IN: Reviews

Massaging Brains While Evoking Paintings and Nature


Panelists  Psyche Loui, Tod Machover, and Li Huei Tsai (Mike Mejia photo)

Something was clearly afoot at Symphony Hall last night. Though not set up with tables and chairs for the Pops season, the hall nevertheless glowed magenta with gold patterns projected against the side walls of the stage. Rather than show tunes and light classics, 70 minutes of conversation about brain waves and 40 Hz drones ensued, along with mostly very quiet chamber music that had responded to paintings and imagery of nature.

Composer-professor-inventor Tod Machover led a discussion about a very specific application of music (or rather sound) to health, as he and Li-Huei Tsai, an MIT professor in the  Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, discussed Tsai’s research into how reinforcing the human brains gamma waves with sound- or flashing light- reinforcement at the same 40 Hz frequency could ameliorate some of the effects of dementia, in part by helping the brain reestablish the rhythms that allowed it to purge itself of debris. [Read more on the tactile effects of gamma stimulation HERE.] Psyche Loui, director of the MIND Lab (Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics) at Northeastern University, added her responses to the experiment along with thoughts about the how the brain responds to music…especially music with a strong rhythmic component.

Machover then introduced his Gammified for amplified and electronically expanded string quartet (2019) based on a 40 Hz gamma ground. Seemingly, both the low E of the cello and some signal generation underpinned the dramatically developing sounds. The composer noted:

The piece provides therapeutic benefit (although it is not long enough to produce complete mental entrainment) while spinning musical variations based on the Gamma frequency spectrum. Timbres, textures, pulsations and finally melodies emerge from the Gamma drone, inviting the ear to discover latent possibilities while the mind is being stimulated.

As the Lydian Quartet charted a ten-minute interactive and developing drama, Machover’s materials remained fresh and inviting. The morphing gamma drone, which evoked profoundly deep and mystical Tibetan horns, may even have heightened my ability to focus on the much longer and generally quieter works that followed.

The theme “Music For the Senses”* led us to expect the lighting to reflect sounds over the course of the evening…it did not, but the lighting instruments (we think) did contribute sonically: untoward blower noise violated the famously quiet noise floor of the hall, vitiating the benefits of the big ventilation ducts and low-speed air movement. Thus, while the Callithumpian Consort’s patient traversal of Marti Epstein’s Troubled Queen (a non-specific reaction to the namesake Jackson Pollock) did open our ears and stretch our attention spans, it competed with an unwanted drone; the pianissimos could never quite vanish into the ether as we sensed they should have. Stephen Drury conducted the work dedicated to the Callithumpians with curvaceous elegance. The beats that he traced seemed more important for cuing than making a pitch for any metric pulse that might have vivified the hypnotic flow of exotic colors.

In addition to what she absorbed from the painting, Epstein took inspiration from flutist Jessi Rosinski, whose bass flute “sparked my interest in hearing and writing sounds that were lower and more diffuse than the ones that typify my sound world-a kind of lowering of my compositional tessitura.” For about 20 minutes the gamma waves continued to massage our brains as the consorted players gently riffed. 

In solo pianist Jospeh Vasconi’s hands, Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, No. 3: “Le Merle Bleu,” raised the decibel ante as he depicted the composer’s vision:

Cap I’Abeille, Cap Rederis. Cliffs overhang the sea (Prussian-blue, sapphire-blue). Cries of Swifts; splashing water. The headlands stretch into theme-like crocodiles. Echoing in a rocky cleft, the Blue Rock Thrush sings. Its blue is in contrast to the sea: purple-blue, slate, satin, blue-black. Almost oriental, recalling music of Bali, its song merges with the sound of the waves. Also heard is the Thekla Lark which flutters in the sky above the vines and wild rosemary. Herring Gulls scream far out to sea. The cliffs are awesome. Arriving at their feet, the water breathes its last—a memory of the Blue Rock Thrush (‘like a choir of women’s voices in the distance …’).

Vasconi took flight in swoops and fluttering arcs as he evoked the danger of the cliffs, calls of the birds, and the even the odors of the shore. After the Blue Rock Thrush expired, the crowd erupted in the most vociferous tribute of the night.

Morton Feldman painted Rothko Chapel with exquisitely patient care, meditating in quiet and very distinctly personal tones. Annotator Robert Kirzinger elucidated how “Feldman wanted to achieve the same effect in his music as Rothko did in his paintings, creating his unusual ensemble of chorus, celesta, percussion, and viola to ‘permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room and not be heard from a certain distance.’ ”

This beautifully meandering, four-panel immersion, which can suspend time and place over its half-hour in our heads, certainly befit the theme “Music of the Senses,” or at least Music of Impressions, but the pops-style decorative lighting (static through the two hours of panel discussion and concert) should have been extinguished. A darkened hall would much better have supported the work’s affect. If projections had been necessary, then why not Rothkos?

Ovation for Marti Epstein’s Troubled Queen with Callithumpian Consort and conductor Stephen Drury (Mike Mejia photo)

BSO Assistant Conductor Samy Rachid led the [nec]shivaree with precisely stretched longing. Percussionist Jakob Schoenfeld gave us much to see and hear. He watched the conductor with intensity…and not just for cues, it would appear. His exploration of the quietest imaginable mallet work on chimes, timpani, vibes, and bass drums created rare subtleties which mixed marvelously with the occasional focused pings of Joseph Vasconi on the very complicated-looking Schiedmayer celesta. Violist John Harry Clark’s repeating motivic gestures at the threshold of audibility and crescendoed to a mere pianissimo at times, ultimately emerging in a Hebraic cantillation at the end. Holly Druckman prepared the Carduus Chamber Choir for incredible feats of wordless humming, oohing, and open-mouthed singing at the very low dynamics. I can’t imagine how these 20 singers managed such great support and projection at these almost inhalation levels. Soprano soloist Rose Hegele put across modal leaps with accuracy, wit, and a bit of a smile.

We all felt gratitude for a very unusual experience.

*This concert stimulated but one of the senses, hearing, unless one includes the sixth sense, which it certainly set to vibrating. Touch and smell absented themselves, but maybe the latter need not have. When Jean-Yves Thibaudet recently performed Scriabin’s Prometheus in San Francisco, the audience experienced sprayed scents as well as the expected color organ effects. The BSO unbound Promethus as the first part of the “Music for the Senses” experiment. That show [our review HERE] appealed much more to the eyes than last night’s.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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