On Being Invisible II (Hypatia Speaks to Jefferson in a Dream)


Self–organizing, interactive multi–media chamber opera for two performers with computer music systems capable of measuring auditory event–related potentials (ERPs) from their brains, two improvising musicians, narrator, computer performer(s), computer–controlled laser disk video projection, slide projections, pre–recorded voices, OBI software written in HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language), and real–time digital synthesis system.

A non–linear narrative form in which texts, music, and image sequences are ordered by the results of analyzing brain signals from the Hypatia and Jefferson characters; partially documented in software, program notes, texts, and the monograph, Extended Musical Interface with the Human Nervous System, Leonardo Monograph No. 1, ISAST, International Society for the Arts, Sciences, and Technology, Berkeley, CA, 1990; revised version (1997) available through Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Electronic Monographs; one realization released on Transmigration Music, Centaur Records, Inc., Consortium to Distribute Computer Music, Vol. 30, CRC 2940, , Baton Rouge, LA, 2000, CD.


This relatively recent work received four major performances in 1995–97 at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, at Merkin Concert Hall in New York and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater in Chicago as part of ISEA97 (International Symposium on Electronic Art). A full–scale production requires two brainwave performers who play the characters of Hypatia and Jefferson, two improvising musicians (one capable of producing sharp transient sounds and one capable of long sustained sounds) who are the musical "doubles" of Hypatia and Jefferson, a narrator and two performers for the computer media which include real–time digital signal synthesis and processing, brainwave data acquisition and analysis, MIDI devices, computer controlled video laser disc with projection, slide projectors with dissolves, stage lighting, interactive HMSL software, sound reinforcement and audio mixing. Auditory evoked responses are extracted from the brainwaves of the performers and are used to construct an electronic musical fabric, to create sequences of transforming visual icons and select and arrange text materials from sampled voices. The on–stage musicians provide spontaneous counterpoint to complete a kind of self–organizing opera.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Sara Roberts, brainwaves (Hypatia); Daniel Rothman, brainwaves (Jefferson); Susan Allen, electric harp (Double 1); Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet (Double 2); Nicholas England, narrator; David Rosenboom & Kent Clelland, computer media.

Krannert Center, Urbana, IL: Heidi Von Gunden, brainwaves (Hypatia); Jason Scher, brainwaves (Jefferson); Ray Sasaki, trumpet (Double 1); Erik Lund, trombone (Double 2); William Brooks, narrator; David Rosenboom & Kent Clelland, computer media.

Merkin Hall, New York: Angela Blemker, brainwaves (Hypatia); Nathaniel Reichman, brainwaves (Jefferson); David Rosenboom, MIDI grand piano, computer, Morpheus synthesizer (Doubles 1 & 2); Robert Ashley, narrator; Kent Clelland, computer media.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: Kimberly Olsen, brainwaves (Hypatia); Trevor Martin, brainwaves (Jefferson); David Rosenboom, MIDI grand piano, computer, Morpheus synthesizer (Doubles 1 & 2), narrator and computer media.

Program Notes
In the late 1960's I became fascinated with new developments in brain science as they related to musical perception and the emergence of new musical languages. Ideas from cybernetics, notably those relating to the self–regulation of systems by means of feedback, were finding their way into psycho–biological research, resulting in an explosion of interest in something popularly known as, biofeedback. The notion of self–regulation, that individuals may be able to achieve a degree of conscious, willful control of particular body functions formerly thought only to be regulated by unconscious, autonomic processes, captured the imaginations of many people. My own interest in biofeedback centered around the notion that self–regulation of brain functions, as could be observed through monitoring aspects of electrical brain activity, was closely related to certain processes involved in the evolution of new musical styles. Self–regulation by means of feedback is also closely related to some ideas about evolution, and models of evolution appear as a consistent, thematic referent throughout much of my musical work. Consequently, I began a long period of research in information processing modalities of the nervous system as they relate to aesthetic experience and creative activity. I produced many musical compositions and interdisciplinary, artistic pieces in which the material forms in the works were generated spontaneously by means of direct monitoring of electrical brain activity and/or other body functions. I published numerous articles about this work, two books, Biofeedback and the Arts and Extended Musical Interface with the Human Nervous System, and several recordings. This was, however, only a beginning.

In 1976, I began creating a work entitled On Being Invisible, which, for me, contains the richest aesthetic, symbolic and metaphorical content arising form the import that biofeedback systems had on my work as a composer. On Being Invisible is a self–organizing, dynamical system, rather than a fixed musical composition. The title refers to the role of the individual within an evolving, dynamical environment, who makes decisions concerning when and how to be a conscious initiator of action and when simply to allow her or his individual, internal dynamics to co–evolve within the macroscopic dynamics of the system as a whole. Consequently, the work is always ongoing. Within the corpus of my music, the title serves as a label for a period of work with these ideas from about 1976 to 1979. A recording of an early version was released in 1977. Recently, after concentrating on other things for several years, I have begun new work with this system, calling it, On Being Invisible II. This new work is stimulated partly by advances in technology that only now make the realization of earlier concepts possible, and it is partly the result of interest in applying new knowledge within a still very rich musical paradigm.

