Subaram Raman replaced a singer with a singer’s brain. A hushed audience watched as he played Ave Maria on the oboe by French composer Charles Gounod. Except, he wasn’t playing. The music was coming from a computer, translating data from his mind.
Raman, a doctoral student in musical composition, is one member of the MiND Ensemble (Music in Neural Dimensions), a performance group specializing in advanced neurofeedback technology. In the premiere performance at the Duderstadt Center this past weekend, Raman asked the audience, “What happens when our musical freedom is limited only by our ability to think?”
Using what’s known as a “brain hat,” neurofeedback technology monitors one’s emotional state by reading electroencephalography (EEG) levels in the brain. By appropriating this technology, the MiND Ensemble has managed to channel EEG data into sound. In other words, they’ve created music with their thoughts.
Ensemble member Robert Alexander II, a doctoral student in the Design Science Program, was initially inspired from a TED talk by Tan Le, founder of Emotiv. The Australian company works with interface technology, which serves as a basis for the MiND Ensemble’s research.
“I immediately began tests to see how this technology could be used for expressive purposes,” Alexander said.
The interface wasn’t originally intended for musical purposes, but with collaboration with fellow Ensemble members and generous support from the University, Alexander found a way to turn EEG data into a new kind of instrument, one that flows directly from the mind to the music itself.
In a historical context, the MiND Ensemble imitates a long tradition of musical advancement by getting at the heart of what it means to make music: The sound created is the outward manifestation of pure thought.
“We’ve made the process of going from an idea of composition to the actual sounds extremely quick and direct,” Alexander said. “You’re just a few clicks away from being able to experiment.”
With knowledge of neurofeedback technology’s use for music, additional applications have been considered, like psychological therapy, Alexander said. By examining what brain states look and sound like, musical feedback can be used as a form of therapeutic treatment.
Despite innovative methods, the Ensemble presents itself as a synthesis between old and new. According to Raman, the act of creating music is as old as humankind — all that has changed are the mediums for expression.
“We’re able to play acoustic instruments together with our brain instruments,” said David Biedenbender, Ensemble member and doctoral candidate in musical composition. “It’s a very new way of shaping the creative process.”
The Ensemble’s premiere reflected the differing states of active and passive thought, flowing fluidly from live music and monologues to meditative pieces where the performer’s level of excitement could literally be heard in the room. Alexander referred to the structure as equal parts “musical jam sessions” combined with explanations about the technology. And, because each piece taps into different emotions, it will never be the same show twice.
“I can’t predict what the emotional experience is going to be,” Raman said. “I can’t predict what my brain is going to do on a given night.”
Yet more than showcasing technology, the Ensemble aims to welcome people into a performance of the mind in the most human sense possible. From direct dialogue to audience participation, attendees were given a number of scenarios meant to replicate the ways in which we create music on a daily basis, and how these moments affect emotion when it comes to making sound with our brains.
“Everything that we do has an accompanying sound,” Alexander said. “We’re just taking thoughts and turning them into sounds. This is something we do all the time.”
For the MiND Ensemble, its work is only in the beginning phase. The software for musical brain interface, developed by Alexander himself, is still in early stages of development. But the ensemble’s members are confident in the technology’s ability to take its place in history as one of the many evolutions of music.
The performance concluded with a musical number by the entire MiND Ensemble. One by one, each member stood up, left his or her instrument behind and walked downstage until they formed a line. Everyone sat in silence as the musicians performed, just by thinking the music.
“We’re stepping into a new era in a symbolic sense,” Raman said.