Danish String Quartet for RITMO’s MusicLab concert (© PR-foto)

AMPS committee member Natalie Peluso spoke to Simon Høffding – philosopher and “phenomenologist gone rogue” – whose PhD on musical absorption spearheaded this concert, to find out more.

Studying the effects of music in genuine performance contexts can be expensive and challenging. But for the past five years, MusicLab – an innovation project by RITMO and the University of Oslo Library – has been trying a different approach.

Central to MusicLab is the idea of open science and sharing data. Around three times a year, MusicLab stages a concert in a public venue with a live audience, but the concert is also the focus of study. Each event features a panel discussion with world-leading researchers and artists, and “data jockeying” in the form of live data analysis of recorded data after the show.

Better still, each concert is investigated by multiple teams who all come with their own research hypotheses, and so can use the same data to investigate different aspects of music performance.

In October 2021, MusicLab featured a concert by The Danish String Quartet, staged in Copenhagen, to explore musical absorption. The concert was also streamed live on YouTube and on Danish radio station P2, with remote viewers able to interact via an app.

I spoke Simon Høffding – philosopher and “phenomenologist gone rogue” – whose PhD on musical absorption spearheaded this concert, to find out more.

Natalie: Obviously I was very drawn to your project. I loved that it was a concert as a concert, and you were letting the musicians do their thing in a natural setting with the audience being able to participate. How were the Danish String Quartet wired up and what was being measured?

Simon Høffding: For the first half, they’re just wearing heart rate monitors, and there was a 360-degree camera in the chandelier, just above their heads. Luckily, Alexander Jensenius, who’s deputy director at the RITMO, specialises in those kinds of motion capture systems. The second half of the concert was a lot more invasive, because they’re wearing eye tracking glasses that measure pupil size and direction, wearing lycra suits with reflective markers, which gives an even more precise motion capture data. 

Natalie: But this was more than just a concert, yes?

Simon Høffding: The idea was that I just wanted to enable a platform in which my colleagues could do the work that they wanted to do. So, everyone else was Principal Investigator of something they wanted to investigate, and we provided the platform to do an investigation. For example, how the audience are responding to listening to a certain piece of music. And almost all the audience members were wearing a phone strapped to their chest, tracing micro movements, and we’re also very close to getting a reliable measure of breathing.

Natalie: How?

Simon Høffding: You can record this pattern of the chest expanding and contracting. But it’s very difficult because as soon as you lean forward, the phone just hangs in free air, and you no longer get that contact. There’s a lot of work to clean up that data.

Natalie: That creates its own problems as well, doesn’t it? 

Simon Høffding: Yeah. And with designated heart rate sensors, it’s already tricky enough to get the heart rate signal. I mean, it’s just so incredibly difficult to do this stuff. You get so much data failure; sometimes one will fall out for one reason and when you’re trying to measure heart rate synchronization between four musicians and you only get three, then… 

When you have 25 people working several months full time on something like this, and you move 15 of those people, you fly them into another city with a whole series of bags, full of very, very expensive equipment, then having the kind of concert that we had is not sufficiently reliable to justify that amount of work. Because the risk of the data failure is too high and because you cannot replicate or reproduce anything that goes on the concert. 

So, we had another section in the morning without an audience in a more controlled experiment, with all these different technologies while they’re playing the same piece under five or six different conditions.

Natalie: That’s sensible. 

Simon Høffding: I mean, you need a lot of supportive colleagues. And you need some very good engineers who are happy to spend a long time planning these things.

Natalie: Of course. Did you seek those out yourself?

Simon Høffding: I mean, how do you? No, they were all employed at RITMO. It’s the most amazing place, which means you can do rather unusual things. And they’re also very free spirited and have a very strong position on making open science, democratic citizenship, and participatory science, to get away from pay walls.

Ultimately, I’m interested in understanding a particular phenomenon. And when you put that into the lab, then you’re no longer looking at that phenomenon, you’re looking at something else… But you can’t just do these kinds of concerts because while you get loads of data, it’s very, very hard to replicate.

You have all kinds of different compromises where you both stress test the equipment and the people. The psychologists are basically trained to think in terms of replication and if you can’t do that, then it doesn’t count for good science, whatsoever. But the other paradigm that you get from phenomenology – but also in many kinds of other psychology – is that you need ecological validity. All these millions of studies we have with musicians tapping their fingers in scanners and playing little plastic pianos and stuff… I just don’t think it has anything to do with what we are trying to understand, but that’s just my opinion.

Natalie: It is very challenging. What inspired you to study musical absorption?

Simon Høffding: One of the core questions in phenomenology is – what is a self? And what is the role of self-consciousness to consciousness? It occurred to me that many musicians report a kind of exalted state where they’re not aware of what’s going on. Afterwards they just know that it was amazing, but they weren’t there consciously. And that experience shouldn’t be possible on a phenomenological take because there should always be some level of pre reflective self-awareness, even if you’re not reflecting upon your bodily self. So, I wanted to investigate these experiences of self-awareness in musical absorption, which was the topic of my PhD. What I found out is the way musical absorption of flow has been treated is extremely superficial. There are many different interlinking states that need to be disentangled first: the relations between planning, reflecting, bodily self-awareness, memory – all of those have different constellations in each of these states.

So that was basically the starting point, and RITMO provided the opportunity to make that investigation in terms of the physiology and ask how are these absorption states represented? What might be the relation between breathing or heart rate synchronization in an audience listening to music, or the different ways of tuning in with one another that you experience as a performer?

One of the big visions I’m working with is creating a kind of international community where artists and researchers work together and share all their art and science freely. A big international platform where everyone can upload the data and the videos to make an enormous database of how it is that music shapes consciousness and humanity… it’s a very, very ambitious project and very idealistic and, and who knows where if we’ll ever find the funding. But it’s a fascinating way of doing science and the classical arts are just under so much pressure, and at the same time we know how valuable they are. We need a big interdisciplinary science to account for those changes.

Visit MusicLab Copenhagen: Absorption with The Danish String Quartet to learn more about the concert, the philosophy behind MusicLab’s Open Science and to watch behind-the-scenes videos.