Date: Friday 18 September
Time: 1pm
Location: Aula Maxima, UCC
Artists: Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Nadia Sirota (yMusic), Dr. John Cryan (Professor of Neuroscience), Dr Ken O’Halloran (Professor of Physiology) and Andre de Ridder (Stargaze)
Title: Playing your heart out
Tickets: Free

A performance and conversation about the principles of Music for Heart and Breath, a contemporary classical composition by Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) in which the musicians use their own heartbeat and breath to dictate the pace and pulse of the music.
Duet for Heart and Breath will be performed by Richard Reed Parry and Nadia Sirota.
The operating principles of the piece is that pulse and meter are dictated by the individual performers own heartbeat and breath. This is achieved by physically strapping a stethoscope to the musician and then using their own inner pulse and breathing to dictate the pace of the music. The symposium will explore and expose where science and music meet.
Following a performance of the Duet for Heart and Breath, the panellists will discuss the physical effects this compositional technique has on both the performer and the music itself.

Heart and Breath

Amid the tempest’s tricks of rock and roll
A nascent form emerged beneath the wave;
A refuge in the stormy search for soul,
A daring dream of life before the grave.
Inspired ruach released in fragile form –
Intrinsic clocks tick-tock to set a pace;
A point to counter frenzied Fingal’s storm
As Chronos chimes and we set sail for space.
Sounds safely harboured in the bosom bare
As tidal tones lap gently toward our feet;
So sweetly sensing this most perfect pair
As Queen’s quad chamber echoes breath and beat.
A future fire will roar a glorious shout –
For now, Spiros, softly plays his heart out.

– Ken O’Halloran


Ken D. O’Halloran is Professor of Physiology and Chair of the Department of Physiology at University College Cork. He graduated with BSc (Hons.) from University College Cork and PhD from University College Dublin. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA and at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, USA before appointment to the faculty at University College Dublin in 2000 and a return leeside to his alma mater in 2011. His research interests relate to the physiology of the heart and breathing in health and disease.

On Music for Heart and Breath – Professor Ken O’Halloran

The twinning of heart and breath in Physiology is a common theme. The lungs, the organs of respiration, are perfused by the heart which pumps spent blood collected from the rest of the body to the lungs, hungry for fresh oxygen and keen too, to rid the body of the waste gas of metabolism – carbon dioxide. The enriched and cleansed blood returning from the lungs, the essence of life, is then distributed by the powerful pump throughout the body, with each beat. The intimacy of these two systems, this most perfect pair, is at our core. It is intimately familiar to us, particularly when these systems are roused from their restful states. Recall the pounding of your heart and the large excursions of your chest, during rhythmic inhalations and exhalations, when you last exercised with some vigour. The regulation of this coupling is a function of the brain. The rhythmicity and pattern of breathing is determined by nerve cell networks in the brain, in automatic fashion. Nerve projections to muscles of the chest bring about the mechanical act of breathing. Similarly, nerve projections from the brain strongly influence the intrinsic pacemaker of the heart. The marriage of heart and breath is revealed in the brain too, with coupling in the activity of nerve cell networks influencing the expression of breath and beat.
I have long thought of these paired expressions as twinned melodies orchestrated by the brain. Their contrasting rhythms provide a physiological counterpoint, which in health culminates in a calm, cardiorespiratory melody. One can consider then, in contrast, that illness is often heard as the discordant clamour of heart and breath: a syncopated cacophony, the din of disease, as melody turns to malady.
As such, I find Richard’s concept of Music for Heart and Breath intriguing on so many levels. The literal, real-time, introspection of sorts, provides the rhythmical substrate for the elaboration, through his composition, of an intimate, near hypnotic expression. It is mesmerising. Its universality, for me, is the concept that each of us expresses individual melodies; each of us musical, entwined in a global symphony. Music for Heart and Breath is both from and for heart and breath. The emotional impact of the composition as it plays out, is in turn reflected in the heart and breath of listeners, and in the musicians themselves. This organic feedback loop weaves further complexity to the piece.
The brain regions responsible for the expression of physiological heart and breath are under conscious and emotional control. It has long been recognised that emotions affect cardiorespiratory control – indeed, the response of heart and breath to affective states is part and parcel of the integrated whole body response to emotional challenges. This is recognised in our language with many expressions, such as when we note that our heart has ‘skipped a beat’ or when we encourage others to ‘take a deep breath’ or ‘catch your breath’, and so on. Indeed, it is interesting to note that in the English language, the word heart can be found in breath, further emphasizing – for those fond of anagrams at least – the intimacy of these two bedfellows.
As a physiologist, and experimentalist, I am intrigued by the rich landscape that Music for Heart and Breath provides for observation and measurement. The many questions that arise serve to quicken my pulse, – a career hazard. Beyond that, however, the many questions and answers that Music for Heart and Breath provides in respect of the intimate relationship between musician, composition and audience are spellbinding and a joy to ponder.


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