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Biological technologies are computational systems driven by physiological and corporeal processes of the body. Endogenous mechanisms that would otherwise be imperceptible become manifest in the form of data. But data alone is not music. Composers and performers need to escape a mere scientific analysis to deliver successful musical strategies. The field of biotechnological music performance is presented here through a set of fascinating articles describing heterogeneous methodologies and idiosyncratic musical ideas.

Notwithstanding four decades of research, this field had remained somewhat loose so far. Although the common literature includes several publications and papers, the field has suffered a subtle fragmentation. Having dedicated most of my recent work and passion to this field I cannot deny my excitement about having been invited to be Guest Editor for this issue of eContact! To present what, to the best of our knowledge, represents the first publication encompassing all fields of biotechnological performance practice is rather thrilling. I hope this volume will be a first step towards the confluence of diverse biotechnological music studies into a unified research field, and I wish to thank all our contributors and staff who relentlessly worked for this long-needed contribution to knowledge.

The Body Beyond its Skin: Mimesis, Hybridization, Emergency and Strain

The body is a complex and contingent entity. In the past forty years, our research community has been striving to interface the inner complexity of the body with computing musical systems to the point that “the body has become a chimera, a combination of meat, metal and code” (Stelarc). Hybrid players describe auditive worlds that challenge the action-sound relations we expect in a traditional concert setting. Researcher and musician William Brent provides a carefully crafted analysis of this topic in “Perceived Control and Mimesis in Digital Musical Instrument Performance.” With a critical look at the various issues — interface, emotion, action and sound relation — that come up in different proportion in any project based on or using biotechnologies, Brent delivers the benchmarks for our journey into the world of Biotechnological Performance Practice.

The genesis and development of the performer / machine hybridization is then furthered by two of the most influential artists in our recent history. In my interview with Australian performer Stelarc “Fractal Flesh — Alternate Anatomical Architectures,” he gives a fascinating overview of his 40-year practice and puts forth the notion of the empty body to frame the use and æsthetics of biological data in his works. We are faced with a body that “has become a hybrid and extended operational system, performing beyond the boundaries of its skin” (Stelarc).

Pioneer of corporeal musical performance Atau Tanaka has contributed “The Use of Electromyogram Signals (EMG) in Musical Performance: A Personal survey of two decades of practice.” Not only does he offer a compelling insight into the origin of the BioMuse, one of the earliest ad hoc musical biotechnologies, but he also delivers a dense analysis of effort, restraint and multimodality in music performance to address non-linear and emerging behaviours as new areas of experimentation; a territory in which the “performance energy arises out of the risk of possible system failure.”

Effort and restraint are also the key aspects discussed in my own contribution, “Performing Proprioception and Effort in ‘Hypo Chrysos’, an Action Art Piece for the Xth Sense.” This is a work for the Xth Sense (XS), a biophysical musical instrument that I have been developing and performing with since mid-2011. The XS enables a performer to live sample the sounds of her muscular tissues to produce music. The article takes a look at the ways a player’s physical strain influences self-perception mechanisms during a performance, and the modalities by which the Xth Sense enables affect to escape a performer’s flesh and embrace the audience bodies. Furthermore, I describe how biosensing adaptive algorithms are used in lieu of musicianship, which is deliberately circumvented in this work.

The Emotional Body: When Cognition Becomes Tangible Matter

The body is not only a physical agent. It is our cognitive interface to the outer and inner world. The technological mediation of cognition and emotion has possibly been one of the most prolific research areas in this field. For the Biomuse Trio, a concert for biosignals is about “performing emotion.” Through a compelling interview led by Gascia Ouzounian, “The Biomuse Trio in Conversation: An Interview with R. Benjamin Knapp and Eric Lyon” recounts the compositional process behind the realization of Lyon’s Trio for Violin, Biosensors and Computer.

But what would happen if there was no score, no pre-determined composition? In which ways could the biosensor performance paradigm still be validated? The duo Terminalbeach (Peter Votava and Erich Berger) offers an original take on (the lack of) composition in a biosensor-based performance by describing the making of their work, “The Heart Chamber Orchestra: An Audio-visual real-time performance for chamber orchestra based on heartbeats.” In this piece, the score is generated in real time according to the heartbeats of 12 musicians. They describe a fascinating feedback loop by which music emerges “from the circular interplay of the individual musicians and the machine.”

