Plymouth University composer Alexis Kirke turns movie maker for a cinema revolution with Many Worlds
ALEXIS Kirke has turned a swimming pool-sized tank into a musical instrument, made an opera from the financial market and coaxed sub-atomic particles into performers.
Now he has ventured into the movies: a film that watches you as you watch it and changes with your reactions is premiered today.
The Plymouth composer starts where most artists and scientists finish, imaginatively moving between their disciplines into a what-if world of amazement and amusement.
Even trying to put a label on his artistic ventures into science fiction is a mind-bending affair. Art-sci-fi? Sci-art-fi?
No wonder he has been described using a name borrowed from sci-fi writing and film, linking him to the visionary man whose work led to the films Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Alexis Kirke is the Philip K Dick of music.
To steal a title from another movie, he might also be called the man with two brains – Alexis has three university degrees, two of them PhDs. They cover maths, arts and technology.
Which all makes him sound like he might be a stuffy academic with a sniffy attitude to popular music. Not at all.
The down-to-earth Plymothian is amazed at the attention he gets and in awe of the musical company in which he moves at the city's university.
And guess what he listens to on his MP3 players as he strolls to work?
"Cheesy pop," he admits. "Something from the charts. Kylie Minogue, that sort of thing."
His fear, he adds with a smile, is that he "might embarrass the university" with his tastes.
Unlikely. The work he has done as a research fellow, based in the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research in the Faculty of Arts, has helped push the university's name to an international audience.
As composer-in-residence at the Plymouth Marine Institute he stole the show at the opening of the new building on the campus last October.
He conducted soundWave – a piece co-written with Sam Freeman – using sensors strapped to his body. The result was a 12-minute symphony of waves and music from the giant tank, to the astonishment of those listening and watching.
In November he was in the City of London for another project, Open Outcry. The piece presented at the Mansion House featured performers trading real money by singing.
His other work has included turning the university's Roland Levinsky Building into a musical instrument played by the rising sun in Sunlight Symphony (2010).
In 2011 came Fast Travel in which a saxophonist interacted with live artificially-intelligent whale schools.
The same year he presented Cloud Chamber: a violinist playing a duet with subatomic particles.
Now there is his film. He wrote, directed and made the soundtrack for Many Worlds, a 15-minute movie with four different endings.
The short is being shown as part of the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival, which continues until tomorrow.
Four audience members will be wired with sensors to pick up their reactions to what they are watching. The reactions will change the story as smoothly as a train switching tracks towards one of four endings.
Nothing quite like it has been done before in a cinema. Science and technology website commentators are suggesting that the Plymouth audience might be witnessing the future of movies.
Imagine Hollywood studios knowing that the audience would be certain to love the ending. There would be no more flops or even test-screenings. Every movie would be a box-office smash.
Alexis is aware of the possibilities but is not about to hail himself as a motion picture pioneer.
"I am sure that there are people in Hollywood looking at this sort of thing already," he says.
His hope is that such technology will be used creatively. "I wonder if it is being done by the right sort of people."
Alexis has been fascinated by the creative possibilities of the digital world since he was a pupil at school. In his early years at Plymouth College he was uninterested in learning until he got his hands on a computer.
He went on to a maths degree at the university. His next qualification was a PhD in artificial intelligence.
He moved straight from academia to financial trading.
In the late 1990s brokers were clamouring for mathematicians to create analytic programs. Alexis was snapped up by a London firm in 1998 and was soon working on Wall Street in New York.
This was the first big explosion in earnings for traders, before the turn-of-the-millennium hi-tech investments crash. Times were good.
So why did he get out in 1999 after little more than a year?
"I had a wonderful apartment near the United Nations building, but I wanted something different.
"It sounds a cliche but it wasn't my heart's desire.
"I imagined myself on my death bed, thinking 'is that all I did?' and how that would feel.
"I needed to do something more creative."
He says that in his time in education he had not known quite what to do.
He had been through a succession of courses and studies, "but I wasn't really prepared for the job market. I kept on thinking, 'after I finish this I will know what to do'. But I didn't."
In fact Alexis had already had one short creative career.
In 1993 he was a poet. In his time he has been invited to read at Glastonbury Festival, and edited the UK's first poetry webzine, Brink. His work has been published in the UK and the USA.
