Queer Pulse, or, This Is Your Brain on Someone Else’s Brain

21 May

9PM Monday, May 13: Masaki Batoh performing Brain Pulse Music at Spectrum. 

I was invited to this event by a friend who shares a common interest in noise, sound studies and philosophy. When he invited me, I was furiously working to meet a deadline, which was coincidentally only hours before Batoh’s performance was to begin. Assuming that I would be under-slept and over-caffeinated after the deadline’s passing, I decided to accept the invitation to “Brain Pulse Music”:  this set of circumstances held great potential for the production of an altogether new experience between sound and the body, more specifically brain pulse noise music and my delirious body.

Batoh, former frontman of Japanese experimental noise band Ghost, has developed and commissioned a special headpiece “instrument” that is able to monitor the brain waves of the frontal and parietal lobes of whoever wears it. Batoh calls the headpiece the BPM machine, an acronym standing for “Brain Pulse Music.” The BPM machine monitors the brainwaves and transmits them via radio waves from the headpiece to a motherboard that in turn converts the radio waves into a wave pulse, or sound wave that is then played back. This sonic brain pulse is then able to be improvised with and electronically manipulated by Batoh in performance. The headpiece also has a pair of goggles that show the wearer a visual representation of what their brain is creating. Regarding the BPM machine’s sonic out put, Batoh suggests:

“The second-by-second reflection of our mental state is heard instantaneously as it is generated by the brain. In order to control the waves of sound, the mind requires training; on first using the BPM, not everyone will be able to control the sound to their satisfaction. The ‘awakening’ that comes from a relaxed mental state is an important key to this program. While the BPM machine captures the microscopic fluctuation of brain waves; the user of machine learns to calibrate his or her thought process with the goal of a state of total relaxation or what the Buddhists call ‘a state of anatta’ (not-self)” (http://www.dragcity.com/products/brain-pulse-music-machine).

Shown here, what manifests from the brain waves of the user, might not initially be pleasurable or the desired outcome. It takes a virtuosic work to “control” the BPM machine’s output, which situates Batoh’s performance at Spectrum precariously, since he decided instead to perform utilizing and manipulating the brain waves of an audience member who had never before used the BPM machine. As such, the notion of controlling the machine became an improbable outcome for Batoh, who decided, rather, to create a more extreme situation of improvisation through sampling the aleatory brain waves of a novice. Since Batoh’s proposition with the BPM machine is to allow, and even encourage, users to find a stable meditative brain state by literally listening to the frequencies of one’s brain, then perhaps we can understand the situation created at Spectrum as one of creating a queer sonic space—a space that is never stable, but instead always already deviating. Moreover, what occurs when the resulting sonic material from a person’s brainwaves encounter the bodies of those unattached to the feedback loop of sonic production, as was the case at Spectrum, seemingly provides a fertile ground for thinking through affective ways of understanding the body in relation to a simultaneous site of sonic production and reception—what Jean Luc-Nancy calls the “sonorous body” (Nancy, Listening, 8).

Upon entering Spectrum, which appears to be a cross between a comfortably furnished loft apartment and a performance space, you notice giant light boxes mounted on the walls beside the performance area where there is a table with Batoh’s electronic gear, a large lounge chair, and a drum-set. The light boxes flashed bright, different colored lights sporadically, and as the performers took their places in the performance space, and the house lights dimmed, it became clear that the light generated from the boxes would be immense and affective.

Batoh called a volunteer from the audience to come and sit in the chair, and attached her to the electrodes coming from the BPM machine headset. With the three performers in place—Batoh, the volunteer, and drummer Damon Krukowski—the performance commenced. The performance lasted for about 30 minutes, during which time, the sounds of the performance ranged from quieter electronic effects to cacophonous waves of sound that physically pummeled your body, literally reminding you that the human form is also a natural resonance chamber for sound waves. You could feel the sound fill your chest and shake your body with its presence. Added to the sound, the unavoidable effects generated by the light boxes permeated your visual field. Even if you closed your eyes to block it out, as I did at times, the light was so intense that it remained visible even through closed eyelids, filling your head with washes of pulsating luminescence.

