Two cultures?: The sounds of silence in a new Blairopolis

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The Independent Culture
Should engineering students have to learn anything about art? Most of them don't, not least because so many technical colleges think of the arts as soft options for sissies. But there is a feeling abroad that even engineers should have a broad-based education and that it's high time to kill off their image as the nerds of the modern age.

Leading the way in this country is London's Imperial College, which has long been one of the very best breeding grounds for scientists and engineers. One of the college's pro-rectors, the chirpy artificial-intelligence expert Igor Aleksander, has been championing arts initiatives in the college for the past two years. "Although we don't teach major courses in the arts," he says, "we want our students to graduate feeling that the arts are just as important for humanity as engineering and science." Aleksander's views chime perfectly with the vision of Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, the man responsible for setting up what is now sometimes called Albertopolis, the suite of arts- and science-based institutions in South Kensington, including the museums, the Royal Colleges of Art and Music, and Imperial College. Following his suggestion, the government bought the land on which to build them from the unexpected profits of pounds 186,436 from the 1851 Great Exhibition, itself also his brainchild. Prince Albert was determined to establish an area in which the sciences and the arts could flourish together, not apart.

Albert's spirit was among us in Imperial College recently at a challenging concert by Sinfonia 21, recently appointed as the college's orchestra in residence. The programme, not for the faint-hearted, featured five works, including Jonathan Harvey's piece "From Silence", written for soprano, a small instrumental ensemble, three electronic keyboards and tape.

Harvey, recently invited by Imperial to be a visiting professor, is especially adept at integrating orchestral and electronic sounds. "From Silence" encourages us to think afresh about the relationship of music to silence, in an age in which absence of sound is harder to achieve than in the past. As Harvey demonstrates, electronic instruments are better than conventional ones at probing the boundaries between sound and silence, because their sounds are so easily controlled at low levels.

In this piece and in most of the others in the programme, Royal College of Art students projected striking images on to a cinema screen behind the players. A distraction, you might say, but there's no doubt that this adds an intriguing dimension to the occasion. Like it or lump it, the world of multi-media is forcing us to reconsider the conventions of live performance. Here, perhaps, is a way of winning back audiences that appear to be deserting live concerts for the comfort of their home-entertainment systems.

Sinfonia 21's next concert at Imperial College will be on 15 May, when it will be presenting a 60th-birthday tribute to Jonathan Harvey. In the meantime, the college is developing a slew of other arts-based initiatives, including a collaboration with the French choreographer Kitsou Dubois and an art exhibition of drawings and maquettes by the geometric draughtsman Charles Haddock.

There are many other science-art activities to look forward to in Albertopolis, especially the Creating Sparks festival in September 2000. Co-ordinated by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, this will be the most ambitious event featuring science-art collaborations to be seen in London since the Great Exhibition.

Shortly after Creating Sparks we shall know if the Millennium Dome has made a profit. If it does, we shall need a latter-day Prince Albert with the vision and generosity of spirit to invest it wisely. What would be the cultural legacy of Blairopolis?

Graham Farmelo

Graham Farmelo is Head of Exhibitions at the Science Museum, London.