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Gilmore Blog: Cellists use involuntary functions for classical performances

You’ve heard the expressions. “Play your heart out.” “Become one with the instrument.” “Breathe life into the music.”

Contemporary musicians looking to incorporate identity in their pieces are taking the expressions to a literal extreme. But is it a step forward for classical music, or is it a gimmick for waning audiences?

Case in point: Richard Reed Parry of indie rock band Arcade Fire teamed up with fellow contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly to create an album called Music for Heart and Breath. The album, true to its name, requires each musician to wear a stethoscope with an Ace bandage pressing the stethoscope to the heart.

“Every note, and everything that any of the musicians plays, is played either in sync with the heartbeat of that player, or with their breathing, or with the breathing of another player,” Parry said, explaining the mechanics.

Critics lauded the album’s ingénue but were disappointed with the challenge presented by live performances, where pulses and breath can vary wildly. “The players do their best to keep track of their internal rhythms with one ear and their instruments with the other,” Parry said, noting that the process and the distraction of the stethoscope were “quite the challenge.”

“It’s definitely an un-intuitive way of playing music,” he admitted.

A similar young musician using nature in composition is Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Katinka Kleijn who discovered – with the help of Daniel Dehaan, a young composer; and Ryan Ingebritsen, a multi-dimensional sound engineer – a way to play music with her brain waves. It’s edgy but expected from this group; among their various experimental sound projects, Kleijn was also a member of a rock band in Chicago called District 97.

As the tension in her pieces shifts, Kleijn’s brain waves pass from fervent to peaceful with Dehaan translating them into melody from a nearby soundboard. She uses a neuroheadset that measures electrodes on the scalp with 14 sensors.

Watch her performance

Kleijn even practiced meditation to gain some control over her brainwaves. The sensor measures her brain’s output and sends the feed to the computer in categories like “excitement,” “frustration,” “engagement” or “meditation.” During difficult parts of the music, the word “meditation” pops up on the screen.

“I think it could be that the music was so difficult that I could only think of one thing: playing the music,” Kleijn explained.

So should the word “duet” be reimagined to suit one voluntary and another involuntary instrument played by the same performer?

And more importantly, considering this piece along with Parry’s stethoscope-clad performances, do you think young musicians are just bored with the way things are?

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