The Operating System

PREMIERING TONIGHT :: 'VISITATIONS' :: The War Reporter and Theotokia

Rarely does one get the opportunity to introduce an event that demonstrates not only the breaking of musical and literary ground but does so in conversation with current academic research, but that’s just what’s happening this Friday and Saturday in Palo Alto at the Music and the Brain Symposium, “Hearing Voices,” on Auditory Hallucinations.

jonathan bergerall photographs &copy 2007 nicholas jensen /

Jonathan Berger, photo by Nicholas Jensen

It is perhaps even more exciting to learn that this symposium has been organized by none other than the pieces’ composer, the astounding Jonathan Berger, who just so happens to also be the Denning Family Provostial Professor in Music at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) who has gone further than simply responding to the research in the two commissioned pieces to be premiered, The War Reporter and Theotokia: he has sonically integrated it into the fabric of the compositions.

In a program narratively derived in part from reportage from Kennedy award winning librettist Dan O’Brien‘s interviews with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, Paul Watson, Berger uses ambisonic electroacoustic soundscapes created at CCRMA to transform Bing Concert Hall, virtually placing the audience inside the brain of the protagonists — two very different men haunted by the same phenomenon, known as auditory hallucinations.
This phenomena, sometimes associated with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, in fact is often independently occurring in its subjects, who suffer no other symptoms — they simply hear voices, sounds, and music without physical auditory stimuli. This condition was said to have plagued the composer Robert Schumann increasingly towards the end of his life, who claimed to have been visited by Schubert and was able to transcribe in detail the music playing in his head.

THEOTOKIA (world premiere, full version) takes the audience inside the consciousness of a man who, beset by hallucinatory voices, is taunted and seduced by the mother of god. Illuminating the experience of one possessed by ritualistic and religious hallucinatory delusions, the work portrays the inner struggle of mental illness in a rich musical, dramatic, and philosophical counterpoint.

THE WAR REPORTER (world premiere) depicts the true story of combat journalist Paul Watson, as he seeks to rid himself of the haunting voice of an American soldier whose corpse he photographed in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. Librettist Dan O’Brien’s interviews with Watson are the primary source for the work, which also served as source material for his debut poetry collection (also titled War Reporter) coming soon from Hanging Loose Press.

The process used by Berger to create neural soundscapes is referred to in the accompanying research as the “sonification of brain activation,” which in this case relied on ambisonics (a method of using multi-channel audio to Musical Earcreate a 3-dimensional sound field) to distribute electro-acoustic portions of the score spatially and temporally throughout the concert hall, reflecting neuroimaging studies of auditory hallucinations in schizophrenic subjects completed by Sukhi Shergill and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College, London.
For the audience, the resultant effect is to be auditorially present within the subject’s skull, as the electronic sounds of the opera (designed in surround as well as localized and timed in keeping with the data) unfold in situ as the hallucinations are experienced and articulated on the stage.
What’s perhaps the most important thing about this event for Exit Strata, as an arts organization interested in innovation and cross-disciplinary collaboration is what it represents regarding the future of intellectual engagement and communication, not only within the academy but with the public. This is a public more and more nourished on TED talks and Radiolab, a public increasingly familiar with and attuned to hypermedia, a public eager to participate actively in inquiry, dialogue, and thought — and here is a creative, academic community working to translate what would otherwise be dry, clinical data into a fully immersive, sensory learning experience.
The possibilities for future application in the classroom and beyond are rich beyond imagination — I’m reminded of an article last spring in the New York Times about participatory neurological learning exercises being introduced in the Kindergarden at the Blue School, a school in New York City begun by members of Blue Man Group, wherein educators and scientists addressed the experiential, sensory learning avenues that are left so often unexplored in a traditional, text-based environment.
We are grateful to have the opportunity to talk to Jonathan Berger and Dan O’Brien this weekend, as well as to be in attendance for the conference itself, where an array of musicians and researchers will discuss the auditory hallucination phenomena both in general and in the genesis of this piece. Look out for a follow up special edition of RE:CONVERSATIONS coming soon — we’re eager to hear more from both on the future of this and other projects.
Check out the embedded video below, where the Hearing Voices conference will live stream on Saturday, at 1pm EST / 10 am PST.
Commissioned and presented by Stanford Live, “Visitations” features a staggering array of bright lights across the contemporary classical music scene: Berger’s long-time collaborators, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Geoff

St. Lawrence String Quartet, photo Marco Borggreve

St. Lawrence String Quartet, photo Marco Borggreve

Nutall & Scott St. John, violins; Lesley Robertson, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello), the preeminent all-male vocal quartet, New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; Craig Phillips, bass) and agile soprano Heather Buck, joined by Stephen Tramontozzi (bass), Tara Helen O’Connor (flute), Pascal Archer (clarinet), Pedja Muzijevic (piano) and Steve Schick (percussion). If that weren’t enough, the premiere is directed by GRAMMY Award-winner Rinde Eckert and produced in association with Beth Morrison Projects; Christopher Rountree conducts. 

New York Polyphony, photo Chris Owyoung

New York Polyphony, photo Chris Owyoung

The 2013 symposium, “Hearing Voices,” brings together some of the most exciting researchers, scholars, and writers in the field to examine the phenomena of auditory hallucinations. Presenters include Tanya Luhrmann (Stanford University), author of When God Talks Back; Paul Watson, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist upon whose experience The War Reporter is based; Dan O’Brien, librettist, playwright, and author; Daniel B. Smith (The College of New Rochelle), author of “Muses, Madmen, and Prophets“; Judith Ford (University of California, San Francisco), speaking on The Phenomenology of Auditory Verbal Hallucinations (AVH); Diana Deutsch (University of California, San Diego), presenting The Phenomenology of Musical Hallucinations; Angela Woods (Durham University, UK), speaking on Taxonomies of Voice-Hearing; Chris Chafe (Stanford University), presenting The Acoustics of Imaginary Sound; and Shaili Jain (Stanford University) addressing hallucinations in veterans with PTSD. 

Streaming live video by Ustream

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