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An attempt to find larks – 2 sound pieces

Serena Porrati and MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit University of Oxford



A group of scientists from the Anatomical Neuropharmacology Laboratory in Oxford have been recording brain activity through the analysis of electrical signals produced by neurons. By inserting a tiny glasselectrode into the brain, it is possible to translate the electrical signals encountered into real-time sound waves.
A sound project has been developed to capture the distinctive voices created by the patterns of neuron impulses, a phenomenon which inspired me on my first visit to the laboratory. I was intrigued by the possibility of comparing a brain to a living space (what do you mean exactly by living space? Inhabitated?) within which millions of micro-events occur, constantly communicating to each other with their unique voices
and behaviors.

PHROOM magazine // international research platform and online exhibition space dedicated to contemporary fine art photography and video art // audio

PHROOM magazine // international research platform and online exhibition space dedicated to contemporary fine art photography and video art // audio
The electrode used for the “recording” and the recording of a neuron being visualized.


After speaking with Adam Tudor Jones, one of the researches working in the sound department, I imagined the scientists as a group of sound-hunters trekking through a dense, deep forest, microphone in hand, searching for the sound of undiscovered wildlife.

[…] Say we are each interested in a type of bird, and that all of these different kinds of bird live in different parts of a forest. To find the birds that we are interested in, we listen to the patterns of noises that different types of birds make, rejecting the ones that don’t match the type we are interested in, and recording the ones that we are interested in.
In my project, I’m interested in recording the birdsong of larks, which live in one quarter of the forest. To find these birds, I have to walk through the forest towards the area of the forest where I know that they live. As I walk through the forest, I can hear the songs of different types of birds, and I can tell by the pattern of their song whether they are larks or not. Eventually I reach the area of the forest where larks live, and when I hear a lark singing, I stand still and record its song.
The moving of the electrode through the brain is similar to walking through the forest, and the listening-to of the activities of neurons I pass is like listening to the songs of birds one walks past in an attempt to find larks.

Adam Tudor Jones, D.Phil. student
Magill Group,
MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit,
University of Oxford

PHROOM magazine // international research platform and online exhibition space dedicated to contemporary fine art photography and video art // audio

PHROOM magazine // international research platform and online exhibition space dedicated to contemporary fine art photography and video art // audio


An attempt to find larks is an elaboration (digital manipulation?) of these voices. It is composed by two different tracks.


For the realization of the first piece I asked the scientists about the possibility of using sound material usually discarded as being not relevant for research, e.g. the passage through the cortex and striatum to the globus pallidus which does not provide relevant neuron signals. Even though not scientifically significant, this 2 minute long recording represents a journey through a densely populated environment in the hope of finding a specific presence. The small events (or bursts) that characterize the sound file represent the encounters between the brain particles (not only neurons) and the electrode being directed by the scientist. I elaborated and morphed each impulse with the sound of an animal. The resulting piece becomes a soundscape, similar to a walk trough an imaginary forest populated by different species of birds and animals. The animal sounds are taken from the wildlife sound recording society library and feature an American squirrel, a Bittern, a Blue Tit, a Black Crowned Night Heron, a Green Jay and many others animals, except for the elusive Larks.


The second piece is a digital manipulation of four different brain neuron signals provided by the researcher Paul Dodson. Each of the neurons discovered by Paul has a unique voice created by its impulse pattern. I have emphasized and looped each impulse to achieve a more harmonic sound. In doing so the initial impulses have developed a specific timber so they resemble vocal parts of a dialogue made in a not-yet codified language.


Initial Proposal for a work in collaboration with

“Bug and weed killers kick Parkinson’s disease in gear” In my work I am interested in investigating agriculture as a land-use practice that relates human (categories like politics-economy-power) to the non-human world. Since the early-1990s, scientists have known that farmers and other field workers are more likely to succumb to Parkinson’s disease because of their exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. But these studies fell short on showing a causal relationship between pesticides and the debilitating neurodegenerative disorder. So, researchers turned to rodent models to prove the link. In the last decade, researchers found that three bug and weed killers promoted neuron degeneration in mice. And now, an independent team has validated those findings in a large epidemiological survey in humans. The work I am proposing to Megan consists of a soundtrack composed by the sound waves that are originated in the cerebral activity of those mice exposed to pesticides components that trigger neuron degeneration. The sound waves will be electronically manipulated to compose a harmonic music piece pleasant to be heard (I would like to collaborate with a musician for this) I will display the soundtrack in an installation that I still have to define.


“Bug and weed killers kick Parkinson’s disease in gear”


-week 1
One or two meetings with the Anatomical Neuropharmacology specialist in Oxford. Learn about tools, recording-elaboration techniques and analysis of existing material (research data and sounds).

Personal analysis/investigation of the source material (studio)

Data elaboration. Collaboration with musician/sound engineer.

Ideation of a display/installation to be shown during the exhibition

“Perception of the natural environment is led by cultural, economic and symbolic ideas. I am interested in all forms of non-human life; wild forms or elements that co-exist, interact or interfere with this mechanism. I consider them important phenomenon hidden by our contemporary culture, therefore a compelling area of study. My research is focused on small side aspects and elements of the environment we live in in order to deconstruct or simply undermine the symbolic ‘orders’ of civilization. I would like to develop a “mechanism of vision” able to generate unconventional ways to distinguish information from physical reality. The overall aim of my research is to expand or destroy the idea of nature, highlighting the animal in the human and creating multiple suggestions to re-interpret existence.”

Serena Porrati

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