Archive | May, 2013

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)” (

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” ( 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.



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