This Musician Plays Piano Duets with a Microorganism

Eduardo Miranda music biocomputing

Eduardo Miranda researches, composes and performs contemporary music at the interface of biology, computing and the human mind.

Eduardo Miranda, Professor of Computer Music at Plymouth University, is the first person to ever compose and perform a piano piece for a human and a microorganism. To allow the tiny creature to play with him, Miranda has built a modified piano with the help of his PhD student Ed Braund.

Basically, the instrument is connected to a computer that can play the piano’s strings, as well as percussion instruments, via electromagnets. But the computer itself has an unusual element: instead of silicon, the bioprocessors that control the piano are made of a living microorganism.

The organism in question is Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold that creates networks of “veins” that can transmit electrical signals. Thanks to Miranda’s biocomputer, this feature of the mold can be used to make it listen and respond to what the musician plays on the piano.

Physarum polycephalum under the microscope
Physarum polycephalum under the microscope

The computer transforms sounds into electrical signals that the microorganism receives and transforms depending on its physiological state at that moment. The result is two collaborative pieces, titled Biocomputer Music and Biocomputer Rhythms, where the part played by the mold varies in each performance.

The audience at Miranda’s concerts has been surprised by the “genuine sense of partnership” between Miranda and the mold. “Seeing things begin to happen when Eduardo is not playing the piano is quite extraordinary,” said another onlooker.

Performance at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival 2016
Performance at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival 2016

Miranda’s research in music also led him to a unique performance titled Activating Memory that starred 4 motor-impaired musicians. Thanks to a brain-computer interface system, the patients could select what each musician of a string quartet would play next, making them able not just to control the music themselves, but to interact with each other and create harmony together.

One of the patients said, through its computer-based communication system: “I like music and I am very interested in the brain-computer interface. It’s more interactive, with people actually getting my instructions. It was great to hear the musician play the phrase I selected. Yes, I tried to select music that was harmonious with the others.

Eduardo Miranda Activating Memory
Members of the Paramusical Ensemble during their performance at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London

Eduardo Miranda has just been appointed composer in residence at Biofaction in Vienna for a project called Synpeptide focusing on synthetic biology and antibiotics. “I look forward to learning more about Synthetic Biology and to engaging with Synpeptide’s scientists to compose a new piece. A musical antibiotic, perhaps?” While waiting for his next piece, you can hear his music on Soundcloud.


All image credits to Eduardo Miranda

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