An Interview with Paras Kaul
by Sean Johnson Andrews

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Paras Kaul making brain-wave music. The electrodes around her forehead pick up her brainwaves and transmit the data into a software program which then transmit the information into a midi translator connected to the computer. Neural signals output from the computer are converted to midi notes which are input to the keyboard. The result is a composition of music based on the biofeedback of her brain's electric impulses--or brain-wave music.


Sean Andrews: So what is your background—especially with regard to technology and art?

Paras Kaul: My background is actually through visuals. I started out in photography; I did undergraduate and graduate work in photography. And then went back to school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study computer technologies and video. But of course getting into the video aspect, I started working with music. At the School of the Art Institute, I was part of a three person electronic band, and we were working with a low end—high end at that time, but by today’s standard it was low end—software called ZGRASS that was kind of custom made by some Chicago folks. It ran on a little computer system at the time, and we were working with the Apple Sound Chaser software and making music. We did a little performing for the Center for New Television. But from that I just started doing more animation, and that all eventually led to multimedia because I was interested in both the visuals and the sound.

And I have a background as an educator, university professor. I taught in California as a lecturer and spent two-and-a-half years at Mississippi State university teaching in a graduate program there on visualization. Then I came up here to work primarily with the Web in hopes that multimedia would become the mainstream of the web work on the campus. Now, after being here two years, I see the campus is pretty conservative in its use for the web…

SA: Oh really?

PK: Well if you look at our site you’ll see there’s very little multimedia, which I think is unfortunate, but it’s just the way of our campus. (Laughs)

SA: So you’ve been here for two years?

PK: Yes. This is the beginning of my third year.

SA: And have you been working in University Publications that whole time?

PK: Actually I am in University Relations but I am in Electronic Publications. So…I’ve worked there for the two years and have been adjunct faculty in Art and Visual Technology—not currently but I have been.

SA: So when did you start getting involved with brain wave music?

PK: Actually in 1992—and I always remember that year because I first saw the brain wave system demonstrated at a cyber arts conference in Pasadena, California where we were exhibiting a piece called "The Portrait Virus." There were these two men from Japan and they had this great brain-wave connection to the computer. And I kind of knew that I had to get involved with that because I had a background—I guess you could call it a background in hypnosis. My father worked with me under hypnosis and he suddenly died overnight. He had been working on alternative realities, doing work when I was between the ages of five and fourteen and I didn’t really even know what we were doing—but when he died, I kind of lost my guide to those alternative realities. So I started doing research when I was fourteen, but it wasn’t until 1992 that I saw software and I just went, "Whoa! I could use this," because I had, at that point, already done some exploration in float tanks and different kinds of things like that trying to get back to that hypnotic state of mind.

SA: And a "float tank" is?

PK: It’s an oblong box, maybe seven feet long and maybe this [about 3 feet] wide and you put 800 pounds of Epsom Salt and, I think it is, ten inches of water and that’s enough to totally suspend the human body. It’s a sensory deprivation experience so it’s dark, it’s closed, and—so you don’t see or hear anything. And, when you float in that environment, you lose the feeling of the body completely and then you begin to learn more about what’s happening in the mental.

SA: Wow. That’s amazing.

PK: Yes, it’s pretty exciting. And I find that what happens in the float session is very much what happens when unpracticed people will sit down with the brain-wave interface in that, when you first put the electrodes on, your thoughts, your mental activity is kind of going all over the place—kind of like a Ping-Pong effect. And that’s exactly what happens in the tank: when you’re first in there and you become totally aware of what’s happening in your mental space, you’ll see it’s very confused and it’s like thoughts are hitting the walls. But then, when you learn to relax and concentrate and breathe deeply, you begin to feel as you’ve never felt before, really—especially in the tank! Because you can feel the stress on your body because you lose your body and that’s when interesting things begin to happen. And when you can reach that same point with the interface connected to a musical MIDI device, then interesting things start to happen in the music too—more natural melodies begin to occur. And when you first sit down, when things are pinging all over, it’s just like, "Bong…Bong…Bong…Bong"—pretty boring kind of stuff but then the more you relax—which is a great meditative exercise, a great stress reliever—the more you relax, then the more just natural things begin to happen in the music. And that’s when those more natural occurrences begin to happen in the music, then I begin to record.

