Posted on behalf of Jo Baker
Music and language are codes. And Sentences, a new 30-minute work for chamber orchestra and voice by eclectic New York-based composer Nico Muhly, is a moving dialogue on abstraction and emotion in the life of British mathematician and wartime code-breaker Alan Turing. Turing is often portrayed as a binary individual – celebrated wartime hero and troubled genius, thought to have taken his own life in 1954. Even the title has a double meaning. Turing was sentenced to chemical castration in 1952 when homosexuality was illegal in the UK (he was posthumously ‘pardoned’ in 2013).
I was dazzled by the world premiere of Sentences at London’s Barbican Hall. The playing, by the inventive Britten Sinfonia with Muhly conducting, and the soaring otherworldly voice of countertenor Iestyn Davies, melded into a smart and unexpectedly moving speculation on the man behind the myth.
Turing’s tragic tale could have spawned a morose movie-soundtrack score, but Muhly’s influences are diverse. He has assisted minimalist composer Philip Glass (Q&A’d here), collaborated with pop original Björk (Q&A’d here), written film scores and operas. The depth of his music is matched by that of the libretto, from Adam Gopnik, the essayist and New Yorker regular. Gopnik wrangles with vexed questions: why do we project emotions onto machines; how can we infer the state of another; how do we extract meaning from a string of 0s and 1s?
The seven-part piece has a tightly structured rhythm, kicking off with a jittery edge. Alternating bass notes are enriched by trombones, violins and cor anglais. “Sentiments are sentences,” Davis sings. A broken bicycle wheel – link snapping every unlucky 13th turn – becomes the motif in part 2, backed by clacking knitting needles. Davis uses electronic loops to sing beguiling harmonies: “The weak link of the chain is the one that’s most revealing.” Flutes, xylophone, bells and piccolo bring an ethereal tone to Part 3, where Turing mourns the loss of his youthful lover Christopher Morcom to tuberculosis. “I’m glad the stars were shining.”
The orchestra gets busy in the passages on Turing’s computer work. Muhly employs a typewriter to elicit the sounds of Bletchley Park, where Turing worked during the war, deciphering German military messages. Binary codes are evoked in part 4 through oscillating sequences of notes and exotic percussion. “A zero, a one and the soul’s left behind.” Part 5muses on the mundane openings of secret messages, such as references to the weather.
Discord and unease mount in the final section. “We read structure into chaos; meaning into nonsense; purpose into sounds”. Piercing tension, gongs and more knitting needles announce Turing’s death by poisoned apple. The sounds soften and dissipate: “The sentence ends.”
Muhly says his fascination with Turing began when he came across Steve Reich’s Three Tales (2002), a video opera on the march of technology that references cloning and artificial intelligence and asks what is and is not real, man-made or divine. Gopnik’s mother was a computer linguist who idolized Turing. The pair embarked on this commission — by the Barbican Centre, the Britten Sinfonia, Köln Musik GmbH and Festival de Saint-Denis — with some trepidation, given the spate of Turing vehicles such as the recent film The Imitation Game (reviewed here). But they set out to convey what may have been inside the great mathematician’s heart as well as his mind. They have succeeded.
Jo Baker is senior Comment editor at Nature.
Correction: The Turing film reviewed was The Imitation Game, not Enigma.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.