Beneath the epidermis, the human body contains a vibrant and complex ecology of interwoven rhythms such the heartbeat, the breath, the division of cells, and complex brain activity. By repurposing emergent medical technology into real-time gestural sound controllers of electronic musical instruments, experimental musicians in the 1960s and 1970s – including David Rosenboom – began to realize the expressive potential of these biological sounds. Composers experimented with breath and heartbeat. They also used electroencephalography (EEG) sensors, which register various types of brain waves. Instead of using the sound of brain waves in fixed-media pieces, many composers took diverse approaches to the challenge of presenting this in live performance. Their performance practices suggest different notions of embodiment, a relationship in this music which has not been discussed in detail.
Rosenboom reflects extensively on this performance practice. He supports his EEG research with theory about the practice of biofeedback. Rosenboom’s work with EEG sensors spans several decades and continue today, which has allowed him to make use of advancing sensing and computing technologies. For instance, in his 1976 On Being Invisible, the culmination of his work with EEG, he makes use of analyzed EEG data to drive a co-improvising musical system.
In this thesis, I parse different notions of embodiment in the performance of EEG music. Through a critical analysis of examples from the discourse surrounding EEG music in its early years, I show that cultural perception of EEG sonification points to imaginative speculations about the practice’s potentials; these fantasies have fascinating ramifications on the role of the body in this music’s performance. Juxtaposing these with Rosenboom, I contend that he cultivated an embodied performance practice of the EEG. To show how this might be manifest in performance, I consider two recordings of On Being Invisible.
As few musicologists have investigated this particular strain of musical experimentalism, I hope to contextualize biofeedback musicianship by offering an embodied reading of this milestone work for EEG.