So I have to wait until I reach that threshold, which happens to be between alpha and theta brain-wave activity based on standard EEG biofeedback--Electro Encephalographic analysis of the brain-wave signal—which is what happens in the brain-wave software: the brain-wave signals are sent to the computer and there they run through the software that converts the values to frequencies and velocities and then it delineates those frequencies and velocities into frequency bandwidths—Alpha, beta, theta, delta—which are the standard bandwidths associated with biofeedback. Then what happens is that different bandwidths will trigger different signals—well actually those frequencies then go through a MIDI translator box and are transferred to MIDI notation and then, if they are between the values that are Beta, it will trigger certain sounds in the instrument. But if those values fall within the numbers that are Alpha then it will trigger another set of notes.

SA: And do you have control over saying, "Okay when it triggers the Alpha, I want it to do this, and when it triggers the Beta I want it to do this."

PK: You can set up parameters using additional software. Sometimes I work like that. For this last piece—the "Peace Streams" piece—I didn’t set that up. I tried to work more with the, so to speak, brain-wave level: focusing more on trying to control where that activity was so that then I would try to be in one of those frequencies and allow whatever happened to happen.

SA: So it depends a lot on your having control over the brain-waves and being conscious of what that does.

PK: Exactly—Which I have pretty good control over because of that background.

SA: So would you say that that [kind of experience] is sort of a prerequisite for someone who is using this sort of technology: to be able to, if nothing else, enter a meditative state where they can be conscious of them and be able to control—

PK: Yes, but I don’t like to call it "meditative" because then it gets associated with New Age, or "newage" as I like to call it, and, you know, there are misconceptions about New Age—but it is the same thing. But also you can be trained—like people who have done meditation are much better at controlling the brain-wave signals. Which, talking about it scientifically—don’t want to use the word "meditation"—you can just say that they’re, "Better at getting into Alpha domains or Theta Domains." But, also, since this is an interactive experience, as you are the ultimate instrument because you are ultimately playing from here [points to head] then you hear, through the feedback, the result. And then you can work with yourself to relax, decompress even more and more and hear changes in the music. Then as you work more with it, you can identify what it is in your physical being that makes the music sound better or more interesting. And then you can push yourself to go there. So it’s a learning process as well. I can also say that it is a quick way to learn to meditate—it happens a lot faster than standard ways of doing it—which is not to say that it is necessarily better; I think some of the Yogis will tell you, you shouldn’t go too fast.

SA: So, with the "Peace Streams" piece, what is it that you used the brain-wave transmitter to compose: was it just the music or are the images, the voice and audio clips—are those things also involved in the brain-wave transmitter.

PK: The imagery is not affected other than that I tried to kind of match or make a visual association with the sounds. All of the music with the exception of the drumming, which was done on—see these drums over here [points to two African Djembe-style drums in the corner]—I call it "organic drumming." I have a friend who makes these drums. She did some drumming to keep a rhythm going, which is pretty hard to do with the brain-wave activity, by the way. I am not that much of a master yet.

But the other thing that I was trying to do with "Peace Streams" because it is, as you know, dedicated to my cousin, who was a survivor—is a survivor [from the World Trade Center when a hijacked plane crashed into it on September 11, 2001]. And I just saw her for the first time, maybe two weeks ago now, and if I didn’t know, I wouldn’t recognize her as the same person. She had a 10% chance to survive; 70% of her body was burned and, as an artist, when that had first happened, my feeling was "What can I do as an artist to try to help?" And I had met—well I guess it was prior to September 11 or maybe just after I can’t remember when it was exactly when I met a person who I call a psychic healer who actually does psychic healing on people that request him to.

This person really impressed me with his overall psychic ability and I believed in his ability as a psychic healer, but I also found it interesting that he had been a previous burn victim in another type of accident fifteen years ago. At that time 60% of his body was burned and he recovered from that so in talking with him, I received a lot of relief from my stress. He was also able to identify with Elaine’s pain and what she was going through, and he was so able to tell us, "Well here’s what you need to do," and "Well even though she’s in a coma you can still, you know, project your energy and have someone there all the time." And he just knew the kind of things she would need.