A similar issue, yet in a different context, is tackled in Valery Vermeulen’s “The EMOSynth: An emotion-driven music generator.” This is a system that generates real-time music for moving images by learning about and decoding the audience members’ physiological data stream. The project interestingly expands into the field of Affective Computing, or the extension and interrelation of “meaningful communication between man and machine,” offering punctual observations on the implication of biodata-based systems that aim to enhance users’ creativity.

The Static Organ project sets aside creativity to enter into the unstable territory of self-perception. Researcher Kiel Stuart Long describes a series of interactive audiovisual installations that “aim to provoke and enhance an understanding of the functioning of the brain in relationship to the cognitive state of the user.” By elaborating on the potential of biofeedback systems to overcome the traditional notion of musical affordances in “The Static Organ: Biofeedback as new interactions for new action potentials,” the author puts forth an alternate approach to Human-Machine Interaction, one in which the user becomes both observer and performer by “exploring the relationship between their mind and body in a dynamic physical and sonic environment.”

Leaving aside interactive technology and reflecting on the aural qualities of biologically informed sound, Joe Stevens recounts an intimate experience in “A Very Fine Needle.” Inspired by a medical test involving the recording of eye muscles electrical activity, Stevens narrates a sound artist’s encounter with bioelectric signals and the ways they relate to active listening and acoustic ecology.

Historical Overview: On the Biological Body as Musical Resource

If you are new to biotechnological musical and performance practice, this issue will most likely be your cup of tea. Alongside technical reports, artistic experiences and musical strategies, we are pleased to provide exhaustive historical overviews brought to us by two stakeholders in the field. Mexican composer Miguel Ortiz delivers a detailed narrative of the evolution of “biosignal-driven art.” At the onset of “A Brief History of Biosignal-Driven Art: From biofeedback to biophysical performance,” Ortiz outlines the nature of different biosignals, whose musical applications are then unfolded through an engaging journey from the 1970s through to the 21st Century. Brain-Computer Interface investigator Andrew Brouse, on the other hand, proposes an historical overview of the subfield known as “Brainwave Music”. Calling on notions such as Alpha Wave bursts, Bioelectricity and Cortical Art, the author lead us through an æsthetic in which the mind matter becomes mediated creative interface, in “A Young Person’s Guide to Brainwave Music: Forty years of audio from the human EEG.”

Hands-On: Future Strategies and Design for the Analysis of Biodata

Our journey would not be complete without some accurate insight into the future development of biotechnological tools. In “Using High-Frequency Electroencephalogram in Visual and Auditory-Based Brain-Computer Interface Designs,” Cota Navin Gupta and Ramaswamy Palaniappan share their unique expertise in the field of biodata analysis by illustrating the extraction of unconventional brainwave activity and its application in music. Finally, in “AMUSE-ME: A Portable device to transform electromyographic signals into music,” researcher Corrado Cescon describes the design of an alternative device for the application of bioelectric signals to sound generation.

Last but not least, we are delighted to offer our readers a stimulating discussion recorded in Berlin in July 2012 on the occasion of the concert night at Body Controlled #4 — Bio-Interfacing, held at LEAP — Laboratory for Electronic Arts and Performance. The conversation was led by Pedro Lopes and jef chippewa with guests Peter Kirn, Claudia Robles Angel and myself. Along with performance tips and curiosities, this open interview offered room for discussing often undervalued issues such as the audience understanding of a biologically informed musical performance, and accessibility to and ethics of biometric data.

Audio-Visual Media

Complementing the various audio-visual support materials in the articles themselves, several artist galleries have been mounted in order to present a small selection of sound and video works related to the theme of Biotechnological Performance Practice: Andrew Brouse (Montréal), Marco Donnarumma (Edinburgh/London), Stelarc (Melbourne) and Atau Tanaka (London). And in Kevin Austin’s “Kwik Picks” column, short descriptive analysis of sound and videomusic works from the 12th edition of Jeu de temps / Times Play are featured.


The diversity and richness of contents offered here outline the broad capabilities of biologically informed music. The body’s unique expressive potential can be mediated through computational systems so as to escape the boundaries of the flesh and become a tangible sound experience. Our authors have defined a composite field of studies folding the body into a creative realm in between sound, physicality, self-perception and emotion. We believe this issue will serve as a useful reference for the future design and experience of music and we are eager to see the field expanding towards new, uncharted territories. Finally, I would like to once again thank all our contributors and staff, and wish you a pleasant and thrilling read!

Marco Donnarumma
20 July 2012

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