On this episode of Spark: Music and technology.
[Music up--heavy metal band. Loud and aggressive]
Nora Young: (shouting) That band? It's not at a club. I was listening to them play in a room at Ryerson University in Toronto, where I was trying out the Emoti-Chair.
[music up and fades and sustains under NY]
NY: It's a Ryerson research project and the idea is to design a chair that would give deaf people a richer experience of music. The Emoti-Chair looks like a recliner, and as you sit in it, the different instruments are represented by vibrations and pulses that you feel on different parts of your body.
The coolest part was rippling vibrations that came up from the arm rests and stimulated my forearms. It almost felt like a current running up to my shoulders making them wiggle in time to the music. It made me want to dance, more than just standing there listening to the music did. But I could also feel thumping and jerking in my chest and other vibrations in different parts of my body.
clip Ellen Hibbard: " So, I'm Ellen Hibbard, I'm a second year phd student."
NY: Ellen is deaf. She's signing her answers. The voice you hear is her interpreter, Tala Jalili. Ellen has been trying out the Emoti-chair. Before using the chair...
clip EH: "In terms of listening to music, I could hear vibrations but in terms of touching a speaker. Touching the woofer with my hands, I could just fell one speaker booming. The first time I had the woofers in my back, strapped on, I was astounded! I feel like it opened up a whole new world for me, a whole new world of music, and I very much enjoyed it."
NY: The way Ellen explains it, the effect of separating the instruments into vibrations on different parts of the body is a revelation:
clip EH: "But it can bring tears to my eyes about how much I can feel music. I can feel the piano. I can distinguish the instruments. I've never known that piano and guitar felt different. Growing up, it was quite different, I had hearing aids, they tried to get me to experience music, it was just a mumble jumble of sounds to me. It just was not possible, I'm profoundly deaf. I have never been able to separate sounds."
clip NY: "What role does music play in deaf culture, generally?"
clip EH: "In the deaf community, let's say if we host a dance or have a gathering, we typically will do it where we have wooden planks on the floor, so when there are drums, or bass, we'll take off our shoes and feel it through it vibrations in the floor, so that's how the deaf community experiences music."
NY: But what if you could separate the music into its component parts? Maria Karam is a post doc fellow at Ryerson. She works with Human Computer Interactions.
clip Maria Karam: " Imagine putting your hands on a speaker that's playing music. You can feel vibrations, but what we can normally feel are the most prominent low level bass and drum type vibrations, and these dominate the other frequencies, such as voice and guitar and some of the higher frenquencies that aren't accessible.
So, because the body is very capable of processing information, a lot more than we actually use it for, what we're doing is leveraging this ability and we're separating the music into multiple signals or channels and we're presenting each of those individual unique channels along your body, giving your body the chance to process it, strictly bypassing your ears, but tickling your back, or pounding on your lower thigh."
NY: So in some ways your whole body is a sensory organ. Beyond the cool factor, what impressed me was the way sensing music more deeply is not just an aesthetic experience, but an emotional one, according to Ellen Hibbard
clip NY: did you get that sense from listening to it of what kind of emotions were being communicated by the composer?
clip EH: "Oh certainly, and my mind wonders and goes off into an emotional roller-coaster of experience. For the first time, I realized it was pushing my buttons, pushing my emotions, making me feel emotions that I never knew were associated with music. This was never an experience and I have to say, I like it!"
NY: The rock band wasn't the only music we heard that day at Ryerson. There was also music composed specifically for use with the Emoti-Chair
[Stéphane Vera's music up. Ambient]
clip Stéphane Vera: "My name is Stéphane Vera and I'm the first composer in the world to be composing for a new tactile medium, which is the Emoti-Chair. "
"I realized very quickly that I was allowing my senses, specifically my hearing, to influence me because I was hitting notes that would be more related to one another, and I said, this is not the way to proceed. If deaf person is going to get something out of this, then I had better be composing for a deaf person who can't hear anything, so I pumped tv static into my ears so as to not allow any outside sound and relied entirely on me sitting on the chair with a keyboard on my lap and the vibrations to dictate how I was going to start the composition."
clip NY: "And how, as a composer, how do you feel when you hear the reactions that we heard in the room today from the people who were using it and what their experience of it is."
clip SV: "To me it is a more honest reaction than someone who has been listening to music their whole life and just, you know, says they like your piece. To have made such a difference in someone's life who otherwise was closed off to music completely, and didn't want it a part of his or her life. To have that person say, wow, you've completely changed my mind about music, it's very very special, it's very meaningful and I want that to be for everybody."
[music resolves and fades away--tinkly music.]