From Michael Tumulty’s piece in The Herald, we learned of a prodigious Scottish composer who, in his spare time, is working with Austrian cochlear device maker MedEl to improve hearing in the deaf. It seems cochlear implants have some speech-processing algorithms, but have no ear for music. Enter Oliver Searle:
There are, says Searle, highly developed and sophisticated speech-processing programmes for testing the hearing of implantees. “But the incorporation of music into the testing system is the next big thing, so, from the corporate point of view, it makes sense for the companies to invest in a music programme. Ultimately, it’s to improve the nature of the implants and how they work.”
Searle’s involvement, which has taken him all over the world in the past few years, and which has culminated in his development of a music software CD, came about by happenstance.
The idea for developing tests using the panoply of musical elements – melody, harmony and rhythm – came from two Welsh scientists, one of whom is an amateur musician and himself has a cochlear implant. They sought the advice and assistance of a neighbour, who happens to be the composer John Harris, a former artistic director of the Paragon Ensemble. Harris was too busy to get involved, and, with sharp insight, recommended Searle as a musician who was bright, highly organised, supremely conscientious, very articulate and, technologically, super-literate. And that was it.
The subsequent details of Searle’s involvement would fill a thesis (and one day probably will), but he has been ultimately working at a high level of sophistication for his Austrian bosses, developing graded “emotion files” to test the degree and quality of responses from implantees.
It is highly subjective, he agrees, though he claims a surprising consistency and predictability in the tests’ results.
The musical stuff of his scientific work has fed back into his own music, and characterises, to a degree, his new composition, Earworm, a straight translation from the German word Ohrwurm, to describe the universal phenomenon of one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head, goes round and round, haunts you for days, interrupts your concentration, and which you can’t get rid of.
One of the melodies he wrote for his scientific tests buried itself in Searle’s brain. He couldn’t get shot of it, so he’s used it as the basic inspiration for his new orchestral composition.
Amazing — and it’s neat to think on just how many levels people can appreciate this music. Certainly, Searle has gone to new heights to expand his audience.
More from MedEl…
More from Oliver Searle’s site…