Wednesday 3 April 2019

Brainwaves and EEGs: the Ligeti Quartet's latest concert explores what our brains sound like

Ligeti Quartet - (Photo Ligeti Quartet / Mike Massaro)
Ligeti Quartet - (Photo Ligeti Quartet / Mike Massaro)
What does the brain sound like? The Ligeti Quartet (Mandhira de Saram, Patrick Dawkins, Richard Jones, Val Welbanks) and composer Cliff Kerr are going to attempt to give us some idea at the quartet's concert entitled Consciousness at Kings Place on 9 May 2019.  It promises to be an engrossing evening, combining Kerr's new piece Brainstaves for string quartet and EEGs, with Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet, Witold Lutoslawski's String Quartet and Shiva Feshareki's Venus/Zorah which was written for the quartet last Autumn for its tour of planetariums, Planets2018.

Cliff Kerr's Brainstaves is a piece which not just uses EEGs, but uses them in near real-time to virtually create the music being played. I asked him to explain further, and he has this to say about the striking concept behind his piece:

 'The idea in a nutshell is to use EEG recordings of the players' brain activity to generate the score in real time. The challenge, however, is to do this in a way that is both neuro-scientifically valid and musically successful! The raw materials for the piece are a library of semi-composed, semi-improvised musical phrases, recorded at the same time as EEG activity. From this library, statistical algorithms determine the "horizontal" (melodic) and "vertical" (harmonic) relationships. Machine learning algorithms then determine the relationships between the musical material and the brain activity. During the performance, the algorithms "guess" what notes the performers "should" be thinking of at every instant based on their brain activities, and write down these notes just in time for the performers to read them (and, with luck, play them). So in a sense, the piece is an improvisation between the composer and the performers, all linked together via their brain activity.'
For those that don't know, an EEG [Electroencephalogram] is a test used to find problems related to electrical activity of the brain. An EEG tracks and records brain wave patterns. Small metal discs with thin wires (electrodes) are placed on the scalp, and then send signals to a computer to record the results.

Ruth Crawford Seeger is perhaps best known for the remarkable variety of her output, a modernist composer in the 1920s and 1930s, she became an American folk-music expert. Her string quartet of 1931 dates from the height of her modernist period whilst she was still living in New York.

Further information from the Kings Place website.

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