Muse to Use BioMuse turns the body's electrical signals into music by Jonathan Vankin
Fortunately, musician Galen Brandt likes to speak with her hands anyway. She's rehearsing with an instrument known as the BioMuse, a computer device that translates electrical impulses from the human nervous system into synthesized sound, converting her entire body into a musical instrument.
"The BioMuse is a biocontroller. When we move, we generate an electrical signal," she explains, pacing the floor. Her hands slice the air, and she uses lots of reaching-out gestures, as if pulling the listener into her monologue.
"I can see that you know that because you're saying, 'Yes. Tell me about movement.' That's the thing. That's one of the reasons you would love to do it, particularly if you're a really smart person -- I'm serious -- who also has a body and a sort of awareness, and who wants to simultaneously feel and learn ... and use the body and the mind. You even feel that, at the same time, in doing it you're using the soul -- the spirit."
To accent that last word, she folds her arms in to press her hands against her sternum -- indicating the seat of the spirit, presumably -- where her skin is, for some reason, sprinkled lightly with golden glitter. Continuing the pixieish motif, she stands about five-foot-three, wears metallic star-chain earrings that dangle below her shoulders and moves continuously while she talks.
If Brandt radiates a supernatural aura, it is only because -- as Arthur C. Clarke or some other speculative thinker once opined -- technology, sufficiently advanced, becomes indistinguishable from magic. The man behind the curtain is the coninventor of the BioMuse, Dr. Hugh Lusted of Stanford and, more lately, of a Palo Alto startup company known as BioControl Systems.
Lusted formed the company with his creative collaborator, Ben Knapp, who was a Stanford grad in 1987 at the genesis of BioMuse and is now at San Jose State University. The pair hope to sell a mass-produced version of BioMuse. They've brought a marketer on board, transplanted Londoner Anthony Lloyd, to promote the device.
These rehearsals, leading up to a live BioMuse performance on Oct. 12 at Stanford's Frost Amphitheater as part of the International Computer Music Conference, take place in a dance hall-cum-classroom called "karma." CCRMA (Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics, a Stanford organization) is the acronym giving rise to that oddly appropriate pronunciation. At one end of the hall, Lusted sits -- chinos, New Balance running shoes, the picture of calm -- amid an array of electronics: a Mac, a synthesizer, a sound mixer and lots of wiring.
The essence of BioMuse is surprisingly low-tech, at least in appearance: an armband akin to those used to measure blood pressure, only much narrower, with electrodes on the inner surface. There is also a headband that picks up brain waves and converts them into synthesizer music, but Brandt uses only armbands in this performance.
The electrodes are covered with a conductive gel that picks up the signals generated by muscle movements and contractions. The gel, as gel will, tends to moisten in contact with perspiration and slide off. This causes the BioMuse to malfunction. These are the problems innovators on the cutting edge of technology often face: an invention that can, with no exaggeration, turn impulses of thought and movement into music, defeated by a slimy glob of blue gelatin.
Unlike the Wizard of Oz, Lusted needs no curtain to conceal himself and Mr. Muse (as Brandt calls the creation). The whole purpose is to put the rare talents of BioMuse on display.
"Where do you want it, baby?" cracks the previously laconic Lusted, as he wraps the armband around Brandt's right forearm, following the first 45 minutes of her extemporaneous discourse on BioMuse aesthetics. She'll be rehearsing a piece called Kagami, composed for the BioMuse by Atau Tanaka, a doctoral student at Stanford's computer music center.
Before any sound blares from the quadraphonic amplifiers hooked up the system, the efficacy of the armbands must be checked. Two cursors on a Mac screen respond to Brandt as she tenses and relaxes her forearms. Like the ball that hits a gong in an amusement part test of strength, the cursors bob up and down in accordance with the strength of her electrical impulses.
But the right cursor lies flat. No response. Lusted's first analysis of the problem: he checks the patch cords. The difficulty, it turns out, is with the gels again. Lusted replaces them, and finally Mr. Muse is fully on-line.
Kagami turns out to be a somewhat abstract, droning piece of music -- more atmosphere than structure. Its method fascinates more than its meaning. Brandt dances around the room, clenching her fists and waving her arms in similar fashion to her speaking style, each movement creating an electronic note.
"I'm really a rock & roll singer," she explains. "Folk and rock." She's played in a series of bands and cowritten songs for the Disney Channel. She is developing a resume as a BioMuse performer at this point. Eventually, she has a piece of her own composition in mind, a rock song involving an entire backing band of gesticulators and muscle contractors affixed to Mr. Muse.
"Mr. Muse is a dancing partner. We're like Fred and Ginger, all the great teams," Brandt muses. The possibilities for self-discovery, she says, make it possible to love a machine (if the machine is Mr. Muse).
"In relationships, if you love who you are with an environment, you love that environment. If you love who you are with a person, you love that person. I don't mean that you're an egomaniac. I just think it feels good in life. In that way love, is very self-referential.
"I do believe that collaboration, experimentation and trust are the new evolutionary imperative. I don't believe competition works anymore. Work with the BioMuse is an exercise in cooperation between humans and machines."
Galen Brandt will give a BioMuse performance as part of an outdoor computer music concert at 7:30pm on Oct. 12 at Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater. Tickets, $7 ($4 students), are available at the gate or at the Tressider Ticket Office (415/723-4317). Warm clothes and a blanket to sit on are advisable.
Typed by Cheryl Vega 8-13-95