There was a lot of creativity at home growing up in Plymouth. On the arts side, his mother Margaret, who died in 2000, got him interested in music, poetry and film.
"She took me to art house movies and there were always poetry books around.
"She wrote poetry and had some published.
"There were lots of old classical records.
"After she died my dad supported my change of career. I got a lot of emotional and practical support from him."
His father, Nicholas, also supplied the creative, we-can-find-a-way attitude that comes from a military background. He was a captain in the Royal Artillery and the proud holder of green and red berets, having gone through commando and parachute training.
Nicholas is a self-employed property dealer and manager who has been involved in some large developments in the Czech republic. "He is quite literary. I picked up the nerve from him, the ability to see a project through."
The post-New York change of career involved Alexis heading back to university for an arts PhD on top of the first doctorate in technology.
The music strand started in his youth.
"I started learning from when I was about ten, but didn't practise."
At least it meant that when he returned to music later in life "it was not a locked door".
He played in a rock band at school. "They already had a drummer but he was more into jazz.
"I could do a rock beat, so that was it. I got his place."
He wrote for the band and did some more serous "arty" music in his bedroom.
That informal knowledge added to his Grade 5 piano.
"That's all I have," he says, a bit sheepishly.
That contrasts with two of the other well-known names in music at the university. Simon Ible, director of music for the university's cultural arm, Peninsula Arts, trained at the highest level. So did Professor in Computer Music Eduardo Miranda, who also has one foot in the digital/ neuroscience world which so fascinates Alexis.
"They can both look at a score and hear a full symphony in their head," says Alexis, shaking his. "And I work with them!" Both have been key influences on him.
Not knowing everything about a subject can be a help in his work, he says. "There is an advantage in knowing less. It enables you to synthesise more. You don't know what's not possible, so you try different things.
"Because I'm not focused 100 per cent on either music or science in some ways I have advantages. I'm at the boundaries of both."
Plus he frequently works with others who do have the technical know-how. For Many Worlds he gives credit to director of photography Rishi Pruthi, technical director Duncan Williams, and executive producer Amanda Bluglass.
One deeply personal small project was a special collaboration. A favourite sound recording he made includes the heartbeat of his now 10-month-old daughter, Ida, who was then still in the womb of her mother, Amy. "Although we're not in a relationship, she is such a wonderful mother and our daughter's turned out as beautiful as her, and very advanced for her age," says Alexis proudly.
His wide musical taste is another influence on his work. As well as the cheesy walk-to-work tunes his rock and pop tastes run from rock by The Doors and folky pop from Simon and Garfunkel, through to progressive rock by Pink Floyd and the indie sound of David Bowie, singer-songwriters PJ Harvey and Damian Rice and rapper Labrinth.
He prefers his classical music live, taking in the output of Philip Glass, including his music for the tone-poem film, Koyaanisqatsi and Grieg's Peer Gynt. He enjoys, too, "popcorn and hotdog" shows such as the musical Wicked.
His taste in poetry is modernist. TS Eliot's The Waste Land was a huge influence. "When I read it for the first time I couldn't believe it," says Alexis.
His dream project would be a work on a similar scale and reach, to focus on turning one of the natural wonders of the world into a giant instrument.
"I would love to fill the Grand Canyon with sound for a performance," he reveals.
That would get the world watching. Today, the audience for his film Many Worlds will be somewhat smaller, although the project, as with many of his hi-tech works, pushes the boundaries. Is he at all scared that it all might go wrong?
He has yet to have a serious live failure with one of his cutting-edge projects, but he is fully aware to the dangers – and thrives on the risks he takes.
"I had something go wrong at one of my less-known performances, but I don't think anyone noticed except one person!
"It takes so much knowledge to see a project through, so much nerve. I enjoy that.
"Unless it excites me, I'm not interested. I have stopped a couple of projects early in development because I have lost interest.
"Is that childish? No, it's practical. You have to have energy and enthusiasm to carry something through."
Many Worlds is being shown as part of Algoshorts, a cinematic section of the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival. The mini film fest is this afternoon in the Jill Craigie Cinema, Roland Levinsky Building, on the university campus 12-1.30pm and 2.30-4pm