Godman and Nelson `storyboarded' the work's macrostructure, and the
microstructure was then generated algorithmically, closely linked to the
physics models. Working with artist/programmer Nick Rothwell, the
collaborative team developed a networked system (programmed by Rothwell in
Field) whereby the visual component sent data to audio (programmed by
Godman in Max). Synchronisation was dealt with straightforwardly; but,
more pertinently, there was real-time control of all other musical
As all of Plenum's creators are time-based artists, the musical
work's strength lies in its convincing musical shape. The structure was
created by the composer on the macro level, but its microstructure (down
to the parameter settings of the software synthesizers) was generated via
the moving image, performing the function of a real-time graphic score.
This made each iteration of Plenum unique, the relationship
between sound and image being taken far beyond superficial issues of
As Plenum was to be performed at light festivals in Toruń
(Poland), Tallinn (Estonia) and Durham (UK), Godman developed a
multi-channel audio system that could be easily adapted to each outdoor
site's unique acoustic space. Allowing for, and making use of, the
reflective qualities of the surroundings, the system was not restricted to
specific loudspeaker configurations but was instead customisable, taking
into account audience positioning, and particularly the likelihood that
festival-goers would be moving about.
A loudspeaker rig was developed that was capable of projecting the sound
in an outdoor environment with the best possible fidelity. The software
for Plenum's musical component — written by Godman for this
project — allowed the audio to be customised, mixed and fine-tuned for the
space available at each site, making a unique listening experience every
time. This allowed the composer to develop the aesthetic behind the audio
whilst simultaneously achieving a technical realisation.
Using a variety of hybrid synthesiser techniques, the software generated
sounds varying from simple sinusoids — perceptibly difficult for an
audience to localise — to complex noise, which permits accurate and
perceivable point-source localisation. The work's algorithmic nature meant
that the sounds were subject to constant change, and were not predictable.
Given that the visual part of the artwork was partly informed by Nelson's
conversations with Durham University astrophysicist Revd Professor David
Wilkinson, the sinusoids, which mimicked early synthesis techniques from
the 1960s, were an apposite, tongue-in-cheek reference to the sound-world
of science-fiction movies of this period.
Since 2010, Plenum has been performed on six occasions. It is
site-specific as a result of the customisable sound and image projection
systems created by the team, combined with the uniqueness of the venues.
The venues' surroundings were chosen with their natural acoustic in mind
(perceived aurally and visually) — the music `playing' and intervening
with the natural reflections large structures produce. The point-source
localisation techniques allowed an audible understanding of the
surroundings. The `purpose' of the building (sacred, public meeting place,
etc) was explored and combined with the electronic acoustic (models of
Gothic cathedrals, `sacred' domes), sometimes matching the visual
surrounding and at other times being contradictory. These acoustics became
References to the research
Nelson, S., Godman, R. and Rothwell, N. Plenum. 2011
(Computer-generated real-time architectural sound and light projection.)
August 2010: Sound and light projection presented on Collegium Maximum
Façade, Toruń, Poland. Skyway '10 Festival. This was an early version of Plenum,
substantially revised in 2011.
August 2011: Sound and light projection presented on Church of the Holy
Spirit, Toruń, Poland. Lux Scientia, Skyway '11 Festival.
September 2011: Sound and light projection presented on Tallinna Raekoda,
Tallinn, Estonia. Lux Scientia, Valgus Festival
November 2011: Sound and light projection presented on St Oswald's
Church, Durham. Lux Scientia, Lumiere (produced by Artichoke
June-July 2012: Gallery presentation, Kick Arts, Centre of Contemporary
Arts, Cairns, Australia.
November 2012: Sound and light projection presented on King's College
Chapel, Cambridge, Cambridge Music Festival.
Details of the impact
Plenum was presented on six occasions in Europe and Australia
between 2010 and 2012. As a site-specific public work, each time it was
projected onto different buildings and surfaces the acoustic of the space
created a unique sound-world. Festival and event curators confirm that,
over the six performances, the installation was experienced by over
240,000 people; if website visitors are included, this rises to well over
300,000. Plenum was also discussed by resident artists and
scientists at `round tables' held by each festival, and at a culminating
symposium in London.
Three performances — at Toruń (Poland), Tallinn (Estonia) and Durham —
came under the Lux Scientia umbrella, described as `a major collaboration
and international dialogue' between the three light festivals. Three
artists were each commissioned to create an installation inspired by
discussions with a scientist about the scientific and aesthetic aspects of
light. The organisers reported that the resulting performances attract ed
a total of 240,000 visitors to the three festivals, and generated over 500
press, online and TV/radio features. The festivals' combined reach was
further extended by 125,980 website visitors and 2,294 views of the Lux
Scientia micro-site. The UK curatorial team, the Artichoke Trust, drew
150,000 visitors to the Durham Lumiere alone, significantly more than the
other two light festivals combined. Durham County Council estimated that
the Lumiere generated £4.3 million for the local economy.
