5 questions to Jonathan Berger (composer, founder of the Music & Brain Symposium)

Now in its seventh year, the 2013 Music & Brain Symposium begins on April 12 at Stanford University. The brainchild of Jonathan Berger, professor at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), the conference brings together a multi-disciplinary group of musicians, scientists, and academics for two days of performances and presentations. This year’s symposium focuses on the phenomenon of auditory hallucinations.

A keynote event at the symposium is the world premiere of “Visitations”, a pair of operas by Berger that explore the lives of two men who experience hallucinatory sounds. “Theotokia” tells the story of a man who is tormented by religious inner voices, while “The War Reporter” is based on interviews with journalist Paul Watson, who was haunted by auditory hallucinations after a stint in war-torn Somalia. For the performance, Berger has enhanced Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall with ambisonic technology designed to imitate a hallucinating brain. Speakers placed around the auditorium will broadcast digital audio tracks during the performances to complement the action on stage, effectively transporting the audience into the minds of the protagonists.

Watch live streaming video of the symposium proceedings on April 13, beginning at 10:00 am PDT / 1:00 pm EDT.

This will be the seventh annual Music & Brain Symposium. In past years, the event has centered around such subjects as memory, rhythm, emotion, and improvisation. What inspired you to choose auditory hallucinations as the topic for this year’s symposium?

I became fascinated with auditory hallucination a few years ago when my mother was suffering (and sometimes enjoying) musical hallucinations. The ‘cause’ of these were attributed to the interaction of hearing impairment and dementia – a fairly common combination in the elderly. I had been teaching about the phenomenon of ‘earworms’ – snippets of music that get hopelessly lodged in your brain – and began to ponder a broader notion of hallucination beyond the clinical definition.

Jonathan Berger

Jonathan Berger

Concurrently I had been scheming to write an opera in which delusional schizophrenia was central. As I came to know Tanya Luhrman’s anthropological studies of Evangelical congregants who routinely hear the voice of god, I thought of the parallel question of the borderline between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ hallucinations. As the idea of Visitations developed, the idea of pairing two manifestations of inner haunting voices – one resulting from schizophrenia, the other triggered by a traumatic event – emerged. My librettist, Dan O’Brien, shares this fascination, and had been shadowing journalist Paul Watson, who is the protagonist of The War Reporter. The pairing raised more questions about hallucinations. Thus, the opportunity to invite a diverse group of experts in this multi-faceted domain seemed like a perfect compliment to the opera.

Visitations tells the stories of two men who experience hallucinatory voices. How do you musically replicate these occurrences in the operas? Did you face any challenges in the compositional process of turning these private inner voices and sounds into operatic events?

Each of the operas posed challenges that I found engrossing. In Theotokia, the lack of sequential narrative suggested an opportunity to simulate the intense, sometimes overpowering, inner-voices that weave between reality and delusion. This led to the notion of setting both the protagonist’s imagined ‘mothers of god’ and his real mother for a single soprano. Furthermore, the idea of essentially muting Leon’s (the protagonist’s) voice – such that he is really only heard at a moment in which he is painfully cognizant of the ‘real world’ – allowed me to set the opera in such a way that the entirety occurs ‘inside’ Leon’s mind. Conversely, The War Reporter consists of six vignettes that form a sequential, progressive narrative. However, once again, the audience comes to understand that what they are hearing is not reality, but the inner thoughts and hallucinations of Paul Watson.

Let’s talk more about the process of sonifying a concert hall. What technologies are you using in your setup? How will the electronic components integrate with the acoustic elements of the operas?

The premiere at Bing Concert Hall posed two huge challenges – first, a vineyard style hall with no ‘backstage’, no ‘wings’, no ‘orchestra pit’ and no capabilities of scenic design changes, and second, a hall in which the audience envelopes the stage. These inspired the notion of placing the audience ‘inside the brain’ of the protagonists, which in turn led me to consider spatial audio dispersion. I am averse to amplification of singers and acoustic instruments, and for pragmatic reasons was concerned about creating a portable and easily replicable production. I thus thought of the electronics as an instrument that would integrate seamlessly with the ensemble.

My research collaborations in neuro-scientific imaging led me to acquire date from researchers studying brain activation of auditory hallucinations in patients with schizophrenia. One study in particular, by Sukhi Shergill, displayed both temporal and localized data, which inspired the idea of using virtually localized audio to simulate the brain activations just prior to, during, and following a hallucination. My colleague at Stanford, Fernando Lopez Lazcano, got me hooked on ambisonics, a method dating back to the 70’s that allows very precise periphonic localization, is open source and not hardware-specific, and is scalable (which means that the opera can effectively be done with any number of speakers and preserve the sense of spatialization). The mapping, done very precisely and with the cooperation of Dr. Shergill, are heard in a number of spots in the opera – and then are used with considerable artistic license throughout.

In today’s popular culture, schizophrenia is frequently misunderstood and stigmatized. Do you see your operas breaking through the veil of mystery and fear that often surrounds this disease? Have you gotten any feedback on the operas from people who experience auditory hallucinations?

When I first began working on Theotokia, the Spoleto Festival commissioned a chamber work for Dawn Upshaw, and I jumped on the opportunity to test out the idea by setting the arias for chamber ensemble. For days after each performance, people would come up to me and – sometimes tearfully – relate personal stories of struggles with insanity. Although there is no overt attempt to address the stigmatization of schizophrenia, I am finding that simply bringing the issue to stage and lectern seems to draw enormous sense of affinity and catharsis.

In addition to your professorship at Stanford and work with the Music & Brain Symposium, you maintain a busy schedule as a composer and researcher. Are you working on any other projects at the moment? Do you have plans for more research or musical pieces involving auditory hallucinations?

Eloquentia Records has just released my violin concerto, Jiyeh, together with Britten’s violin concerto. Both are marvelously performed by Livia Sohn.

Visitations represents new directions for me on multiple fronts. The operas are unique (for me, that is) in the genre and approach to theater, as well as in the integration of digital audio and visual elements with acoustic instruments and voices. In the years ahead I plan to develop another theatrical work and continue to explore illusory electro-acoustical spaces, as well as to compose new chamber works. These upcoming works constitute a new chapter in my exploration of ‘inner voices’, both in terms of new musical opportunities and directions as well as a new perspective on auditory hallucination. This next phase will be centered upon the ‘inner voices’ that have driven individuals to extreme acts – acts of courage and acts of terrifying destruction.

Current commissions include a work for orchestra, a work for voice and guitar, and a chamber work with electronics. My greatest desire is to continue writing opera.