LONDON – As the audience settled into Cafe OTO, a venue here, to hear Neil Luck introduce his ambitious new play ‘Whatever Weighs You Down’, amused smiles flickered across many faces.
The evening’s performances had already showcased a fascinating array of music technology, including sensor gloves, text-to-speech software and recordings of birdsong processed by artificial intelligence.
So when Luck launched into a low-tech etude, loudly inflating a balloon while panting into a microphone, viewers couldn’t help but laugh.
Dark humor underscored Whatever Weighs You Down, a bizarre, violent 40-minute work for piano, video, electronics and sensor gloves. It was the centerpiece of an evening showcasing works created with Cyborg Soloists, a multi-year, £1.4 million (US$1.6 million) project led by pianist and composer Zubin Kanga to explore the interdisciplinary Advance music making through new interactions with technology.
Whatever Weighs You Down is one of several experimental works recently premiered in the UK and Ireland that showcase the rich musical possibilities when disability and neurodiversity are incorporated into the creative process. These works also point to newly developed technologies that are both malleable tools to express different perspectives in experimental music and potentially allow greater access to composition, which has traditionally been a rare and exclusive world.
In recent years, especially in Great Britain, there has been increasing attention to making classical music more accessible. These include the widespread introduction of so-called relaxed performances in concert halls – where audiences are allowed to make noise – and the creation of professional ensembles for disabled musicians such as BSO Resound, part of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and the Paraorchestra, which is based in Bristol, England .
For Whatever Weighs You Down, Luck worked closely with deaf performance artist Chisato Minamimura, who appeared in the play on a video screen and used sign language to retell her own dreams of falling, a major theme of Luck’s work.
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In Whatever Weighs You Down, Minamimura wanted to express a deaf perspective on sound and music. “I have hearing loss, but I can feel things — I can feel sounds,” she said in a recent video interview through an interpreter. In workshops developing the piece, Minamimura responded to vibrations wherever she could find them: pressing her whole body against the piano’s lid, feeling the underside of the soundboard, and even biting the strings of certain instruments.
As the performance of “Whatever Weighs You Down” drew to a close, she achieved a remarkable semi-synthesis. On screen, Minamimura’s gestures mirrored Kanga’s hand movements on stage. Both performers offered each other a kind of accompaniment, which the audience experienced very differently depending on their relationship to the sound.
“Traditionally, music is only heard in the auditory sense,” Minamimura said, “but of course we can see someone playing the piano or the flute. Technology for me means integrating a film, visuals or a general feeling of something else; we add more sensory experiences for an audience.”
Creating music that involves multi-sensory experiences is just one of the areas Cyborg Soloists explores. The project, which is supported by the government-funded UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship, also includes new types of visual interactions, including virtual reality, the development of new digital tools and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The next frontier for Kanga, he said, is finding a way to translate brain activity from electroencephalogram caps into sound. And in Ireland, a recent installation explores a similar process.
Visual artist Owen Boss described the first time he heard the sonic reproduction of a brain mid-seizure as “an absolutely extraordinary moment,” describing “a very deep bass sound, sort of rhythmic, it just pops up in these peppy, intense bass sounds.” rushing in and out.”
The audio files were created by Mark Cunningham, a professor of epilepsy neurophysiology at Trinity College Dublin, who analyzed slivers of removed brain tissue that had undergone a process that simulated a seizure. He translated the analysis into binary code and then into sound. Inspired by this deeply harrowing reverberation and his family’s own experiences, Boss then began to piece together an installation, The Wernicke’s Area, named for the part of the brain involved in understanding language. The installation will be shown at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
In 2014, Boss’s wife Debbie Boss underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. The procedure was successful – the tumor was removed from Wernicke’s area of her brain – but there were some side effects: the former soprano developed epilepsy and now also finds communication challenging.
With his wife’s permission, Boss and composer Emily Howard created what he calls “a portrait of Debbie,” a multimedia work featuring details from the diaries she kept of her seizures, images of her brain, distorted snippets of her favorite aria from Handel and a variety of electroacoustic music drawn from data obtained from artificially induced brain seizures.
The premiere of “Das Wernicke-Viertel” was an extremely moving experience for everyone involved, especially for the Boss family. Debbie Boss got emotional “watching people do what she couldn’t do anymore,” her husband said. But since she didn’t directly shape the work, there is a slight distance to “The Wernicke’s Area”.
Lived experience plays a large part in the work of composer Megan Steinberg, who engages neurodiverse and disabled practitioners in all aspects of the creative process.
Steinberg’s Outlier II, created with the Distractfold ensemble and artists Elle Chante and Luke Moore, explores in musical form how artificial intelligence or AI can exclude disabled people by elaborating a common understanding of human experience. Outlier II features an AI-generated melody that generalizes over time, gradually losing nuance before being interrupted by a series of random improvisations.
Steinberg considered accessibility from the beginning of the creative process, producing scores tailored to each performer’s needs.
“It’s so rare in artistic settings,” said Chante, a singer with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a condition that affects her joints. “Usually it’s like, ‘Oh, we have this thing and we want it to be accessible.’ It says, “We want to be accessible, and here’s this piece that we’re trying to create.” And that made a huge difference.”
According to Cat McGill, director of program development at Drake Music, an arts charity focused on music, disability and technology, projects like this also produce music that’s more representative of the range of human experience. These projects “force us to question how we think about disability and neurodiversity,” she wrote in an email interview.
“When we approach a situation with the assumption that each individual has a unique contribution to make, rather than feeling like we need to fix it,” McGill added, “we embrace differences as a natural part of humanity.”