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Making Beautiful ‘Biomusic’ Together: Pianos and Fungi

Making Beautiful ‘Biomusic’ Together: Pianos and Fungi

Take a moment and think about the beautiful music that could be made with a piano and… fungus.

“What on Earth…?”, you may be thinking. Well, Professor Eduardo Miranda from Plymouth University is also a arts festival director and musician, and he’s been inspired by slime mould.

The professor’s latest work uses cultures of the fungus Physarum polycephalum, which has been turned into the core component for an interactive biocomputer.

“The composition evolves as an interaction between me as a human playing the piano, and the Physarum machine,” explained Professor Miranda. “I play something, the system listens, plays something back, and then I respond, and so on.”

So the biocomputer essentially works by receiving signals and responding. But how does the mould do this? Basically, the Physarum forms a living electronic component in a circuit, which processes sounds picked up by a microphone trained on the piano.

The fungus forms tiny tubes that have the electrical property of acting as a sort of variable resistor called a memristor, enabling it to respond to previously applied voltages.

Memristors have only recently been discovered in solid state electronic, but they can be programmed by voltages, which is how they’re being used in the musical biocomputer.

So, the pianist plays his tune on the piano, rather conventionally, and the biocomputer excites notes through small electromagnets that hover mere millimetres above the metal strings of the piano.

Professor Miranda explained that the biocomputer acts much in the same way as a memory device. It takes in the notes it has been sent, scrambles them and sends them back. Sometimes, the biocomputer is even able to generate some pitches that weren’t in the notes it was sent, giving it a little creativity.

The professor, being Head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), has been exploring the use of computers in this manner for a long time. However, there is something about the simplicity of his Physarum processor that he values.

“What I hear is very different from having a digital computer that I have programmed with strings of data,” he explained. “There is a component that is thinking, in an analogue, biological way.

“It’s not intelligent, but it is alive, and that is interesting.”

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