Figures are unavailable for the Skyway '10 festival performance (Poland,
2010), but two other Plenum performances saw audiences of just
over 2,000 each: KickArts Contemporary Arts in Cairns, Australia reported
2,100 visitors over June and July 2012; while the Cambridge Music Festival
(November 2012) attracted an audience of around 2,500 over the two-night
projection onto King's College Chapel. Again, the work's online presence
extended the audience, with almost 3,300 Youtube views (in aggregate) of
six videos of Plenum posted at various times between early 2011
and July 2013.
Festival curators have commented on Plenum's significance and its
reception by audiences. Mário Caeiro, Toruń curator and the work's
original commissioner, described Plenum as `thought provoking and
exciting', noting in particular that: `The adaptation of sound to visual
concept, as well of the sound and image concept to a building (taken as
peculiar kind of canvas), was of course a way to let art become truly
important . . . for the public to be "there", at the artistic event,
becomes truly a cognitive experience.'
After the King's College performance, part of the 2012 Cambridge Music
Festival, the festival's director said of the installation's musical
Plenum . . . appeals on many levels: from the scientists' awareness of
particles amassing and breaking up, to the modern beauty and clarity of
the narrative inspired by the stories and science of creation. Popular
culture does not always demand much from its audiences but Plenum had that
broad appeal but also demanded concentration and for people to allow
themselves to be absorbed into the ever-changing sound and projection.
On another occasion, he described the festival as something that combined
`music, education and technology . . . and really what Plenum is
about is trying to bring together at least the music and technology
This performance also created press interest from sources as diverse as Gramophone,
technology publication Cabume, the BBC, and student newspapers Varsity
and The Cambridge Student. The latter reported that `many King's
students appeared to enjoy the show, despite not seeming to know what it
was about', and included humorous impressions alongside more considered
observations: `Plenum starts as a grid of dots of light that slowly, but
with increasing energy, merge together, decay and vanish in time with
pulsating music and `alien sounds' which made one King's student comment:
"it sounded like the world was ending".'
The installation's Australian curator reacted positively to the work:
The combination of the sounds and the visual made that I felt I was
WITHIN the work; there were no boundaries between sound, visual and
myself, it was an experience of being entirely "present", all "thought"
becoming "non-thought" . . . I found the work utterly inspiring.
Plenum's sound-world is now migrating from public art to
concert-hall performance, in which the visuals will be projected inside
the buildings rather than onto exteriors. In this form, it has been booked
for three separate music events during 2013/14: the Huddersfield
Contemporary Music Festival (November 2013), Frome Festival (July 2014)
and the Kings Place experimental and multimedia group of concerts, London
(January 2014). This shift demonstrates that Plenum has succeeded
as a customisable piece, capable of presentation in a wide range of
environments and able to reach different audiences.
Sources to corroborate the impact
`Lux Scientia: A European Collaboration', 2012. Vital Statistics from the
three European Light Festivals, compiled by Helen Marriage and Nicky Webb
(Lumiere, Durham); Przemysław Draheim (Skyway Festival, Toruń); and Indrek
Leht (Valgusfestival, Tallinn), 12pp.
Selected Media Coverage
`Durham Lumiere festival "attracts over 150,000"', BBC News Tyne &
Wear, 21 November 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-15826943>
`Durham's Lumiere festival of light "brought in £4.3m"', BBC News Tyne
& Wear, 11 April 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-17674458>
Anthie Karavaggelis, `"Plenum" light show illuminates Kings Chapel, but
is too "artsy fartsy" for some', The Cambridge Student, 22 Nov
2012, p. 9. Available from TCS downloads page (Michaelmas Issue 9 2012):
`King's College Chapel illuminated for Cambridge festival', BBC News
Cambridgeshire, 16 November 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-20359362>
Justin Lee, `Joining the dots — Technology and music meet at Cambridge
Music Festival', Cabume <http://www.cabume.co.uk/blog/joining-the-dots-technology-and-music-meet-at-cambridge-music-festival.html>
`Light fantastic music show to entertain city', Cambridge News, 6
November 2012, <http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/News/Light-fantastic-music-show-to-entertain-city-06112012.htm>
Plenum video, including interview with Justin Lee, Cambridge Music
Festival Director, November 2012. Available on the Cambridge Music
Festival website: <http://www.cammusic.co.uk/watch.html>
Several videos of Plenum are available on Youtube (including
Toruń Skyway 11 (2011): <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcsirsXCEPU>
Durham Lumiere (2011): <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkGaUd3D_bQ>
Toruń Skyway 10 (2010): <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cysjxHzCoh0>
Contact details are supplied separately for representatives of the Torun
Skyway Festival, Cambridge Music Festival and KickArts Contemporary Arts,
who provided comments and visitor statistics cited in section 4.