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  • Nicole Avakyan

Convergence visits Brain Jam: Diana Lazzaro's synaptic sound design

Updated: Sep 20, 2018

By Nate Klett

Diana Lazzaro imagines a future where a DJ simply puts on a headband and begins her set. This idea may be closer than we think. As part of her program Electroacoustic Studies at Concordia University, Diana has developed soundscapes that respond to brainwaves. Last week, she hosted an open studio, and I had the opportunity to listen to my mind.

Being a Saturday in the summer, the EV building on Concordia’s campus was rather quiet. As I exited the elevator, I was guided toward the studio by faint ambient tones and the sound of laughter. Soon, it was my turn. I took a seat in front of two large computer screens and Diana handed me the Muse headband. I placed it behind my ears so that it protracted around my forehead. The headband contains four electrodes that sit on the skin, but are able to pick up on the electrical impulses that are constantly occurring throughout our brains. While academic and clinical applications of electroencephalography (EEG) use upwards of twenty electrodes to cover the skull in a tangle of wires, the Muse headband simplifies EEG. Muse was developed in Toronto and released in 2014. The producer markets the device for biofeedback meditation, where one can train their mind to be calm. But the ease and accessibility of the device has gotten Muse notoriety in several clinical research studies. And now, Diana has hacked Muse in her acoustic art practice.

The Brain Jam experience. Photo by Nate Klett.

Built on a foundation of sound modeled after some of the original synthesizers, Diana layered patches upon patches to create three soundscapes: “home”, “desert”, and “jungle.” These soundscapes do not exactly sound like their namesake – rather she named them hoping to evoke certain feelings, and therefore brainwaves, in the participant. Sitting there in the studio, I began my journey with “home.” First I tried to focus and relax. Diana facilitated by turning off the lights. The mood was also set with visual cues – the soundscape “home” featured a serene close-up photo of a bee probing a flower for pollen. Meanwhile, the glow from another screen featured real-time tracking of the signals being measured from my forehead. Each line reflected the relative strength of the five different brainwave frequencies-- gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. These five colored lines bounced up and down ceaselessly, suggesting that, despite my efforts to relax, my mind wasn’t very calm, but that, at least on the positive side, I was certainly still alive. Using these signals as input into “generative compositional algorithms,” the speakers produced gentle synthetic harmonies, with occasional bleeps and bloops.

Despite the constant fluctuation of the EEG signal, it wasn’t always easy to detect the changes in the produced sound. In fact, this may speak to the smoothness of Diana’s sound design. In order to really provoke my mind, my friend attempted to startle, poke, and pinch me, perhaps hoping to elicite a P300 wave. Alas, the synthetic ambience persisted. The project was too well designed to produce any harsh distortion.

You can follow Diana’s work at her website, and be sure to keep an eye out for any DJ who shows up to the club with an EEG headband.

Editing: Nicole Avakyan

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