Vocal Vibrations (Video)

The spectacular Blue Heron vocal ensemble performing in the MIT Chapel.

Post by Elly Jessop and Rebecca Kleinberger

As part of the Dalai Lama’s visit to MIT, the Opera of the Future Group performed an experiment in collaboration with the vocal ensemble Blue Heron, Affectiva, Elliott Hedman, and Tenzin Priyadarshi, director of the Dalai Lama Center at MIT.  During Blue Heron’s stunning performance of early choral music on Monday, we used Affectiva’s Q Sensors to track and measure the reactions of selected singers and audience members over the course of the concert.   The wireless Q Sensors, worn on the wrists or palms, measure the wearer’s skin conductance, which increases during emotional states such as anticipation, excitement, surprise, or anxiety.  Through the information provided by these sensors, we can examine the similarities and differences in the affective reactions of various singers and audience members.

Tod and Elliott presented some of the affective stories of a few performers and audience members stories on Tuesday at the beginning of the Dalai Lama’s final talk at MIT.  Through the skin conductance data, we saw various audience members responding to musical events such as the introduction of new sections, crescendoing soprano lines, moments of silent anticipation after a cutoff, complex tonalities, and multi-part harmonic climaxes built from many moving lines.  Some musicians at times went into almost a “state of flow,” characterized by low reactivity, though at other points we saw moments of high reactivity (in the anticipatory moments before singing, before complex musical changes, or during pieces known less well to the performers).

Blue Heron also led the audience in a collaborative vocal experience: the audience members were asked to sustain a single sung pitch while listening to how that note played with and against the complex five-part harmonies being performed by Blue Heron.  This gave the audience a chance to experience the difference between simply listening to a piece of choral music and being involved physically and mentally in the creation of that music.  We were excited to see how intuitively and enthusiastically the audience participated in this process.

These experiences are part of Vocal Vibrations, a new project being developed in the Opera of the Future Group exploring the relationships between human physiology and the resonant vibrations of the voice.  The voice and body are instruments everyone possesses–they are incredibly individual, infinitely expressive, and intimately linked to one’s own physical form.  In collaboration with Le Laboratoire in Paris and the Dalai Lama Center at MIT, we are exploring the hypothesis that the singing voice can influence mental and physical health through physicochemical phenomena and in ways consistent with contemplative practices.  Additionally, we are developing techniques to engage the public in the practice of singing and vocalizing.

Here’s the unedited three-hour (!) video of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Stages of Meditation” session at M.I.T. Tod and Elliott’s presentation begins at 00:07:45.

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