Brisbane’s Argo turns best-selling book into space opera

Connor D'Netto and Ben Heim compose a sci-fi



Ever wondered what another universe would sound like? Brisbane classical/electronic duo Argo will show you this month when they set best-selling sci-fi novel Illuminae to music for the Brisbane Writers Festival.

The duo is made up of young composers Connor D’Netto and Ben Heim, and together they’ve created a cinematic, “surround sound” experience that’s set to place audiences in the centre of this explosive book from Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Think artificial intelligence and star cruiser battles against a backdrop of live strings and electronics.

Sounds pretty cool, huh?


We love the combination of words and music. How did this collaboration with the writers festival come about?

C: It’s a long story; a bit of a he-said-she-said to be honest. The Brisbane Writers Festival approached the Queensland Music Festival about organising some concerts around a text in their festival this year. QMF approach Pat Murphy to curate these two concerts – Pat Murphy though, rather than whipping out his old Bach suites or the like, he’d ask us to write him an entirely new program based on the given text – and so it went from there!

When did you first read this book?

Connor: Back in mid-July, we were sent three options of text to use. Two of them were poets – an Australian and a New Zealander – one of more traditional Australian landscape poetry and the other more modern; and this book. When we heard the type of book it was and read the blurb, we didn’t really know if it’d work with/as music. But as soon as we had it in our hands, we knew it we had to attempt it, and luckily once we read it, we found that the text itself had a read musicality and drama to it. I’m not usually one for young adult sci-fi novels, but it’s so well written, complex and full of intrigue; I really did enjoy it. But, if I’m completely honest, I still haven’t finished it! But no spoilers on how it ends please, I’m going to finish reading it as soon as working on the concert is over!

Ben: Everyone dies, trust me, I’ve read the whole book. It is really a great book, the characters are really relatable and it is well executed. I often find that young adult fiction books lack a bit of depth, but this one poses some interesting questions about what makes someone human. I’m really looking forward to its film adaptation; it could definitely be quite a unique take on the genre.

How will you place audiences in the space or atmosphere of the book, especially for those who haven’t read it before?

Ben: Our entire approach to this concert was to do exactly that. The whole aim is to catapult the audience to another universe for a little while. We call all our concerts immersive, but I think this one in particular places the audience in the centre of a very cohesive and all-encompassing auditory landscape. What really makes it immersive is having a bunch of real actors (and one fake one) doing voice-overs for us. After we recorded them re-enacting parts of the book, I cut up the audio files, added a whole heap of effects and manipulation and spread them across surround sound. Mix that with some spacey soundscapes and it’s really like the audience is in the centre of the action. I’m particularly happy with how the artificial intelligence turned out. Turning a female actor into a messed up robotic male AI is certainly one of the more unique tasks I have undertaken in the name of art music.

A book doesn’t have such a clear-cut atmosphere like a film with strong visuals to use as cues. How do you orchestrate a book?

Connor: Oh, this one certainly does. You’ll have to read the book to get it – even just go to a book store and flip through it, you’ll get it straight away! We’ve even tried to recreate some of the book’s look and feel in the concert program – it’s a real work of art (if I do say so myself).

Ben: It was sort of like writing music for a film without being constrained by scenes and editing. We could dictate the ebb and flow of the narrative with the music, rather than have it subservient to image. I think that music and sound design play a huge part in creating atmosphere in modern cinema so I didn’t really feel limited by only having to work in those areas. The AI part translated really well to this audio-only medium as it allowed for an incredibly stylised character to be created. Being a malfunctioning AI, there were no preconceptions of what it should sound like. I really just let loose on the sound design.

Stylistically, what can we expect from your sound?

Ben: I have always been interested in the ways in which electronics can be combined with an orchestra in an organic and expressive way, and sort of took this concert as an opportunity to try out some of those ideas. My setup for this concert allows me to conduct the ensemble and electronics at the same time; expressively leading the string players while shaping the electronics gesturally with my left hand. This is achieved by having my laptop running a flexible click track which I can fade in and out and adjust in terms of tempo and time signature. This allows me to bring in tempo synced electronic effects, as well as conduct normally, (without the tempo restriction).

I also have a device that tracks my hand movements in 3D space, which I have paired to my left hand in order to control the electronics with my gestures. Tying this whole setup together is my launchpad, a grid of buttons from which I can bring the click in and out, change tempos, launch voice over clips and trigger synth parts.

I believe this setup has really shaped the way the music was conceived, and this setup was has been an eye opening experience in regards to the possibilities that lie ahead. It’s funny though, we’ve always had ‘filmic influences’ in our bio, but this is the first concert where we actually get to explore that side of our writing. While our other concerts have often been constrained by ‘high art’ ideas and ‘serious’ music, the themes we deal with this time have allowed us to branch out into a bit more ‘fun’ music: think m83 in 7/4…

Connor: Alongside Ben’s conducting setup is my synth setup, providing the bassy foundation underpinning our lush string section, and delivering the punchy leads and swelling pads to drive home what Ben’s called the more ‘fun’ music. I also have my iPad rigged up to be able to control all the electronics – the synths, soundscapes, and the amplification of our solo cellist. With it I will be able to manipulate the sounds and effects, and control their deliver in surround sound, sweeping different lines through the space and around the audience. But of course, core to everything is the string section, a stellar mini string orchestra of students from the University of Queensland School of Music, led by the fantastic Patrick Murphy, cellist of the Southern Cross Soloists.


See Illuminae at the State Library of Queensland, 5.30pm September 9 and September 10. Presented as part of the Brisbane Writers Festival in conjunction with the Queensland Music Festival, and performed by Patrick Murphy and the strings of the University of Queensland School of Music. More info


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