30 November 2014
Mixing science, music and the visual arts to explore the nature of performance and deafness, using realtime brainwave scanning to generate a live improvised score. Susan Bennett witness a performance culminating from a 4-day residency with the Frozen Music Collective, Ruth Montgomery and Danny Lane from Music and the Deaf, and a team of neuroscientists and coders.
It was strange, to watch someone’s brain signals pulsating, gyrating, expanding and contracting on a full size screen in a motion akin to amoebic breathing. Areas of theta, delta, alpha, beta, gamma brain activity high, low and just plain ordinary mapped out the boundaries of perception while the central core flashed intermittently in star bursts according to the intensity of someone's reaction to a haunting lilting flute played by Ruth Montgomery. It was weirdly wonderful.
We were taking part in a presentation for DaDaFest showing the products of a four day residency of a team of neuroscientists, coders, Music for the Deaf musicians and the Frozen Music Collective, a new music and multimedia group exploring the symbiosis of the human brain and technology.
Exploration was the key word, it came up time and time again. Matching neuron activity to technology is usually the province of medical science but at the Bluecoat in Liverpool the alternative artistic interpretations were simply crazily beautiful, beguiling and startling. I pondered, irreverently, what Freud would have done with such a tool as this.
For there was no hiding a natural reaction. Once musician Danny Lane was wired up to the headset his instinctive response to music was plain to all who could see the screen. His brain signals were transmitted via computer programmes, which analysed, filtered and refined the impulses in a way which mystified, so that they could be mixed, played and enjoyed.
We were treated to a precisely timed and mimed duet between deaf musicians, tossing illusive balls between them, keyboard notes accenting the actions. A BSL on screen conversation morphed into many hands, Ganesh like arms and distorted features as the flautist wired up to one of these headsets, commanded music, live shapes and performance as well as directing the keyboard player. Her brain activity was turned into sound and light by using a graphical interface to produce a live score.
No, I don't pretend to understand how all this works but I watched with interest the demonstration which aimed to show how shapes could be related to musical notes. Using an elaborate Pensieve type bowl familiar to Harry Potter fans and with the lights dimmed we were enthralled as a crucible of light topped up by copious jugs of water, formed pools of luminous green which became visual representations of musical vibrations.
In response shapes formed, dissolved and swirled like the essence of life itself. Fragments squirmed and multiplied, then shot bolt scattered in all directions around a central core of white pulsing dotted light, while we were projected further and further away, millions of light years backwards through the universe. Music followed us, or maybe we took it with us: little trills on the flute, ripples off the keyboard, deep pulsing throbbing reverberations, rising triumphantly, sighing back to earth. Part mystical, musical and meditative it was indeed an exploration.
So what next? More exploration... inclusion of visually impaired people in this brainy experiment... more time to reflect, refine the tools and techniques? Watch this collective space.