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Nico Muhly's Sentences with St Paul's Sinfonia

  • St Alfege Church Greenwich Church Street London, England, SE10 9BJ United Kingdom (map)

Words from the Composer:

"Sentences is a thirty-minute meditation, in collaboration with Adam Gopnik, on several episodes drawn from the life and work of Alan Turing. Turing lived, in a sense, many different lives, but at the heart of his work was, I think, a very musical set of anxieties. Even the idea of code-breaking is inherently musical; the French for score-reading is déchiffrage: deciphering. His wartime work on the Enigma code translated, later in life, to a more nuanced relationship to code in the form of a primitive but emotionally (and philosophically) complicated artificial intelligence. The piece uses a single voice not to speak necessarily as Turing, but as a guide through these various episodes. 

The piece begins in a state of optimistic nervousness, smudging, in a sense, the relationship between grammar and comprehension. The second part imagines a young man obsessed with his bicycle chain: the mechanisms whose faults are the focus of study. The orchestra functions here like a giant and dangerous machine, organised into large footprints of thirteen beats constantly recycling and jerking to a halt. We are encouraged to 'adjust, anticipate, and listen.' 

The end of part two then takes the image of the bicycle and repurposes it to imagine Turing and his friend Morcom at school, and transitions into part three without pause into a stylised version of Turing’s letter to Morcom’s grieving mother, his friend having died of tuberculosis as a result of drinking tainted milk. The orchestra functions here like a large planetarium: distant stars and closer insects. 

Part four is another mathematical obsession game: 'the universal machine’s just a card with a puncture.' We begin to see the idea of the human mind being a set of binaries, without any of the romance of the soul. Part five brings us forward to the war effort, with the realisation that even important codes are banal: they begin with a report on the weather, or with the fact that nothing has happened. While this revelation leads to a historically important déchiffrage, here, we envision a soldier, alone, bored, tricked into a muddy and gruesome reality. The voice is sentimental, but the orchestra is strict and severe. 

Part six jumps forward to the 50s, and the Turing Test. A sub-ensemble of three violas accompanies the voice, and woodwinds imitate imagined answers to the interrogator’s questions. A large and agitated orchestral passage ensues. We end with a sense of dry loneliness. The final part is a coda, in which we see the various interpretations of a purported suicide. A poisoned apple, and a mother’s objections. We close with the star-music from part three, and the various looped voices of the countertenor above a meshwork of glockenspiel, crotales, piccolo and celeste. 

I’ve always felt that the question of sentient computers is wildly emotional: we anthropomorphise the Mars Rover, imagining its solitude on that dusty planet. Any act of communication in which the second person is unseen can be a one-way conversation. An email, sent, can never be returned — did it arrive or did it not? —, or a text message can be delivered but never read. The thrill of a fast response is immediately tempered with the harsh but empty rudeness of an out-of-office reply. Anybody who has made a condolence phone call only to hear the voice of the deceased on the outgoing answering machine message knows the complexities of what could be a simple binary communication." - Nico Muhly