Music after brain injury by any means

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Some people describe the brain as a computer: it takes in info, processes it, and spits out things like emotions, movement, language, or music. This isn’t the most thorough explanation of the three-pound blob, but it’s not untrue. So imagine what happens when you hook up the information processor in your head to an information processor in an actual computer. Music happens!

People have been working on using EEG to control things with their minds since the 1960s. Recently, we’ve started to make some amazing strides with this, and we’re making music. It’s called Brain-Computer Music Interfacing. Interestingly, there’s lots of academic papers on it, but there aren’t many articles written for the general public. (One of them I’m not linking to because it talks about severe disability as a fate worse than death, and I don’t link to articles that say that unless I really have to.) You can read about the premiere performance of The Paramusical Ensemble on July 17, 2015 where four people with extremely limited mobility used the computer technology to choose musical phrases. Non-disabled musicians in the Bergersen Quartet played those choices in real-time, creating a piece of music on the spot. Thanks to Professor Eduardo Miranda, Composer and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth University, and all the team who helped make this possible, including Joel Eaton, who built the interface.

I was especially taken by an article on violinist Rosemary Johnson from The Telegraph. She hadn’t made music for 27 years because her severe traumatic brain injury left her with mobility impairments where she couldn’t hold and play her violin anymore. Rosemary’s mother is quoted: “Music is really her only motivation,” she said. “I take her to the grand piano in the hospital and she can only really play a few chords, but that was the only time she shows any interest. She doesn’t really enjoy anything else.” And now she can make music again, composing the musical phrases and having the other musicians bring those phrases to life.

You can see a short documentary about it. It doesn’t have captions as of this blog post writing, but the filmmaker assures me that captions or subtitles in English are on their way!

All of this takes me back to one of the points of “Who Am I To Stop It,” the documentary. So many stories of brain injury will insist that overcoming tragedy, transcending disability, finding independence, accepting the new you, and doing therapeutic things are the highest goals for my community. I don’t knock those goals, but I question whether they’re the best. They’re not terribly realistic or even desirable for a lot of people. My goal with the film is to show art not as therapy but as art, that something that can bring people together and communicate all sorts of ideas. And I also want to show you that peers with brain injury have so very, very much to say. It’s a matter of all of us paying attention. And in the case of Rosemary, it was a matter of getting the technology up to speed to allow her the opportunity, and finding the people willing to team up.

Last fall, Dani Sanderson, from the documentary, was invited to perform with Olympia’s Community Youth Services. I recently got a great gift in my email from CYS, a link to this original track called “Hands Up High” by Just-In, Alex Wishart, and our very own Dani Street ANGEL.

I couldn’t download it to be able to transcribe the whole thing, and transcribing lyrics with music is very challenging for me. I did type out Dani’s section. I hope everyone will take some time to really read the lyrics. (And if you’re listening to the audio version of the post, I apologize that you have to hear me recite them. I’m just reading them out, not even trying to sound musical cuz that’s not in my wheelhouse!) Click on the song title “Hands Up High” to listen to the song. Dani comes in at 2:20.)

“With this beat,
I’m gonna give it to you neat.
Nice and slow but real and complete.
You see music is my passion,
for I feel it in my veins

When I speak or when I rap,
can you feel my pain?
Can you see it?
Does it hurt?
It’s not clear like rain
So don’t mistake what I’m telling ya
for I feel it through my soul

Possibly that’s why making music’s
my only goal
(Possibly that’s why making music’s
her only goal)

Who knows but I,
for it’s my only one escape
Only right direction to make me feel complete
Tell me what else could I need
when I got this pen and this pad
to create these words,
I call it music on my sheet
(Yep. Music on my sheet.
Yep. Music on my sheet.)

Music on my sheet makes me
feel real and complete”

When you read Rosemary’s mom’s words and Dani’s lyrics here, do you have any questions? Do you get how much music is their world and how very much they have to say?