Making of Harmonium

Written for the Edinburgh International Festival by Robin Hill, Cognitive Scientist, School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh
Data. People like data. Certainly everyone generates and consumes vast amounts of the stuff. Governments are riding the “Big Data” craze and Google probably knows more about you than you know about yourself. While I might be considered biased, the best kinds of data have to be those that offer insight into human processing, creativity and intelligent behaviour. So when The Harmonium Project was conceived, it seemed too good an opportunity to ignore. The Harmonium Project offers a unique opportunity to understand how individual performers act and react together in order as part of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus to consciously form a high-functioning, social, organic construct (i.e. a big chorus that can sing and keep time together). An exercise in highly complex, collaborative joint action, uniting 130 singers with multiple sections, harmonies and parts is no easy feat. Plus the project is a chance for me to take part in a major event at the world’s greatest arts festival. Who says science can’t be fun?
Now, although all these data are buzzing about, capturing, recording and controlling them is a little more tricky. Hence a two-pronged attack was implemented. There was data capture “in the field” (some may prefer “in the wild” but I won’t comment on the appropriateness of this description), which involved collecting two very different sets of data. The first set came from monitoring the heart rate of ten choristers simultaneously during a rehearsal of John Adams's Harmonium and provides us with a measure of biophysical synchronisation. The second set involved geo-tagging members of the Chorus over several days starting from when they left the rehearsal, so that their combined movements can be plotted on a map (one boastfully reached Madrid). iPhone users can try the Comob Net app used for themselves: developed by the University of Edinburgh’s Design Informatics it is available for free from the Apple Store.
The second approach required running laboratory-based experiments. For these, participants had to visit some of the University’s state-of-the-art research facilities. None of this was painful or left permanent scars – we adhere to strict ethical rules. One batch of these experiments recorded the eye movements of performers while they sang from their musical score, along with basic electrocardiography (heart rate), single channel electroencephalography (EEG is a measure of electrical brain activity) and head/facial movements. EEG recording actually works best in a more passive environment, so another experiment involved placing a higher precision 64 electrode cap on participants listening to recordings of the music they were going to perform. In another experiment, medical ultrasound equipment was used to capture images of tongue movements (and, to a limited degree, the vocal folds or cords) while Harmonium was being sung. So there is now a very rich and varied collection of multimodal information about the Edinburgh Festival Chorus covering how they read, move, respond, perform and listen to the music.
Having accomplished the hard part of generating this vast database of time-synchronised numbers, images and wiggly lines, the next step is the even harder process of turning it into something meaningful, interpretable and ideally human readable. For me, one part of this is actually incredibly easy: I hand things over to Richard and 59 Productions and they do the tough part of transforming the data into something accessible that everyone can appreciate and understand, leaving me to enjoy the show. However, knowing that the answers to questions are buried in the data really means that I can’t avoid getting my hands dirty and doing a bit of number-crunching myself. I still intend to find time to enjoy the performance, though.
I’d like to finish off by thanking the members of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus who volunteered their time, minds and bodies. Without their keen participation and friendly gung-ho attitude, my part would have been much more difficult. I think it’s fair to say that the Chorus itself has a strong personality and identity, arising from the harmonious combination of its individual members and their drive to make a successful production. I’ve also neglected any reference to the orchestra, but only because the focus is on the vocal performance (and it is the Chorus’s anniversary). Obviously, they are an integral part of the performance and another specialised coordinated group. Maybe next time…
You can see the results of this at the launch of the Edinburgh International Festival on the 7th August 2015, Festival Square, Edinburgh at 10.30pm. It is a free outdoor event, all welcome.

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