One of the primary objectives in this research was to achieve the technical capability necessary to create an attention–dependent sonic environment. I wanted to create a situation in which the syntax of a sonic language orders itself according to the manner in which sound is perceived. To accomplish this, components of the electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded from the brains of on–stage performers, known as event–related potentials (ERP's), are detected, measured and analyzed. ERP's are transient waveforms in the EEG associated with the occurrence of stimulus events having a high degree of salience – particular meaningfulness – to the subject emitting these brainwaves, always in relation to a particular context of surrounding events. Next, computers are programmed to produce a stream of sonic events according to some predetermined starting point or compositional method devised by the composer. The computer software also contains a partial model of musical perception, with which it attempts to predict what events in its own, musical output might be perceived by the subject as having significance in the emerging musical structure. Usually, these correspond to boundary points, such as the end of a phrase and the beginning of a new phrase, a significant change in texture, or changes in the pattern grouping of phrases into sequences or other higher level forms. A powerful, widely–used software tool which I co–authored, known as HMSL, (Hierarchical Music Specification Language), is used to manipulate formal musical elements referred to as morphologies, or morphs, for short. ERP's from the performer–subjects are then analyzed to determine if the computer's predictions correspond to signals from the brain that should accompany important, attention–securing events. If they do not, the music generating algorithms are allowed to mutate into new forms and new predictions are tested. If the predictions are confirmed, the kinds of events reliably associated with these confirmed predictions gain prominence in the musical fabric. In this way, self–organizing, musical forms can emerge that are related to the shifts of attention experienced by the performer–subjects and that can be confirmed by brain signal measurements. In modern terminology, this system exhibits many of the characteristics of what we call, complex adaptive systems. Such systems are used to model the evolution of complex life forms that are often governed by simple, underlying rules. Thus, an interactive, musical system is produced that can spontaneously evolve new, emerging, musical orderings, and perhaps, even languages.

Over many years of performing, writing, producing recordings of brainwave music, and further thinking, the components of this feedback system began to remind me of characters in a mythological drama, the spontaneous forces of creativity, the drive to converge upon ordered relationships in society, the counterbalancing tension of divergence from order as our consciousness loses its focus on orderings from the past, and the fundamental uncertainties regarding forces in nature that are only partially knowable. Consequently, I began to think about On Being Invisible in theatrical or narrative terms. This raised an important question. If music combined with theater can be loosely termed, opera, how, then, does one go about creating a self–organizing opera? This question may never be fully answered, but it is far too stimulating to my imagination to stop trying.

On Being Invisible II (Hypatia Speaks to Jefferson in a Dream) is an experiment with this question. The setting is a dream in which Thomas Jefferson hears the voice of the Greek, woman, astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher, Hypatia, traversing the centuries of time and the space of continents, mingling with his own internal voices as he is writing one of his later–to–be–famous documents. The components of ideological conflict that emerge from this scene remind me of the tension associated with the individual performer in On Being Invisible, who must always negotiate a thin dividing line separating being part of something larger than one's self and trying to willfully direct a naturally evolving process. Hypatia, an Alexandrian who was murdered in A.D. 415 for being both Greek and a woman who dared to lecture, resided at a focal point of change in the old world, the end of Classical Greek philosophy and the beginning of the Dark Ages, the foundation of Neo–Platonism and the emergence of Plotinus, the transformation of Christianity from a moral teaching into a brutal instrument of political power, the appropriation of Plotinus and mysticism by the Christians to obscure thought and achieve totalitarian, political control, the decline of Alexandria as an intellectual center, symbolized by the destruction of the fabled library, combined with an unprecedented outpouring of romantic, multi–sexual poetry, and the labyrinthian racial–political conflicts there among Greeks, Jews, Ptolmaics, remnants of Egyptian antiquity, Copts, Islamics, Europeans, and numerous others. These are just a small sampling. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson was a figure wedged in–between the end of the Age of Enlightenment and emerging Romanticism, an American hero who espoused freedom of thought and religion but also kept slaves, a revolutionary torn between rationality and romance, who's relationships with women, from slaves to European intellectuals, symbolized the psycho–sexual dilemma of a young nation, whose brilliant inventiveness and creative genius was at once steeped in Neo–Classicism and evinced a great contempt for Plato, who was both a champion of the political avant garde and a player in the new dynamics of wealth and power, a president in the new world who was also obsessed with the mathematics of miscegenation. The invisibility manifest in this scenario is represented by the dream state of Jefferson in which these conflicts energize his thoughts and entreaties to wisdom are transmitted to him through warps in space–time by the reincarnated mind of Hypatia.

This realization of On Being Invisible II is set for two performers, representing Hypatia and Jefferson, whose brain signals are being monitored and event–related potentials analyzed. The results are used to create the forms of electronic music we hear, sequences of visual icons we see through computerized video projection, and arrangements of words spoken by electronically sampled voices. The words come from various texts by Jefferson, including selections from his letters and writings on the arts and philosophy. Hypatia's words are speculative. They come from modern authors, original words by the composer, and selections from Hypatia's contemporaries. Each of these characters has a double image on stage in the form of a musician. These are the ghost doubles of Hypatia and Jefferson, in the sense of being their personal angels and also representing human beings' propensity to make copies of themselves in nefarious forms. These musical parts are written for master improvisers to provide musical glue for the performance. Finally, a narrator represents the dream state and a neutral form of the emerging properties of a new, global consciousness.
– DR 1995

Credits and Acknowledgments
Conception and Composition: David Rosenboom, 1994 – 95, based on the earlier work, On Being Invisible, (an attention–dependent sonic environment), 1976 – 1979.
Technical assistance and computer/video image design: Kent Clelland.
Recorded Voices: Teri DeSario and Roxanne Merryfield
Projected Slide Collages: Jacqueline Humbert
Digital video assistance: Warren Heaton
Photoshop computer assistance: Vincent Carté
Analog video assistance: Steven Kury
Media consultant: Sara Roberts
Brain science inspiration: Dr. E. E. "Ted" Coons and Dr. Lloyd Kaufman