science

Musical composition inspired by UK Covid research to have world premiere


A musical composition inspired by research into the Covid pandemic and featuring a bagpipe solo by one of the government’s scientific advisers is to have its world premiere on Thursday.

Prof Calum Semple, one of UK leading virologists and a keen Highland piper, says practising for the piece, sometimes in his garden, has helped him deal with the stress of his Covid research.

“I’ve never worked harder and without breaks for months on end,” he said. “It was really wearing me down, so making time to play music has been very healthy.”

The 10-minute piece is by the Manchester-based composer Zakiya Leeming, who wanted to capture the collaborative experience of scientists during the pandemic in musical form.

It is based on interviews with Semple and seven other musical scientists and clinicians who are part of the International Severe and Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (Isaric), a collaboration of more than 200 scientists from 11 institutions and hospitals in one of largest Covid research projects in the world.

Other members of the ensemble include a bioinformatician on clarinet, a children’s doctor who sings, an Edinburgh professor of surgery on piano and an Oxford professor of immunology on violin.

Semple is based at Liverpool University and is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag). When Leeming asked him to sum up the scientific response to Covid at the end of March, he replied “like dawn on the morning after the storm”, which became the title of the piece.

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Semple said: “We had just come through the most terrible waves and we had got the research together, we had got the vaccines and the drugs so it really felt like the storm had finished. And you had this beautiful dawn and we were coming together to play music.”

Leeming says she wanted to encourage the scientists with a composition that suited their abilities. “I wanted to write a piece for them to play, not just about them. I did hear that Calum was playing his bagpipes over Zoom and I was intrigued because I love the sound of bagpipes, but I’m aware it’s a Marmite instrument,” she said.

The piece starts with a bagpipe solo from Semple as a lament for the victims of Covid. “Bagpipe solos can be quite mournful, but then it jollies up a bit,” he said.

Leeming describes the next section as “busy” as she tries to convey scientists “getting their heads down”. The piece then goes into a jig which celebrates working together. “It ends with the same melody from the lament, but this time with the rest of the ensemble which brings a hopeful element,” she said.

Because of Covid restrictions the ensemble members had to record their parts separately. The recordings have been brought together in a video which will be shown for the first time at 1pm on Thursday as part of the Royal Northern College of Music’s Future Music festival.

“I had to use a metronome with earbuds to get my tempo right,” Semple said. “I’ve never had to do that before because all my bagpiping has been done in live groups.”

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Most of the scientists have not met in person and have done all of their musicalresearch and musical collaboration remotely. Once lockdown is fully lifted the ensemble is very keen to meet up to play the piece in a live performance for the first time,” Semple said.

Speaking to the Guardian, he said the collaborative nature of music mirrors research into the pandemic. “There is a huge amount of trust and teamwork in music as there is in science. The scientific response to Covid has been particularly collaborative. We have seen many universities that have been traditional competitors putting down their shields and spears and collaborating.”

Semple has played the bagpipes since taking evening classes as a nine-year-old at Glasgow’s School of Piping. As a teenager he was one of the best players in Scotland. “I was nationally competitive in school competitions, but I never won. I came second. I had to make a decision about whether to follow science or music.”

Music’s loss has been science’s gain as the work of Semple and his team has helped inform the UK’s national response to the pandemic, but music has helped them through the pandemic.

“I’m not aware of any other Sage members playing the bagpipes, but what I do know is that medics and scientists are polymaths,” he said. “They will all have an additional secret hobby that they are quite good at, and some might even say the hobby is what they are serious about and medicine is the hobby.”



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