NeuroCantos: Composer’s Statement

NeuroCantos Soundscape:  Susan Alexjander, 2015

The brain is a busy place…its activity never stops. Sensations continually play in our heads, creating whimsical patterns and connecting us to the external world as we go. Although we usually call these activities thoughts, for me they are also like little mantras (‘cantos’ means ‘songs’)….sonic events from the unconscious as it tries out new ideas, stirring and re-forming to bring just the right mix of meaning to our conscious mind.

Consciousness, in fact, represents only the tiniest fraction of the sensory information our brains actually receive through our eyes, ears, taste, touch, etc. Every second our senses take in the staggering amount of eleven million bits of information, but only about seventy-seven bits ever make it to our conscious awareness…the rest is unconscious, or subliminal. Who or What, then, is doing the sorting? Who decides what is meaningful and what should be discarded? Who is the master sculptor behind the curtain? This is the ultimate, fascinating mystery.

I decided to include spoken language, specifically the poetry of Steven J. Fowler and quotes by neuro-anatomist/artist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, because words are so like the bits of meaning that float to the surface and manifest, often in incomplete form, to our awareness. Cajal’s art and his marvelous insights and descriptions of the brain (he is considered to be the father of modern neuroscience) have long inspired sculptor Rebecca Kamen who envisioned this project. Also I could not resist including an elegant Castilian accent as well as the original Spanish. Cajal (Joe Brise) is the steady ground and ‘inner voice’ of the soundscape as he guides us to ponder the Universe…”As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain, will also be a mystery.” He concludes with a radical and exciting idea: “Any man could, if he were so determined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”

The other (very busy) voice in counterpoint is Steven J. Fowler, British poet, who generously allowed me to use his earlier written correspondences (also called Neurocantos) with Rebecca Kamen as they, together, pondered the nature of mind. The voice you hear is his own.

Both Fowler and Cajal make many references to the mysteries of the Universe, and to “patterns of as above, so below.” This is an important theme for us in Continuum; our installations reflect the inner and outer realities of the brain and cosmos (Portal) as they weave together a dance of ‘butterflies and black holes.’ Sounds include NASA space sounds and neuronal activity with generous permission from the laboratories of neuroscientists Alain Destexhe, France, and Nelson Spruston, Janelia Research Lab, Ashburn, Virginia.