Batoh alternated between electronically manipulating the volunteer’s sounded brain waves utilizing various techniques including feedback loops, dub delays and glitch distortion, and performing on instruments like finger cymbals and Buddhist bells that were not attached to the BPM machine, but were still routed through his feedback instruments via microphones. Krukowski appeared to improvise the entire set, in a style reminiscent of free jazz, reacting and responding to the sounds emitted from the rest of the ensemble. Overall, the performance’s sonic material was quite forceful, eventually moving toward the climactic ending which featured extremely loud, high-pitched electronic feedback, bombastic drumming, and Batoh screaming. The onslaught of stimuli, primarily sonic, but visual as well, were nearly unbearable; perhaps my experience was in part due my sleep deprivation. However, I suspect that I was not the only one in the room having such reactions. My body felt unsettled in its own embodied-ness, and I relished the discomfiting affective position Batoh’s performance had forced me into. After all, as Nancy reminds us,

“the subject of the listening or the subject who is listening (but also the one who is ‘subject to listening’ in the sense that one can be ‘subject to’ unease, an ailment, or a crisis) is not a phenomenological subject. This means that he is not a philosophical subject, and, finally, he is perhaps no subject at all, except as the place of resonance, of its infinite tension and rebound, the amplitude of its sonorous deployments and the slightest of its simultaneous of its redeployment” (Nancy, Listening, 21-2). 

In other words, to be a listening subject is also to be subjected to the sonorous and its subsequent affective and physical results. Thinking queerly about the affective interaction between bodies and the sonic, then might the results of Batoh’s performance point to something queer about the state in which Brain Pulse Music places some of our bodies? There is already something queer about this iteration of Brain Pulse Music, since Batoh puts the generation of the sound waves in the hands, or, rather in the brain, of a volunteer who has no experience using the BPM machine. There is an aleatory aspect of indeterminacy involved here since the person creating the sound through the BPM machine will likely have little control over what their brain is doing, since, as Batoh realizes, it take practice to achieve such a state. The result was what appeared to be a sometimes awkward and frustrating encounter between Batoh and the volunteer (Laura Brown), whose brain seemed to be producing sounds that were less than satisfactory at times, as she sat motionless in the chair staring out into the dark room sporadically illuminated by bursts of color. However, apparently Batoh asked Brown to return to offer her waves at the second set because she was “so ideal” (http://adhoc.fm/post/masaki-batohs-brain-pulse-music-spectrum/). Regardless, the aftermath of the performance left physical affects on the bodies of all those who attended. These affects bring into focus precisely the queer precariousness of the potentiality of the body as instrument, where Batoh using the BPM machine is performing the instrumentality of Browns body, which becomes networked in a feedback loop of its own upon hearing back the sonic emission s derived from her own bodily-instrument-ness, and alos expands into the audience as their bodies too become imbricated as resonating instruments in reaction and dialogue with Batoh, Krukowski, and the BPM machine. As my friend related to me the following day, “I’m still vibrating…is that okay?!” I was, too. And, I think this perfectly sums up the queerness that resonates in such sonic materiality. It is one that leaves the listener, though at times discomfited, aware of their body in such a way that is different than the passive notion of normative being—inhabiting a state of comfort in one’s body—and its relation to its situation in the world. Which is not to suggest that such an unsettled affect is a bad thing. If anything, these sounds draw us to a point where we might interrogate the interaction of sound with/in our bodies, and as such, our interaction of our bodies in the world, which seems like a wonderful inquisition.



GaGa Feminism

13 May


Relocations Playlist

6 May

Video playlist to Karen Tongson’s Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries

Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries

6 May

The relationship between (sonic) gentrification and gay rights rhetoric of the hip (white) creative class in Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s music videos.

“Thrift Shop”


“Same Love”

The Queer Composition of America’s Sound

29 Apr

Stein/Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) excerpt:

Alex Ross “Copland and the Republicans

It Ain’t Necessarily So (Porgy and Bess, 1959)


It Ain’t Necessarily So (Cher)

Broadway Musicals: A Musical Legacy

Gasolina by Daddy Yankee

22 Apr


Performing Queer Latinidad

22 Apr

Arthur Aviles,

Ricky Martin, Livin La Vida Loca:

Shakira, Ciego, Sodomuda,

Shakira, “Whenever, Wherever”:

Shakira, “Hips Don’t Lie”:

Calle 13 Atravete:

Joswa in da House, El Me Gusta:

Joswa in da House, El Me Gusta (Live):

Bailando Dembow:

Dissonant Divas

15 Apr

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, “New San Antonio Rose” (1940):

Rosita Fernandez “San Antonio” (1980):

Chelo Silva, Preguntame a mi (Live 1983):


Paquita la del Barrio, Cheque en Blanco (Live):

Eva Ybarra y Su Conjunto @ Tejano Conjunto Festival 2012

Sally Rand, fan dance circa 1934:

Eva Garza performing in “Mujeres sin manana” (1951):

Eva Garza, “Sabor de Engaño”:


Selena, live in Houston 1995, disco medley:

Girl in a Coma “Clumsy Sky” (1997):

Selena impersonator in Vegas:

The Wolf(e) Tone: An Exercise in Listening

10 Apr

Grandfather Singing “The Guilford 4” 

