Cellist Bree Ahern and dancer Shohei Iwahama, featured wearing EEG caps, in “LiveWire”, a collaboration between Musiqa, NobleMotion Dance and the Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) Systems Laboratory.
Photo: Lynn Lane
The arts have long served as a vehicle for self-expression, a way to explore things both seen and unseen, but to what extent are artists able to convincingly and comprehensively portray what is really going on in the human brain?
The interplay between art and science has been of great interest to Anthony Brandt, co-founder and artistic director of Musiqa, ever since he befriended neuroscientist David Eagleman more than a decade ago. The pair eventually co-wrote “The Runaway Species,” which delves deep into the scientific study of creativity.
Since 2017, the book has been published in 13 countries, but it by no means marked the end of Brandt’s curiosity for research. In fact, it forms the basis of the next program in Musiqa’s 20th anniversary season lineup, an evening where neuroscience will join the conversation.
On January 21-22, the composer-led new music collective, in partnership with NobleMotion Dance, will perform “LiveWire” at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston, where audience members will first be greeted by the “Loop” of three minutes by Carlos Simon. for String Trio” in the lobby surrounded by the fantastic brain portraits of visual artist Emily Fens.
The program will also include the Houston premiere of Pierre Jalbert’s “Piano Quintet” in addition to two dance works – NobleMotion’s premiere of “The Spider’s Den”, a heartfelt duet on Lei Liang’s “Gobi Gloria” and “Rhythm Study “, a dynamic piece featuring guest artists from Sam Houston State University.
Yet it is the titular work of the evening, created in collaboration with Dr. Jose L. Contreras-Vidal, that will truly exemplify the reputation that Musiqa and NobleMotion have built within the local arts community and beyond to shatter artistic boundaries. Entering the theatre, one may have the impression of having entered a laboratory more than a performance hall. From the audience’s perspective, a team of scientists will be working at a table in the upper right corner of the stage, while four musicians are preparing their instruments on the opposite side, and the dancers, two of whom will be staring at EEG skull caps (EEG) at their heads, take their starting positions.
“Dance is a window that allows us to study the brain,” says Contreras-Vidal, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the BRAIN Center at the University of Houston. “Ultimately, we’re looking at how we can use the arts to reach parts of the brain that may need a little help in some people. Think depression, TBI, stroke, Parkinson’s disease; they not only affect your motor skills but also cognitive and emotional aspects.
In a multifaceted effort to demonstrate the neural basis of creative movement and ultimately the medical benefit of the arts, Contreras-Vidal and his team used the EEG capsules to record the brain activity of the same two dancers, as they were learning and refining new choreographies. in the studio for several months. The scientists will repeat the process during each performance, and the real-time data will be projected onto a monitor behind one of the dancers seated nearby.
The 30-minute piece centers on a new string quartet, in which Brandt meticulously illustrates a different process of the human brain in each of the five movements. NobleMotion co-artistic directors Andy and Dionne Noble then fill in another piece of the puzzle with their choreographic representation of the music, which is further enhanced by an abstract version of the brainwave patterns that appear in the design of the lighting.
“It’s one of the most cerebral works we’ve done,” says Andy Noble. “You have scientists studying dancers, and at the same time music and dance is about science, so it’s self-referential and it’s all contained. I think that’s what’s really special about the project.
This weekend’s performances will give Houston audiences a taste of the interdisciplinary experience before it tours the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Virginia as part of an international conference on the brain and the dance at the beginning of April. By the final show, Contreras-Vidal hopes to accumulate at least 10 readings that will be included in the upcoming analysis.
“One of my beliefs is that the arts have been incredibly insightful into human psychology,” says Brandt, “and that artists and scientists working together are the most productive way to arrive quickly and accurately at real revelations and insights”.
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.