The Graphene Suite

A new composition by Sara Lowes celebrates the wonder stuff

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There are few obvious comparisons between music and new wonder material graphene. But Sara Lowes can see some.

Lowes is the in-house composer at Manchester’s National Graphene Institute, set up to develop applications for the wondrously strong, thin material that was discovered in the city.

Before completing her work the Graphene Suite, which was premiered last week, Lowes spent time with the institute’s staff, and it was through this that she saw the parallels between musicians and scientists.

“I think there are similarities between anybody that commits to a skillset and commits to a life of learning – those are the commonalities for sure – but I think you also have to motivate yourself.

“As a scientist you have to finance your own research. You have to inevitably teach. These are all the things that musicians have to do too. You might know that you want to be a musician for the rest of your life, but you’ll have to do everything to keep that idea afloat.

Manchester based Lowes has had a successful career as a musician including work with The Earlies, Tokolosh, Jim Noir, King Creosote and Jesca Hoop. Her latest solo album is The Joy of Waiting.

Graphene, Sarah Lowes
The Graphene Suite mixes different musical styles

She says: “In a creative topic you start off with a thought process; you start off with an idea of a composition or a production that you’re doing in a studio and you say ‘where will this go?’ You’ve got certain plans for it but you have to be open to the fact that you might end up nowhere near your starting point.

“That persistence to get to an end result – I identified that with everybody’s work in the National Graphene Institute: the PhD students, and everybody testing and trialling graphene in its different forms.

“My experience in the institute was so fascinating, seeing things that people are working on. I watched people identify with the individual workloads and saw how they approach their own careers – what inspires them, what their motivations are, and what their perspective is on things. Just like in the music industry.”

Commissioned in September 2014, Lowes’ composition celebrates the institute and also draws inspiration from female composers and scientists of the past.

Having been stimulated by the intricate mechanics of the institute, the suite, premiered at the university’s Martin Harris Centre as part of National Graphene Week, consists of six movements, complemented by a visual representation of the music. Unfamiliar instrumentation included a string quartet with oboe, trumpet, electric guitar and bass, synth, and percussion.

Sarah Lowes and graphene scientist Dr Cinzia Casiraghi
Sara Lowes and graphene scientist Dr Cinzia Casiraghi

This unusual combination worked charmingly, sounding like a marriage of Pink Floyd and Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack. The piece was met by rapturous applause and a standing ovation – quite deservingly.

Lowes said: “It would be nice to think that projects like this bridge the gap between science and music. In our world, for people who don’t know much about science, people like me – we don’t get the information that proves what an absolutely fascinating and creative subject science is.

“I think people’s first experiences of science is in school, and it isn’t treated as a creative topic – when it totally is. Everything starts splitting and you can either go down the creative arts, or there’s a maths and science world. To get them to meet is really important.”

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