Vancouver New Music presents Erin Gee’s Affect Flow, with musica intima and pianist Andrea Wong, at the Annex on November 19 as part of Parallel 05
FACING STRAIGHT INTO a video camera while scrutinizing the viewer with serious and unwavering intent, Erin Gee makes no secret that she’s looking for a willing collaborator. “Welcome,” she intones in a husky, half-whispered voice. “Thank you for joining this experiment in wave-reforming mind technology. Do not mistake your confusion or your doubt or your panic. You’re going to have to buy into this a little. Just give me your focus and attention and listen, listen. I’ll make it all make sense.”
We’re watching We as Waves, a 2020 collaboration with playwright Jena McLean that, as far as I can tell, is a piece of sound art designed to stimulate a pleasant sense of relaxed tingling in the viewer—and perhaps, given its origins in the early days of the COVID epidemic, to serve as a balm for the sense of isolation many felt during lockdown. Gee’s soft tones and breathy whisper, her steady gaze, the electronic tappings and clickings and rumblings behind her voice, and her instructions to “breathe in, breathe out” are all designed to trigger what has become known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR.
ASMR is as yet not well understood, and yet it has generated a vast network of ASMRtists who to date have posted millions of sensorially provocative videos online. Some neurologists believe that stimulating the region of the brain that responds to ASMR triggers could potentially alleviate pain or stress, yet others caution that not enough research has been done on ASMR to make any blanket statements.
Gee is a believer, and someone who responds to ASMR stimuli. But the reason I qualify my response to her art with “as far as I can tell” is that I, apparently, am not. I can happily listen to hyper-complex composed music or harsh noise while making breakfast, and yet I have tried and failed to watch all 10 minutes of Gee and McLean’s We as Waves on four separate occasions. To me, it’s a psychically painful intrusion, the kind of forced intimacy that literally makes me squirm. Granted, I might just be the kind of weirdo who resists sustained eye contact, who can be awkward in one-on-one social interactions, or who—as some former girlfriends have suggested—is somewhere on the autism spectrum, probably towards the Asperger’s side of the equation.
Or I might be perfectly normal, and just different.
“According to some scientific research, 25 percent of people have ASMR, which is this experience of physiological tingling,” Gee explains in a telephone interview from her Montreal home. “I first experienced it when I was a little girl, when people were reading books to me. The sound of turning pages, the personal attention, the eye contact, and the soft-spoken voice of someone reading you a story really got my tingles going. And, furthermore, another 25 percent of people enjoy ASMR but don’t necessarily have the tingling sensation—according to science, at least. Another 25 percent can take it or leave it; they encounter it as music or sound only. And then we have the famous 25 percent that experience extreme misophonia and can’t stand ASMR.“I’m sorry that you felt that way!” she adds. “It definitely is forced intimacy.”
Gee goes on to explain that ASMRtists “often reproduce what they themselves enjoy”, and finds support for that approach in feminist theory and its prioritizing of the personal, its insistence on subjectivity. But ASMR is not the only sonic or physiological phenomenon that intrigues this media artist and self-described “DIY expert in affective biofeedback”. Prior works have involved robotics, virtual reality, and electroacoustic music generated by the body’s response to particular tasks. We’ll hear an example of the latter in Gee’s upcoming Vancouver New Music concert, Affect Flow, in which the members of musica intima will perform Song of Seven, a work for choir, electronics, and piano.
After attaching themselves to biosensors that track bodily functions such as blood flow, skin conductivity, and respiratory shifts, the singers take turns vocalizing improvised anecdotes from childhood. Their physiological responses to memory and performance will be converted into discrete pitches; the other choristers will react in sound, and pianist Andrea Wong will offer an instrumental response.
As can be seen in a video of the work’s debut, featuring the Hamilton Children’s Choir, the results are uncanny, unsettling, unpredictable, and yet somehow poignant—qualities that often emerge in Gee’s work.
“I use personal memories as a way of unlocking emotion and empathy in the choir, because there’s different ways of composing emotion, right?” she says. “You can use psychological hacks and meditation or tricks, or you can just have people tell stories. Musica intima is going to be improvising stories of their childhood in order to unlock different musical tones in the biosensors. So you can really hear the empathetic relationship between people in the choir in real time.”
Gee will also present We As Waves and unveil Intimacy Alphabet, a new and highly experimental piece for community choir, ASMR, and biosensors which reflects both her desire to free “new music” from its emphasis on virtuosity and mathematics and her interest in empowering amateur creators.
“I think that technology can be used very expressively and emotionally,” she says. “We see the dark side of emotional technology—certainly right now in politics, where social media is being used to manipulate voters. So this is very contemporary work in this way. I like to insist that my work is not futuristic; it’s contemporary. This manipulation of the population’s emotions through technology? It has been happening. And so I am interested in using all of these advanced technologies used in surveillance and data gathering and emotional hacking—but instead of using them to control who we vote for, using them to make something more abstract and open-ended and hopefully generous.
“And pleasurable!” she adds. “I love pleasure. I’m also really inspired by this idea of music as repair: that you can come to a musical piece out of sorts or anxious and that music can be used physiologically and psychologically to reassemble your attention. Maybe that attention has been focused on the pain inside of you, but by focusing your attention it can take pain away. I can’t promise that I can offer a healing experience, but I can promise that I have healing intent.”