Feeling the Music

Bridging the gap between body and technology

Erin Gee is blurring the line between human and machine to create a very special kind of music. By tapping into a person’s brain and correlating data on the physiology of emotion, Gee is creating a set of experimental instruments to deliver music shaped by the human body and its emotions.

“Emotions manifest themselves through physiological responses, including breathing, heart rate, sweat glands, blood pressure and skin sensitive neural activity,” Gee explains. “I have been collaborating with the Australian neurophysiologist Vaughan Macefield to map this data into meaningful robotic music, movement, and light patterns, reflecting the shifting emotional state of the performers.”

These signals paint a kind of digital picture of the subject’s emotions. Gee’s custom software processes the signals, resulting in a musical soundscape representing feelings.

A trained opera singer, artist and master of fine arts candidate at Concordia University, Gee is fascinated by the human voice, both its biological structure and its role as a vehicle for self‑expression; she is also firmly planted in the digital age.

“A lot of who I am is based on my relationship with technology,” says the Regina‑born artist, who specializes in audio art, video, interactive sculptures and performance. “I feel that it is so important to critically and creatively explore technological interaction, because many people are spending increasing amounts of energy interacting through electronic devices.”

This research presents significant potential therapeutic opportunities for people with difficulty recognizing and expressing emotion. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for example, could benefit from Gee’s innovative music by learning to better identify, understand and clearly express complex emotions.

Gee’s master’s thesis, Swarming Emotional Pianos, is slated for a live co‑presentation in May 2014 in collaboration with Montreal’s Contemporary Chamber Music organization Innovations en concert and the Elektra festival.

“It will be like seeing someone expertly playing their emotions, as one would play a cello,” says Gee. “Each performance will be truly unique. Our specialized musical instruments will allow the emotional state of performers to drive the musical composition.”

Research funded by SSHRC: Prosthetic voices and virtual bodies in the sonoric landscape