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From mind to MIDI: Jason Snell's brain-generated music system is pushing boundaries

Cedar Rapids native Jason Snell has developed an EEG system for composing music with thought. He'll demonstrate the proc
Cedar Rapids native Jason Snell has developed an EEG system for composing music with thought. He’ll demonstrate the process tonight (2/6) in a free concert at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids.

Some people think about making music, but Cedar Rapids native Jason Snell thinks to make music.

The cerebral multidisciplinary artist constructed his own EEG to MIDI system, which is dubbed “Primary Assembly,” that enables him to create and deliver music with his thoughts. The project relies on the technical groundwork of two previous projects, including a music sequence with artificial intelligence and a motion-sensor project where a dancer’s movement was converted into music.

“They were composing music with their bodies,” Snell said by phone from New York.

The inspiration for the EEG project came in 2017, courtesy of a dream.

“What came to me was the idea of using human DNA sequences as musical sequences,” he said. “After I woke up, I Googled ‘human DNA sequences,’ found them on NIH.gov and screenshot them.”

Snell began to compose music based on these DNA patterns.

“This got me focused on making music based on the fundamentals of the human body,” he said.

Soon afterward, he found a Muse, a commercially available EEG headband. He hacked into it and developed a test to see whether his brain could trigger a note on a synthesizer.

“I stared at the synthesizer and saw the note-trigger light turn on,” he said. “It was surreal, like doing telekinesis. I knew that once I was able to make a note, I could eventually make a whole symphony.”

His EEG biosensor will be used when he performs tonight (2/6) at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids.

“It’s exciting, since I’ve come a long way from where I started,” he said. “I created algorithms to convert my thoughts into music. The first one was very simple. It was a note on and off, but now I can perform up to an hour. My brain will shape the music composed for the (CSPS) show.”

Snell will perform for 20 minutes. He’ll then introduce the project and explain what it’s about. He’ll hold a Q&A afterward.

“I typically have an avalanche of questions after I perform,” he said.

A recent question he received asked how creating the system has changed him.

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“I feel something is changing within my psychic space,” he said. “It’s helped me understand the brain and consciousness more. I enjoy talking about this at my events and see what ideas come up from the audience as they process what they just saw.

“Every show is different because I keep evolving the system to be more nuanced and more complex. As it evolves, I have more control over the shape, mood and density of the composition.”

The Jefferson High School dropout, who earned a journalism and graphic design degree at the University of Iowa, spends considerable time in New York and Berlin. However, Cedar Rapids remains his home base.

“I really enjoy being in Cedar Rapids, since it’s a great place for me to think clearly,” he said. “The noise in New York makes it harder to focus. I can get meditative in Cedar Rapids, which is essential for me.”

It’s no surprise that Snell is a fan of experimental music, including pioneer composer Alvin Lucier. The longtime Wesleyan (Conn.) University professor crafts experimental music and sound installations that explore acoustic phenomena and auditory perception.

“Lucier was the first to use an EEG to trigger sounds during the mid-’60s,” Snell said. “I’ve also been inspired by Brian Eno, and more recently 404. zero, an obscure Russian duo who are incredibly innovative. I’ve always been drawn to pushing the boundaries of my music. Now I’m pushing the boundaries of my mind.”

Get Out!

• What: Jason Snell: EEG-to-Music

• Where: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7:30 p.m. today (2/6)

• Admission: Free; donations accepted

• Artist’s website: Jasonjsnell.com/

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