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Hearing the Music of the Hemispheres

Erin B. Mee, Author

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Hearing the Music of the Hemispheres

I am sitting on the right side of the brain, between the temporal and parietal lobes, on a folding metal chair facing the frontal lobes. Organ-like synthesizer music swells up and rolls away, echoes off to my left, then relaxes into silence. I hear the ping-ping-ping of a hammer on a small gong or block of wood. It sounds like rain.

I am listening to music that has been composed by sonifying a series of  fMRI scans of performance artist Maria Chavez. These were made as she watched a stimulus film instructing her to imagine the sound of rain, listen to a recording of rain, and listen to a musical composition based on recordings of rain by Aaron Einbond, which included samples of actual rain sounds. These instructions were given onscreen, so I am hearing a sonification of Chavez's brain's activity as she engages in an act of spectatorship. You could say that I am hearing her spectating: I am listening to her listening-seeing. The audio-speakers -- at the Issue Project Room, a performance space in Brooklyn, New York -- are positioned so that I can spatially experience the blood flow in her brain (a way of measuring neural activity): the speakers in the front of the room (left and right) play music generated by activity in the frontal lobes of her brain; the next two play music generated by the temporal lobes; then the parietal lobes; and finally, at the back of the space, the occipital lobe. I am sitting in Maria Chavez's head, listening to her brain play.

I am interested in Music of the Hemispheres for what we can learn about spectatorship. However, the concert can be understood in other ways as well. First, it can be seen "simply" as the performance of a musical composition in which Chavez's brain is a performer improvising its response to the stimulus film, which is analogous to another player. Her brain's improvisation is then "amplified" through the process of sonification so we can hear it, and shown onscreen so we can see it. Second, the sonifications can be seen as an aural portrait of Chavez -- not unlike portraits composed by Virgil Thompson or Erik Satie, except that this is a self-portrait of Chavez's brain activity composed by her own brain. Furthermore, the visualizations of her brain activity can be seen as a visual portrait. Additionally, neuroscientist Zoran Josipovic, who conducted the fMRI scans, notes that the data obtained from them can be used to analyze the way human beings respond to an image of the self as opposed to an image of another. Finally, neurophilosopher Dan Lloyd, who created the visualizations and sonifications, uses sonification as a way of understanding consciousness. 

Analyses of spectatorship in theatre and performance studies have largely drawn from reception and reader-response theories in literary and cultural studies. But performance is a multimedia and multidisciplinary genre requiring multiple cognitive strategies for making meaning. Music of the Hemispheres is a concert, a film, a portrait, an improv, and a performed (neural) performance analysis of the way Chavez saw and heard the stimulus film. It offers an alternative, performance-driven model for understanding spectatorship.

This is a born-digital multimodal article: the video and audio clips are central to, and integrated in, the argument. Please stop and view the clips in their entirety as they occur in the article. For optimal listening, start with your volume at least halfway up and adjust as you wish. This article is structured as a "walking tour" of the event. To begin, click "View the Event" and follow that path. To go further along the path, click "Next page on path." When you reach the end of the first path, you can click "Hearing the 'Music of the Hemispheres'" in the Main Menu on the left of the screen, which will bring you back to this page. You are then positioned to follow any or all of the shorter, more specific paths listed below. Or, you can explore the article through keywords by clicking "keywords" below.

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