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Ulster University teamed up with Queen’s University, Belfast to collaborate with inclusive ensembles for unique performance with the Ulster Orchestra

On Friday , the Belfast campus played host to a truly remarkable orchestral performance as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival.

Ulster and Queen’s Universities and the Ulster Orchestra joined forces with award-winning inclusive ensemble Acoustronic and the inspirational Nicolas McCarthy, to celebrate inclusivity in classical music.

Zoom Time – Over and Out is a collaborative work co-created and performed by musicians of two inclusive music ensembles: Acoustronic, led by Ulster University’s Professor Frank Lyons and Queen’s University, Belfast based ‘Performance without Barriers’ (PwB) Research Group, led by Professor Franziska Schroeder alongside Nicholas McCarthy, that celebrates inclusivity in classical music.

One of Britain’s most inspiring pianists, Nicholas was born in 1989 without his right hand and through sheer talent and determination rose above the many obstacles and active discouragement in order to pursue his love of the piano. Going on to study at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, his graduation in July 2012 drew headlines around the world, being the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the RCM in its 130-year history.

Remarkably, the other musicians involved are using specifically designed new, inclusive, digital musical instruments, including instruments that have been created as Accessible Virtual Reality Musical Instruments (AVRMI) by Damian Mills (PwB); With Feel VR Instruments by Dr Lewis Smith (UU), an Accessible Long Cane Instrument (ALCI), created by PwB researchers James Cunningham and Dr Alex Lucas, as well as specifically created virtual environments, rendered in UnrealEngine 5 by PwB researcher Leonid Kuzmenko.

Zoom Time – Over and Out  is an extension and re-invention of an initial work, entitled Zoom Time, that was created during the COVID pandemic and that told the stories of the lives of the musicians during this difficult period.

The work features voice recordings of the musicians, portraying the constantly changing emotions that they experienced during the pandemic, with newly recorded voices that portray life as the musicians experience it now. Layered onto an orchestral score, composed by Professor Frank Lyons, are musical components by the Acoustronic and Performance without Barriers musicians. In addition, Professor Paul Moore has worked with the musicians to create a visual accompaniment to Zoom Time – Over and Out.

The original research project, entitled: ‘Inclusive Creativity – driving inclusion in music for disabled artists using creative technologies,’ included a proposal for the commissioned piece, Zoom Time, to be premiered at the Walled City Music Festival, in 2021. This work was assessed as 4* (world leading) in the Research Excellence Framework in 2021 helping the wider team of Music, Drama, Dance, Performing Arts, Film and Screen Studies to rank joint first place in the UK for impact.

Ulster University's Professor Frank Lyons said:

“It is wonderful to see this beautiful new campus come alive with the strains of this remarkable ensemble and with Nicholas. Music is a great leveller but access to instruments for those with disabilities has traditionally been difficult - this is where VR technology has really enabled incredible inclusion and in turn, beautiful music. Acoustonic are so passionate about music-making and they were just so excited to be able to perform their original pieces for a big, sold out audience.”

Acoustronic musician John Lynch added:

“Music is actually very soothing for us and its really enjoyable when we create all this new music.”

Professor Franziska Schroeder from the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen’s is the lead of the “Performance without Barriers” research group and Co-Investigator on the Future Screens NI project.

Speaking about the collaboration and performance, Professor Schroeder said:

“The inclusive design work, where we collaborate and design together with disabled musicians to develop new, inclusive, and accessible musical instruments, is at the heart of my own research. It is work that my research team “Performance without Barriers” has been doing for almost ten years here at Queen’s and we are extremely delighted and proud for our musicians to be part of this collaborative journey that involves the Ulster Orchestra, musicians from Derry’s Acoustronic Ensemble, as well as a musical score by Professor Frank Lyons and a film by Professor Paul Moore from Ulster University.”

Gary Wylie, PwB musician added:

“Playing music has opened up my life. New horizons have appeared for me.”

More about Acoustronic

Acoustronic was formed by Professor Frank Lyons in 2015 under the Inclusive Creativity banner at Ulster University and over the past few years the group have performed their original compositions in high profile venues in Lisbon, London, Dublin and Derry. They have been core to innovative research projects funded by the Performing Rights Society Foundation, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and the British Council, and have facilitated workshops for composers and technologists at the Walled City Music Festival and St Magnus Festival amongst others.

They were appointed as musicians in residence at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, the first inclusive ensemble to be awarded such a post at any national conservatoire in the world. The group has collaborated on the development of new digital instruments with PhD researchers including Brendan McCloskey’s ‘InGrid’ and Lewis Smith’s ‘WithFeelVR’, and they have co-created a gestural conducting system, ‘Conductology’, with Denise White.

Acoustronic are: Marie Anderson, Paul Brown, Alison Cooley, Jay Hagon and John Lynch.

Find out more

Full details of the Belfast Arts Festival (being held from 12 October – 5 November) are available at Belfast International Arts Festival .

A case study on the original research: ‘Inclusive Creativity,’ featuring the ‘Zoom Time’ project, cis also available.