“Believe that we too love freedom and desire it. To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom: if our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it with a better deed.” — Patrick Pearse

“The history of what could be called revolutionary subjectivity should be written.” — Michel Foucault

A trip home from the hospital in a winter snowstorm after chemo treatment has me bone-tired and depleted. I’m sitting in the back of my grandparents’ car; these grandparents that have raised me after my father’s coma (from which he later returned–back from the almost-dead, where he lives now on the interstices of almost-life) and my mother’s flirtation with suicide and affairs with rehab clinics around New York and back again–always, back again. My grandfather puts in the Wolfe Tones CD, and I’m half-listening, half-dozing off as our car navigates through the snowy roads of Long Island. The Wolfe Tones are named after Theobald Wolfe Tone, a leading Irish revolutionary figure who started the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Suddenly, my grandfather begins singing loudly and I’m awake, sitting up and smiling, to a song that I remember hearing him sing as a child but never understanding the lyrics. The name of the song is “The Guilford 4” and the lyrics my grandfather sing along to are as follows:

Behind those English prison walls

So innocent and tortured all

They call for justice and for peace

and a chance to live again

for in their dark and lonely cell

There’s no justice, there’s no freedom bell

For those Irish men and women there

in prison without crime

So free the people let them go

You can’t hold them anymore

But remember too it could be me or you

Behind those prison walls

He interjects after the lyrics “But remember too it could be me or you” to add, “It could be Meghan” and I chuckle here (see 1:04). Quickly, I’m removed from the space of listening (or “pricking up the philosophical ear”) to the lyrics, to hearing my grandfather’s joke–a part of his Irish humor that sweeps me briskly away from a moment of pain that refers to a tense moment in Irish history. Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong, and Carole Richardson (later known as ‘The Guilford Four’) spent fifteen years in English prison for IRA bombings in 1974 in Guilford, England; they were sentenced under false confessions made days after torture by the Surrey police.  My grandparents, my father and his siblings, having all been a part of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until 1980 when they immigrated to the United States, relate to these lyrics differently than I do… but I’m still listening.

As Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Listening, “To be listening is to always be on the edge of meaning.” (7) It is to “capture the sonority rather than the message.” (4) Is is possible, then, to listen (in the Nancian sense) to revolutionary songs: songs that depend on the message? Perhaps more important than this question is one that Foucault poses in his later years of writing: is revolution even desirable? Foucault states, “You know full well today that the problem is whether revolution is desirable”. Perhaps, revolution is desirable in that it enters the subject into politics and not politicking (something Foucault warns against). Foucault engages in a language of rights that does not appear in his earlier works (in fact is mostly resisted). This is arguably because of Foucault’s understanding of power and how it operates. Foucault is particularly interested in the micro-level workings of power; he is not talking about monarchical power, in which sovereignty exists as an ‘absolute.’ The management of possibilities in monarchical power is transparent. What is more interesting for Foucault are the power structures in an apparently ‘free’ society (e.g. in liberal democracies). The foundational mechanisms of power specifically point to the “way in which some act on others” (137) and how those actions upon actions mark the transition to management–the management of individual bodies and, more broadly, the population. So certainly, revolution (which for Ireland is not exactly happening within a ‘liberal democracy’ but in a state of colonial occupation) isn’t what makes power interesting. However, Foucault’s later question about the desirability of the revolution is a critical one in thinking about cultural memory, intervention, and the community of the governed–the multiplicitous. As he states in Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1977-78, “No more or less that that which is born with resistance to governmentality, the first uprising, the first confrontation.”  My question, which stems from the query over revolution’s desirability, is this: what does song do to the revolution and, more specifically, to revolution’s desirability?

The ‘live’ performance of my grandfather over the recorded performance of the Wolfe Tone’s enacts a kind of dissonance in listening and hearing. What are the words of the revolution, the beats and tones and notes of the revolution, doing to me in this moment of my post-chemo self in the back of our car in 2012? Am I even listening? Was my grandfather’s interruption into the song (“It could be Meghan”) a call to history? Was it a call for my own involvement in this revolution that is so deeply tied to my own cultural and to Ireland’s collective history?

In music, a wolf tone occurs when a note matches the natural frequency of the body of the instrument, creating a continued artificial overtone that aids in amplifying the frequencies of the original note. This tension between the original and artificial note that produces the wolf tone is very much like the tension that occurs between the live (original) performance of my grandfather singing and the recorded (artificial) performance of the Wolfe Tone’s CD. The uneven frequencies create a friction that causes my grandfather to pause and interject: It could be Meghan. It could be me or you.

Can the Ho Speak?

8 Apr

Trina: My Bitches

What’s your Fantasy Remix (Ludacris, Trina, Shawnna, Foxy Brown)