So I asked him, I told him that I wanted to do something to help. I asked him to do a psychic healing from a distance and the video that you saw—all of the face shots were done during the psychic healing. We did that here. He got into what I can only call an altered state of consciousness, which I feel I can relate to because I have had so much experience with that. I had the camera set up on automatic and had this healing candle that my cousin’s, the burn victim’s, sister had given me, and I had James, the psychic healer, hold the candle so that the light would come up on his face. Then I got into the brain-wave, put on the electrodes, and connected to the audio—and we were recording the audio as well as the visual of him doing the psychic healing. What I did was to allow my brain-wave activity to try to pick up on the subtle energies of that exchange so I feel that that affected the music a lot. And so that is the music that you heard—not the words: the words were definitely recorded from the healer that night. But the music that you heard was also—a major portion of it, was also recorded that night—and I can show you basically how I do that on the computer.

So I do the recording of the brain-wave music on this system here which is an older system but it has the serial ports that connect to the brain-wave interface. Then I make samples there that I bring into the PowerBook where I use a program called Digital Performer to compose the music. In Digital Performer, I layer the sound samples. So in the piece in digital performer, there are layers that include the brain-wave samples from that night, there are brain-wave samples from the drumming session, because I wanted to have a little bit of the power and feeling of war in the music and in the rhythm, so while she drummed I was also connected to the brain-wave interface to try to create music to go with the drumming. So there are music tracks like that and some drumming tracks and then the words of the healer. I also didn’t want this to sound too New Age, so I worked in the Digital Performer to sort of fade those words in and out and have them re-occur periodically. Then I also wrote some lyrics associated with the um…

SA: So the words in the piece are not her words? The quote, the woman speaking—

PK: That’s my cousin. And then hopefully this is going to boot up correctly so that we can check this out.

SA: Do you consider this to be performance work? What do you define this sort of art form as?

PK: This project is a DVD project, it is a multimedia project, so, as you know, at the Kennedy Center, I did call it a performance though it was on the DVD. I used to do live performance, you know, with all the equipment and everything but I don’t really have help to do that now and I don’t feel I am able to carry the equipment around anymore.

I think DVD is the medium of the present and so…well that’s an interesting question, "What is it?" Well it’s performance, from DVD—as I presented it there. It has a different kind of impact if it’s done live. For instance, to present it live from the PowerBook, for the sound, is something that could be done. But the memory to do the video and the music—nothing I have is expensive enough to do that. At this point the challenge was "can I make a DVD that will work?"

SA: And you did this performance at GMU [George Mason University] as well, right?

PK: Yes.

SA: I ask the question about performance because we have been talking about the issue of the magazine, which is supposed to be about multi-media and performance, but a lot of the things we have found, they are, in one way or another, they’re recorded. And so it is a question of re-defining performance or a question of, "Well, is this still something you could call performance?" or is it multimedia art.

PK: Well it’s a big question. I felt like at the Kennedy Center it was really necessary that I be on stage and it was really necessary that I be there to click the remote. Like for me, the performance was that. But underlying all of that, it’s all multimedia. But I know we had the panel discussion at the University of Maryland on the Saturday. It was quite interesting and one of the panel chairs [a fellow Sonic Circuits performer] talked about this very thing: how is, for instance, doing a PowerBook performance, where you are just on stage and you’re just interacting with the PowerBook—I mean that’s not real impressive as a performance either. Nor can the audience even tell what you are doing or whether you are just hitting return like on the DVD. And one of the things that I thought of was that, I think we are at the stage with music now where we were with computer graphics and animation a few years ago. And then it was basically the same issue: well now we are doing the visuals in the computer and we can’t even show this work in galleries because galleries don’t have computers. So really it forced museums, galleries to start thinking about visuals in a different way. Now some places have installations where instead of presenting a performance, maybe you present an installation—say all of the Sonic Circuits pieces, or several of the pieces could be workstations set up in that environment and anyone can go to any one of the performances and you can fully interact. Because even in "Peace Streams" we didn’t get to look at all the other information on the DVD: the program notes, the artist bio, the information about the incident, the lyrics are there, that you can click on. So maybe in the music world, now, they need to think about different ways of presenting music—especially now that musicians and composers like myself are bringing visuals into it too. So the standard way of presenting a concert needs to be changed quite a bit.

