Proms 2012: Emily Howard – Calculus of the Central Nervous System (UK Première)

by 5:4

Last Tuesday saw the first UK performance of Emily Howard‘s Calculus of the Central Nervous System, an orchestral work inspired by the thinking of the English mathematician Ada Lovelace. Premièred at last year’s Wien Modern Festival by the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna, it was performed on this occasion by the CBSO conducted by Andris Nelsons.

In one sense, Calculus of the Central Nervous System brings to mind the striking sonic similarity that arises from the twin poles of chance procedures (e.g. Cage’s Music of Changes) and rigorous mathematical processes (e.g. Boulez’s Structures). Yet Howard’s music is a thousand times more impenetrable than either of those examples. Fair enough, she wants to circumvent conventional notions of narrative structure, but without that fundamental there doesn’t seem to be anything in its place to provide a way of gaining purchase into the piece. Dynamically, Howard favours extremes, moving back and forth between extended soft passages and loud percussive wallops, always accompanied by strained, wailing chords. Harmonically, the interval of a major third seems significant for a while, although this seems to be negated by the latter half of the work. Timbrally and texturally it maintains a fairly static demeanour (to have heard the first few minutes is, essentially, to have heard the entire piece); and registrally, again extremes, with high and low predominating. Rhythmically—well, there are no perceptible rhythms, so that aspect isn’t relevant, and the same goes for melody.

Howard has therefore given her audience precisely nothing to engage with—in fact, it doesn’t even sound convincingly as though it was composed by a human being at all, which, considering both the composer’s background (she’s a Mathematics and Computation graduate) and also the Ada Lovelace connection, is perhaps not as far-fetched as it might sound. Assuming the piece is the result of personal deliberations, it’s hard to know whether Emily Howard is simply being wilfully obtuse or whether this was an experiment that’s gone seriously awry. The result is the same though: Calculus of the Central Nervous System is far and away the most deeply unrewarding listening experience i have had for a very long time. One of the quotations in the score states, “truth is austere”; it certainly is, and the austere truth about this piece is that it’s an absolute stinker.


Emily Howard - Calculus of the Central Nervous System
  • Loved it! (9%, 2 Votes)
  • Liked it (22%, 5 Votes)
  • Meh (22%, 5 Votes)
  • Disliked it (4%, 1 Votes)
  • Hated it! (43%, 10 Votes)

Total Voters: 23

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Paul Pellay

I attended this. First impression: I now know what Morton Feldman would sound like if he had been a truly bad composer!

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