Artist Residency reflections – music inspired by the Alan Turing Archive.

Dr Joshua Brown is a composer, of instrumental and vocal music, from Rossendale in East Lancashire ( He was Artist in Residence at the John Rylands Research Institute from 2019/20. He completed his PhD in Composition at the University of Manchester with Professor Philip Grange in 2018, and he is currently Lecturer in Composition at the University of Manchester, and composition tutor at the Junior Royal Northern College of Music.

Written by Dr Joshua Brown, former Artist in Residence at the John Rylands Research Institute.

It was a natural next step to conduct research into Alan Turing’s work on computer programming following my PhD research into mathematical influences in my own compositions. This was especially the case as I had been involved with the education workshops for the University of Manchester’s Robot Orchestra project in 2016/17. I had intended only to use the influence of his ground-breaking work on coding in my compositions, but then also discovered that his work on biochemical processes would be fertile ground for musical inspiration.

The start of my Artist Residency gave me access to document handling training, essential when searching through archives of potentially fragile papers, as well as access to a desk in the John Rylands. This was a special moment for me – a desk on a balcony overlooking the great hall, in a restricted section of the library, through a metal gate, and up a spiral staircase. It is the closest to Hogwarts that you can get and a very exciting, inspiring place to work.

For the next few months, I explored documents in the Turing archive. The time with the documents themselves was like a journey of discovery. Turing’s handwriting on many of the documents shows his excitement for his own discoveries (the handwriting gets scruffier the more absorbed he became in an idea), and his correspondence with other researchers shows a collaborative approach. It felt like a privilege to get to know the mind of one of the 20th Century’s greatest thinkers in a more intimate way than is possible solely through published works. There was also a wonderful coincidence one afternoon in the archives where, by chance, I got chatting to one of the other researchers, and they had actually discovered the Alan Turing documents hidden in the back of a cupboard!

A significant experience was the opportunity to see evidence of Alan Turing scribbling out ideas in his work: to see even great geniuses such as he finding mistakes and having to correct their work helps to demystify preconceptions we have about our own work as researchers. We often idolise great creative minds to the point that we forget that they were even capable of mistakes, and it was comforting to find that someone so intelligent, who defines most peoples’ ideas about artificial intelligence in fact, was a person just like us. The most intriguing experience I had in the archive was that of finding an envelope that I was forbidden to open, and the mystery of a still-secret document relating to a man who was so affected by the Official Secrets Act gave me chills!

The first piece that I composed for my Artist Residency was commissioned by the Devon Philharmonic Orchestra, for CoMA’s Festival of Contemporary Music For All, and premiered in March 2020 in Exeter. Inspired by a parallel between Turing’s binary computer code and the ancient Chinese system of trigrams in the text of the I Ching, I decided to experiment with musical binaries structured by the “Early Heaven” layout of the trigrams, and the piece is thus called Early Heaven.

A recording of the piece can be found here:

And the score is published here:

The second piece was also used to experiment with ideas, this time ideas about the simultaneous development of more than one aspect of musical material, inspired by Turing’s work on biochemical evolution. This was an online project in collaboration with Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, and their violinist Jacqueline Shave. Capriccio Ricercare (literally free-form research) was premiered online, April 2020, and can be heard here:

This piece has since been performed numerous times in Belgium, as a set work for undergraduate performance exams, at the Institut royal supérieur de musique et de pédagogie de Namur. It has also received a further premiere in Mexico City by Eva Georgina Puebla Chacón.

The most substantial piece of music that I composed during my time as Artist in Residence was a commission for the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and Foyle Future Firsts.

The piece, titled Morphogenesis, is the result my time with the LPO Young Composers scheme, and expands on both the theme of celebrating Beethoven’s 250th anniversary and my research into Alan Turing’s work. This was achieved by analysing the pitch content of the first movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (the ‘Eroica’), and then removing repetitions of pitch, in order to create a musical genetic code for my composition. I then manipulated this musical genetic code so that it would evolve in a number of different ways in my own music, inspired by the biochemical processes of morphogenesis as described by Turing.

Although the premiere had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 lockdown, it was filmed and recorded at Blackheath Halls in London, conducted by Sir James MacMillan, and premiered online in the LPO’s Autumn season 2020. The rehearsal days, and the recording session, showed to all involved the joy, wonder, and sheer elation of working with other musicians after so long without live music.

A short video introduction of my inspiration for the work can be found here:

And the performance itself can be found here:

Although my time as Artist in Residence was relatively short, it led to three very different compositions, and I continue to be inspired by the research I conducted. In 2020-21, for example, I was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to compose a new work for their Junior Artists, and ideas from my residency were key to the workshops I led with the young musicians. The resulting work, Rain Over Lower Marsh, was premiered online in July 2021 and can be found here:

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