Body Noises: Austin composers and medical scientists collaborate on “Biosounds” performance

For the 20th installment of "SoundSpace," the Blanton’s enormously popular music and performance series, musicians pair up with researchers from Dell Medical School


Although the Blanton Museum of Art and Dell Medical School stand only blocks apart, visitors to the University of Texas’s vast campus might be surprised by the collaborative relationship between the two institutions. At first glance, the scientific measurements and computations associated with medical research appear galaxies apart from the fluid, creative processes of the arts.

But what artistic adventures could emerge if those worlds were to collide?

Steve Parker, artistic director of the SoundSpace series at the Blanton Museum of Art, addresses that question. On Nov. 4, “BioSounds” — the twentieth installment of the Blanton’s enormously popular music and performance series — showcases cross-disciplinary collaborations between Austin’s music community and Dell Medical School.

Every work on the “BioSounds” program draws inspiration from the human body. Some incorporate data collected by medical researchers and students, including heart rate readings and brainwave measurements. Others comment on the many ways our bodies respond to the external environment, reacting to changes in volume, pressure, and the physical space around us.

Part of the fun in curating “Biosounds” came in pairing composers and musicians with partners from Dell Medical School.

“We are always interested in finding ways to facilitate new artistic partnerships,” says Parker, explaining his vision for the program. “We sought out artists who are particularly enthusiastic about cross-sector collaboration.”

The partnership between between guitarist and composer Thomas Echols and Dell Medical School student Taylor A. Smyth was one such success. Together, the pair created “Polygraphonium” a work that uses biofeedback readings to determine the sounds the audience will hear. Custom software and circuitry measures muscle tension, heart rate, and changes in the skin, then converts those readings into music.

Parker also recruited composers who have already established partnerships with the scientific community and are actively creating music inspired by the human body. Composer Graham Reynolds and cellist James Burch will premiere “The Brain”, a work for cello and electronics that was composed in collaboration with Kristen Harris, a professor of neuroscience at UT Austin.

The piece is part of Reynolds’ recent project, “The Sound of Science,” a collection of eight new musical works inspired by scientists and their research. (“The Sound of Science” the project will have its full world premiere in New York on Nov. 10.)

Some pieces on the “BioSounds” program encourage audience participation. Austin-based string quartet invoke will perform a new interactive work inspired by the board game Operation. As audience members play through the game, treating ailments like ailments like “butterflies in the stomach” and “broken heart”, their choices will be translated into musical segments performed by the quartet.

Most SoundSpace programs incorporate artistic disciplines beyond the musical realm, bringing in dancers, performance artists, and many others. “BioSounds” continues that interdisciplinary thread. Composer Jason Cella and dancer Rosalyn Nasky will perform a duet that combines layers of electronic music with movement the pair describes as “stark and anatomical”.

The unexpected and unconventional nature of the “BioSounds” lineup blends well with the mission of the SoundSpace series. Created in 2010, the program brings local composers, musicians, and movement artists to the Blanton for three events every year, always held on Sunday afternoons. Each SoundSpace program centers around a theme. Past events explored diverse topics like extreme weather, the history of radio, and the refugee experience.

With SoundSpace, Parker endeavors to engage audiences in a way that has them flowing through the galleries and exploring the museum. Performers are scattered through the Blanton’s many public spaces, from the vast light-filled atrium to intimate exhibition spaces where the action plays out just a few steps away.

The SoundSpace experience unfolds like an artistic treasure hunt. Audience members are encouraged to move between performances and experience the music at their own pace.

For Ray Williams, the Blanton’s Director of Education, creating these types of experiences expands the concept of the art museum beyond the visual realm. “We’re very interested in the museum space as a place that is changing, that is a site for creativity, that welcomes different kinds of people for different kinds of experiences,” Williams explains.

“It’s about creating a multi-sensory environment. Even though the art museum is going to privilege visual experience, we want to be aware of the whole body, mind, and spirit that comes with every visitor. We hope to touch them in a meaningful way that connects with their life and the things they care about.”

“BioSounds” isn’t the first collaboration between the Blanton and Dell Medical School. Every year, Williams welcomes first-year medical students into the Blanton for guided museum visits designed to stretch their creativity and emotional intelligence. “They come three times a year for museum experiences that build their skills of observation, empathetic communication, and resilience,” says Williams. “It’s cool to have SoundSpace resonate with the teaching that we do with the physicians and nurses.”

“I feel excited about the opportunity for medical researchers and students to partner on creative projects like the pieces in ‘BioSounds,’” he continues.

“I think sometimes their work is so science-oriented, and also so oriented towards preparing for the next exam or hurdle in their training. It’s a great opportunity to be able to partner with somebody wonderfully creative like Steve Parker on something that’s resonant with their professional concerns. That’s a process that stretches them and reminds them of their creative selves.”

Dana Wen
Dana Wen
Dana Wen is a pianist and arts writer based in Austin, Texas. She enjoys writing about new music and helping audiences discover their favorite living composers.

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