Interestingly enough there’s an electro-acoustic festival coming up—I think in Richmond, I think it’s in November—and at that particular festival, on their proposal request, they have a music category, a video category and an installation category so they are willing to look at work in all different ways. So I think we really have reached an interesting point in that our presentation needs to change—or how we think about it. It doesn’t all work in the formal concert setting. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I think it’s a good thing—or it’s a new thing. It’s indicative of change—and change is important.

SA: Definitely.

PK: So…why don’t we go over here and see how the brain-wave music works and then if we have time we can look at the tracks once they are in the Digital Performer program.

SA: So basically you compose the music and then go back and do the visuals.

PK: Right—although in this case some of the visuals were being recorded with the music.

SA: Except for the scenes with the sunrise and the photographs of the woman with some firemen—is that your cousin?

PK: Yeah, that’s my cousin…so it’s kind of a mixture I guess. The final editing is more the visuals being set to the music.

Okay so the brain-wave software is called IBVA and it’s actually a hardware/software: the hardware—the electrodes are here, the wireless transmitter, there’s this little receiver box that’s connected to the computer and behind that is a translator box. So it interfaces with the receiver, the translator translates the brain waves into a signal and that is transmitted into the computer which puts them into the software.

SA: So how fast can you now get into a state where you are able to do this?

PK: Oh pretty fast—I can show you. [Getting into her headgear, working with some of the machines around her.] These are just some adjustments to affect the music.

When she first puts on the electrodes and turns on the computer, the sounds are much as she described: a low, dull pulse that glubs along at a semi-regular pace with the occasional high note randomly thrown into the mix. Her computer screen graphs the locations of the signals relative to the EEG figures over time; the graph looks like a range of stalagmites on a conveyor belt: conical points shoot up everywhere the signal becomes strong.

PK: …[motioning to the screen] If we look, we can see that Beta is the widest domain and then we go into Alpha, which is a smaller—very small—in comparison. This is—we’re moving over time—so Theta is just a small, thin bandwidth here and then Delta is along here. Okay, so this is kind of that boring "Bom, Bom, Bom," stuff, so let's see if I can change it. You know there are a lot of variables—I have to be totally comfortable.

She settles in and as she begins to concentrate, the pulses get softer and then other sounds enter the composition.

PK: I should mention here that there’s something about art that has always been the case with me and, I’m sure, other artists, that when you’re actually working on a project, it’s because you’ve been moved by something. And when you’re moved by something the brain-wave activity is just different. It takes on a different character. It’s like you’re not in the normal state.

SA: Right.

PK: So though I can affect it and make changes now—and if I were to sit long enough, we’d probably start to get some interesting things. But it really becomes interesting when there is that passionate interaction.

She then shows some of the other technical features, such as being able to speed up the rate at which the electrodes read the activity—as it gets faster, it sounds as if more and more of my upstairs neighbors are running down the stairs—and being able to go back to the graph of the session and cut and paste. She also shows some of the ways she can change the sounds from the MIDI keyboard—or even play a note on the keyboard while she is working.

SA: So you can change the sound of the instrument, but you can’t really change the notes that are played or the way that the brain-waves map onto the pitch of the music.

PK: I have worked in the past with another software—that a lot of musicians are using now—where you can create patches and then within the patches you can set up parameters so that if the values for Beta go from one point to another, if the values fall within a certain frequency range, the patch will make the signal do this thing over here, but if they call in another area, it will make this signal do this other thing. So you can set it up. And that is sometimes how I have worked in live performance, collaborating with Mark Applebaum [another Sonic Circuits artist].


SA: With the Mousekiteir? [which is a crazy looking instrument of electrified found objects that Applebaum then plays like an electrified percussion instrument. As he improvises, he is recording and can then take the certain segments that he likes and put them into a loop so that they play continuously underneath the improvisation.]

PK: Yes. We’ve actually pumped the brain-wave signal into the Mousekiteir, first sending it through another computer with a patch. So it increases the complexity of the music. But for "Peace Streams" I was really interested in composition, so I chose to work a certain way.

SA: So what other uses do you see for this technology. On the website for this brain-wave unit, they are doing things like opening drawers with it, things like that, is that something you can comment on?

