Flex at CMMR 2013
So the other week I spent a few days in Marseille for the 10th International Symposium on Computer Music Multidisciplinary Research (
I didn’t get to stay for the whole thing, but I got to soak up some of the sights in Marseille and attend two of the concerts which ran alongside the conference. On the first day I was there to perform my piece Flex, at the Théâtre des Bernardines, which I had a paper in the conference about. After a relatively painless sound check I did my thing, after being introduced in some indecipherable French. I decided to briefly introduce the piece, mostly because it takes a few minutes to prepare once I am on stage (wetting the electrodes, carefully positioning the headset etc.) so I tried to succinctly explain the nature of Flex, how it is in fact a musical game of control and that the control was being driven by the visual stimuli on screen in front of me.
Performing Flex here wasn’t easy. There was lots of electrical interference in the theatre which made it quite hard to control. Also, (most likely due to my terrible French trying to explain) the lighting in the room wasn’t quite right. For Flex I opted to have the room in complete darkness with the light from the computer screen illuminating my face. The issue with Flex, and the BCMI systems I am currently working with, is that they not only require no physical gestures or movement, but any movement will actually cause interference to the EEG measurements and disrupt the piece.
So how can one design an engaging performance based on no physical movement? For some people there’s nothing worse that watching an electronic musician perform behind a laptop. People can feel a bit cheated, as a laptop can feel like a barrier between an audience and the on the spot response and interaction of the musician. A DJ can get away with this to an extent, everyone knows they are mixing tracks, it’s already implied but a performance especially something as unique as one driven by brainwaves, well people like to see and feel the interaction between the performer and the music.
Interestingly Flex had a very different response here than at a previous outing when I performed it at Sight, Sound, Space and Play (SSSP) 2013 at De Montfort, Leicester.
Instead of drawing the focus away from me, the static performer, who is heavily focused on gazing at the visual stimuli and trying to suss out the controls, I decided to make that the centre of attention. I did not want to use some fancy visual projections just to jazz things up, I wanted the audience to be drawn in by the concentration needed to perform the piece, and that takes a step of faith. For the musicians and composers in the audience at SSSP having understood the idea of the piece they seemed more able to sit back and engage with what was on display to them; my facial expressions amplified by being the only thing visible. Every reflection of my frustration, joy and anxiety coinciding with the music drew them in.
In contrast the audience at CMMR was made up mostly of computer scientists and they (well the ones who spoke to me afterwards anyway) really seemed to struggle with not having the method of brain wave control on display. They felt that the way the performance was lacking in communication; of the method of control; raised a barrier that was difficult for the audience to overcome and therefore connect with the music.
It would be pretty lazy of me to conclude that composers and musicians are more open to imaginative interpretations whereas scientists need to see the nuts and bolts of a device if they are ever to be convinced that it is doing what it claims to do, although there may be a slight element of this here (in fact one scientist claimed he thought I was checking my emails instead of generating brain wave activity!). Frankly I think this is currently the biggest problem in performing with BCMI systems as they currently are. On the one hand this is technology for people to make music who may not have any motor abilities – and that’s its power – , whereas on the other hand it opens up new ways for everyone to make music, be it performing or composing, its just how it is presented in a public setting that needs consideration. As I said before everyone has preconceptions about what a DJ does, so they’re not to fussed when he or she stands behind a laptop and a CDJ. Tell people you’re using your brain to make music and they’ll probably need some convincing, and naturally want to know a bit about the how just out of sheer curiosity.
So, hopefully the net piece I’m working on will do just that, and I think this approach is pushing the way forward for performing with BCMI – integrating it with other forms of musical performance.
Activating Memory, with Professor Eduardo Miranda, uses a string quartet with four extra people using BCMI. The brain control is used to control the scores presented to each musician as they update. Effectively four non-musicians direct the piece and the string players play the results of their decisions.