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A surreal soundtrack for science?

The London Snorkelling Team does 'Pataphysics of Sound at London's South Bank Centre

Matt Day 27 April 2008

Submerged in sound: The London Snorkelling Team at play

The scientific method and music are two distinct activities that only touch when technological advances offer musicians new tools

What is 'pataphysics? (And yes, the preceding apostrophe is intentional.) The term was first coined by French writer Alfred Jarry in 1893 and refers to a surrealist philosophical movement which, according to Wikipedia, is "a parody of the theory and methods of modern science…often expressed in nonsensical language". This so-called "science of imaginary solutions" has influenced writers and artists from Jean Genet to Marcel Duchamp for more than a century. There is even a Collège de 'pataphysique in Paris, established in the Sixties and still going.

'Pataphysics has also found its way into music. Professor Andrew Hugill, Director of the Centre for Creative Technologies and the Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre at De Montford University, UK, is a central player in this movement. This past Friday night at London's South Bank, in the Front Room space of Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of his musical incarnations, the London Snorkelling Team, set up shop to warm up the crowd for a subsequent musical interpretation of one of Jarry's 'pataphysical plays, Ubu Roi.

photo of a labcoat on stage
Atmospheric: White-coated minions offer a patina of science

Had I heard about 'pataphysics before the LST gig, I would have gone in doubtful that a band taking inspiration from it would have offered much entertainment. For me, the scientific method and music are two distinct activities that only touch when technological advances offer musicians new tools for making and arranging sounds. Fortunately, the band stood up on its own musical terms, and entertained us with a rich and playful mixture of electronic avant-garde, lounge, jazz and latin. It was approachable and slickly performed, and not unlike the delightful Tipsy. The parody of the scientific method and other 'pataphysics elements comprised a few people on stage wandering around in white coats, a copy of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, and a couple of guys working an overhead projector (though I couldn't see the screen from my vantage point). These all added to the general atmosphere but didn't contribute to the sound. One of the band members has explained how they sometimes use a machine fashioned of a funnel, toilet rolls, wood, a turntable and 88 numbered table tennis balls – one for each key on the piano – which are spat out like a Lotto draw to inform the order of notes they would play. I’m not convinced there’s much science parody in that either.

While I have yet to be convinced that 'pataphysics has anything to contribute to music, I heartily recommend the London Snorkelling Team and am happy for them to continue exploring whatever it is that helps keep their creative juices fluid.

Other articles by Matt Day