ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Music ED2016 Week2 Edition

Frances M Lynch: Singing the praises of scientists

By | Published on Saturday 20 August 2016


As soon as we heard about this show, we were drawn to it. It’s the music of six contemporary female composers, written about the titular and often neglected ‘Superwomen Of Science’, performed by a talented soprano in possession of considerable theatrical skills.
We like it when science and art collide – and we like theatrical projects which address injustice – so this felt like a match made in heaven. To find out more about the show, we spoke to its creator and sole performer, Frances M Lynch.

CM: Tell us a little bit about what happens in the show.
FML: ‘Superwomen Of Science’ is a splendidly eclectic one woman show – a collage of cutting-edge contemporary music by women composers for a solo a capella voice, juxtaposed with ancient music and the recorded voices of scientists, historians, composers and members of the public telling tales of women scientists.

CM: Would you describe this as musical theatre?
FML: Perhaps music-theatre would be a better description? This is science laced with smatterings of wit and humour and lashings of gorgeous music.

CM: What made you want to address the topic of women in science?
FML: Over many years I have avoided any emphasis on gender in my work. But gradually it has been dawning on me, through discussions with eminent composers and scientists who I number among my friends, that there is a real problem here that should be addressed.

Combined with my own feelings that science and art should not be separate streams – after all, to be a great scientist you must be creative, and to be a great artist you must pay meticulous attention to detail – I was keen to launch into what has been a voyage of discovery with the most fascinating people you can imagine.

CM: So a key aim is to overcome the common tendency to ‘airbrush’ high achieving women out of history, or for their advances to be credited to men?
FML: Yes, exactly. We don’t hit you over the head with it, we simply highlight their stories, their work and their lives.

CM: Would you call this a feminist show?
FML: Blimey – I’m not sure about a label like that – I am simply a woman working with other women to show what is happening and to look for ways of inspiring women into the field of science and music, and supporting those we know who are already trying to make their way in these worlds. Though perhaps that’s what feminism is – a supportive way of telling truths.

CM: How did you decide which scientists to feature?
FML: The scientists were chosen by the composers of the music, who were each commissioned to write a short five minute piece which gave a flavour of their chosen woman, her work and position in society. The result ended up being a fantastic spread throughout the ages: Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Anne McLaren and Eva Crane.

I have also written two of the pieces in the programme – how could I resist writing about Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming, given the opportunity to use a wonderful folk tune, ‘The Piper O Dundee’? And the singer/astronomer Caroline Herschel who, like me, sang the contemporary music of her day – but unlike me, went on to discover comets, nebulae and chart the stars for future astronomers.

The programme also starts with the music of Hildegard von Bingen – who was, of course, both scientist and artist – and offers the second most important message in the show: when science and arts work together, new beginnings are possible.

CM: You mentioned the recorded voices. How did you gather those together?
FML: I have been recording the names of women scientists and conversations about their achievements for quite a few years now, so have a lot of material to work with.

I also was very lucky to have Patricia Fara – an expert in women in science and President of the British Society For The History Of Science – who very kindly came and let me interview and record her talking about all the women in the project. This commentary forms the backbone of the recorded material.

In addition all the composers got together with me, one other male singer – Gwion Thomas – to show contrasting voices, and Judith Weir, for a workshop at King’s College London on the pieces. We talked and listened and sang the music and much of this conversation is used too.

CM: What made you decide to bring this show to Edinburgh in 2016? Have you brought shows to the festival before?
FML: Last year we brought three shows for two nights each and realised the potential to develop ideas here through a longer run – so we decided that as this had only me as performer we could run it through the Festival – as it’s affordable! Plus the venue Valvona & Crolla is so friendly and helpful and the perfect intimate space to work with an audience – and of course they get to sample the wonderful wines and food during their visit as an extra bonus.

CM: The show is part of a wider project called Minerva Scientifica – tell us more about that.
FML: Minerva Scientifica is an evolving music-theatre programme reflecting the lives and work of British women scientists told through the music of British women composers. It sets out to look at the links that exist between women scientists in history and the present day, and to find ways of increasing public engagement with the physical science and with the issues encountered by expert female scientists through a parallel exposure to women composers and artists.

CM: What other events have been staged as part of the project?
FML: Our work has been rather extensive – growing since 2013. Last year alone we produced eleven new pieces of vocal music theatre, twelve music and science collaborations, thirteen participatory workshops and nineteen live performances – reaching more than 2000 in live audiences – and we developed four unique performance programmes based around Rosalind Franklin, Miriam Rothschild, Mary Anning and Ada Lovelace.

CM: And what is planned for the future?
FML: Currently we are working on ‘Forgetting To Remember’ at Newcastle University, funded by the British Academy, with a pilot event at Sage Gateshead in September, plus various schools projects in Bournemouth, London and Eyemouth. We’re discussing many future projects with partners here in Scotland and around the UK – and with the Royal Society and the British Science Association.

CM: Tell us more about your company Electric Voice Theatre? 
FML: Electric Voice Theatre has been active in the UK and Europe as a multi-disciplinary music-theatre ensemble of singers and designers for sound, light and stage since 1985. We’ve worked with many interesting partners – most recently The Great Tapestry Of Scotland and a Dubstep Gamelan Project in Manchester! Minerva Scientifica however, is taking over our lives at the moment!

We are a group of people who enjoy a challenge in music and seek out adventures in sound and with people working in new and interesting fields – often unrelated to music – or seemingly unrelated as there are always links. The company is run by myself and Herbie Clarke with a lot of goodwill from our team, and fulfills my own personal need always to be doing something I never expected!

CM: What will happen to the show following the run here – are there plans for a life after the Fringe?
FML: Yes  we plan to tour it to rural venues here and to use the pieces in the programme in different ways  not always as a simple one hour show – for example, parts of it will appear at The British Science Association conference in Swansea in September. 

‘Superwomen Of Science’ was performed at Valvona & Crolla at Edinburgh Festival 2016.