At the Cultural Center's Yates Gallery, Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Katinka Kleijn played more than her usual instrument—she wore an EPOC Neuroheadset, an electroencephalography (EEG) device whose 14 sensors connect with the scalp and pick up brain waves. Retailing for $299, it's designed largely for gamers, but Kleijn will use it to give the world premiere of Intelligence in the Human-Machine, a new duet for cello and brain waves composed by Daniel R. Dehaan in collaboration with Ryan Ingebritsen. With the headset on, Kleijn may look like she's indulging in Jetsons-style retrofuturism, but the piece is no joke—and neither is the EPOC. It might get laughed out of a laboratory, but it does work.
I sat down with Dehaan and Ingebritsen at a Columbia College sound lab and tried out the device. By willing myself into a calm, meditative state, I was able to transform a processed recording of Ingebritsen's brain waves, slowing down its rhythms and lowering its pitch; after trying to set my mind racing with stressful thoughts, I could make it accelerate and send its pitch zooming upward. The headset is a toy compared to state-of-the-art EEG equipment, but it quickly translated my brain wave output into modifications of the filter parameters to which Dehaan and Ingebritsen had connected it. And what Kleijn, Dehaan, and Ingebritsen are doing with this system is far more sophisticated than my little experiment. More important, it's not just about sound—it's an attempt to generate a sonic map of the mind in the midst
"[The EPOC] is essentially a glorified game controller, which is what they market it as," says Dehaan. "But it does give us quite a bit of feedback as to what's going on. We have separate data flows from all of these little electrodes, and the software that comes with it gives us some analysis of states in the brain." From there Dehaan and Ingebritsen began manipulating the software, writing patches to transform the streams of data from the brain into something more audible and useful. "The brain fires electrical impulses, but at rates well below what we can hear—and on top of that there's a ton of noise from muscles and the air that's part of the stream," says Dehaan. "The first thing I did was to record it as raw data—which is just a bunch of pips and pops—and then shift it up into the audible range and manipulate the playback rate. That's been most of the process for me, figuring out how I can translate this into something that will come through speakers and hopefully in counterpoint nicely with the cello." of the creative process.