PK: I could see—here’s why I am interested in performing and doing interviews about this: We need to become involved with neurological training and neurological learning—and also healing. And currently I have submitted a proposal to the national science foundation to develop a more sophisticated tool, because my ideas have gone beyond my budget. But it has to do with what I was telling you about the neurological learning part—as I was telling you, as you work with this more you gain—even without trying you gain more control over your mental activity. It’s sort of like, any exercise you do strengthens the muscles: same thing. And then you can have a little more deliberate exercises.

But even without trying, working with this, what happens is that you develop the ability to work with your brain, to program. And the side effects of that—and this is opinion, I can’t say that this is based on any science that I have found (but I am beginning to embark upon some statistical experiments to document what can happen, working with psychologists and others)—but what can happen is that the more you work with your brain like this, the more you increase your ability for non-verbal communication, psychic intuition, however you want to call that. And the more you develop the ability to do what is called "brain-wave switching" to put yourself in the particular state—which is better for doing all sorts of activities. If you were studying for an exam, you might be better off if you were working in a particular Alpha state rather than Beta, because in Beta you’re kind of alert to everything around you and when you’re studying you need to be focused. That is part of what you can learn…so if you can learn to have greater capabilities and greater control over what’s happening in the brain—and it’s really a strange thing because the brain functions normally without any effort at all, but if you put some concentrated effort into it, there’s no telling what can happen.

And I think that some of the non-verbal communication aspects will become more important in the future because I think, I perceive that in the future we’ll be having problems come up that we haven’t had to deal with before in the way of communication challenges. I think that the more we are able to learn about communicating non-verbally, the better we will be able to work to meet those challenges. And the feeling—I think there is a direct connection between the more you are able, the more time you spend in Alpha and Theta states, it increases you ability to be kind of aware of you body, to self heal, and to actually to increase—since the body-mind relationship is so closely associated—that you increase your physical ability to create energy that you can use to heal others. So I think that there is a lot of very practical use there going on with this kind of work.

SA: So you don’t see it as something purely artistic; you see this as having many more uses.

PK: Yes. For me it’s an artistic tool that works for audio and visuals and, probably—I’m working on…there’s another movement that I am working on for "Peace Streams" that is more of a "War Streams", unfortunately. But there will probably be more brain wave control on the visuals in that one. As far as the performance I am not sure.

SA: So when you say "War Streams," that’s your next project.

PK: Right, it’s the second movement to this body of work.

SA: And what is the focus there.

PK: It’s about war and there’s a peace stream that runs within the war stream and that’s done with, there is a drumming circle with three spiritual women, and the drumming is all about drumming for peace. But then the brain-wave and all the other sounds will be more aggressive, war kind of sounds, probably drumming on other kinds of drums. This seems right, I guess, because that’s where we are in the nation now—to war or not to war. It’s astounding to me that we could even be posing that question. It’s so ludicrous that we could think that war could resolve anything at this point, and very frightening.

I remember a few years ago, I heard the Dali Lama say—and this was in California, in the Shrine auditorium where they hold the Academy Awards—and I was really curious about what the Dali Lama would talk about, and I thought he would be talking about these spiritual things. And what he was talking about was this fear that we would embark on a nuclear war, and I just could not even believe at that time that that could be a consideration. And here we are now, almost with the finger on the button.

SA: So with this piece you had the spiritual healer here and the drums and so while you were doing it there was this actual synergistic thing going on; do you have anything like that planned: are you going to watch CNN while you do it?

PK: I’m not sure. Hopefully I won’t be doing it while real things are happening.

SA: Yeah hopefully it all remains hypothetical.

PK: Yeah. You know I really do believe that doing "Peace Streams"—and when I saw my cousin three weeks ago, I was able to give her a copy. But she survived with a 10% chance and we’ll never really know—but I like to believe that what we did helped. So one thing that I know has to be in the War Stream is that we have to have this women’s circle of spiritual women who will be focusing on peace so that through the whole piece, there will be peace sounds going on. But that’s where I am now. And I feel that, at this time, it really needs to be about War Streams because we are at that point—and I really don’t know what will happen and so that weighs heavy on my psyche. But I am not sure exactly what I will do in terms of the brain-wave music. I haven’t started working on it yet.

SK: Well this has been really interesting. Thanks a lot.


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