Making classical music with a brain computer interface

In February this year, an interesting classical music premiere took place at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth – Activating Memory, an experimental composition where the Brain Computer Music Interface quartet wear braincaps that read information from their brains, which is then converted into musical scores.

We caught up with Professor Eduardo Miranda, a composer bridging the gap between music and science, to find out more about his innovative approach to making music.

Q&A

Eduardo_Miranda2MF: What led you to explore the relationship between music and science?

EM: Music was part of my upbringing since very early on. But I ended up taking a university degree in informatics. After a two-year stint working as a software engineer I decided to go back to university to study music. It was during a visit to the music library that I came across a double issue of a French periodical called La Revue Musicale, with articles authored by composer Iannis Xenakis.

Xenakis’ highly innovative use of mathematics and logics in composition was a revelation to me: I realised that I could combine my knowledge of computing with music. I soon found myself immersed in the then emerging field of computer music. The rest is history.

2MF: How does your process of composing using computers work?

EM: The use of computers to compose music dates back to the mid of 1950s, when Lejaren Hiller composed The Illiac Suite for String Quartet. Hiller teamed up with mathematician Leonard Isaacson to program the mainframe computer ILLIAC at the University of Illinois in the USA to generate music by following rules. The output from the computer, which essentially consisted of a lot of numerical data, was transcribed manually into standard musical notation on a score to be played by a string quartet.

I regularly program the computer to generate materials for my compositions, pretty much following the tradition initiated by Hiller. The main difference is that nowadays one can program the computer to generate data that can be loaded directly into a piece of software for editing scores, such as Sibelius or Finale. I program the computer to generate materials such as riffs, sequences, rhythms, melodies, entire sections lasting for several minutes, and indeed synthesised sounds. More often than not, musical form emerges as I work with the materials at hand. One of the reasons I find it exciting working with computers is because they can generate musical materials that I would not have produced on my own otherwise.

2MF: Tell us more about Activating Memory and the BCMI Quartet.

EM: A Brain-Computer Interface is a system that uses electrical patterns detected on the cortex of the brain, referred to as the electroencephalogram, or EEG, to control devices. My team and I at Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) at Plymouth University have been developing a BCMI, that is a Brain-Computer Music Interface, which is a BCI to control music. We have recently developed a prototype BCMI for a locked-in syndrome patient (a person with severe paralysis of the whole body after a stroke) at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London that allowed her to play music. Our system detects patterns of brain activity that the patient has learned to produce to control a program that generates music.

This is the technology I used for Activating Memory, a piece for 8 performers: a string quartet and BCMI quartet. The BCI quartet involves four persons, each of them wearing a brain cap furnished with electrodes to read information from their brains. We designed an extraordinary BCMI system that generates musical scores in real-time. During the performance, each member of the BCI quartet generates a part for the string quartet to be performed on the fly.

Readers are invited to watch a short documentary available from my Vimeo channel to understand how the composition works.

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2MF: What level of control do you have over the development of a composition using the brain cap?

EM: In the case of Activating Memory, I share the control with the four people who wear the braincap. The composition functions as kind of multidimensional domino game, whereby I am the designer of the game and the persons who wear the cap, or composers-performers, play the game.

2MF: Do you think it removes a level of creativity from the art of composition?

EM: I do not think so. If anything, I would say it adds another level. At the end of the day, it is just a different way of making music.

2MF: What reactions do you get to your work?

EM: It varies. I generally hear good commentary. One important thing for me is that I care about the music. Music comes first. Technology comes after. I think my audience appreciates that. Above all, I am a composer and the music has to sound interesting.

2MF: How did the world premiere at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival go?

EM: It exceeded my expectations. The whole thing worked perfectly. I rarely have performances that I am 100% happy with, but this was a pleasant exception. The four brains worked together brilliantly. All four “brains” really listened to each other during the performance and made choices that made complete musical sense to me. And the string quartet responded beautifully! The audience was thrilled and a reportage by BBC News alone attracted over 2 million viewers on the internet. This is a tremendous exposure for the work, and also for the festival and the region.

2MF: What are you working on now?

EM: I am working on a piece for an ensemble of 26 musicians, called Recombinaisons Corticales, as part of a project I am developing in collaboration with IRCAM in Paris and NOTAM in Oslo. And I am just about to start working on a major opera, which is due for September 2015.

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