MRI SYNTH – Composition

“Our brain is a work, and we do not know it”.[1] My composition, MRI SYNTH, is a literal and synaptic representation of networks and flows on a much more rapid and spontaneous time scale than ‘Yafo’ or ‘La Mer.’   The immediacy of this composition is reflected through the improvisatory nature of my application. The MRI videos of my brain were recorded for research conducted by neuroscientist Dr. Saloni Krishnan at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. Dr. Krishnan was specifically interested in how the brains of guitarists and beat-boxers respond to music.  As I have previously stated, Malabou quotes Marx, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.  Both ‘Yafo’ and ‘La Mer’ have many more elements transmitted from the past, than my last piece.  By manipulating my brain activity, I am illustrating Malabou’s concept of ‘sculpting’ or ‘making our own brains’ – as recorded in the MRI scanner and in the composition itself.  The MRI scan of my brain is a scientific mapping of my consciousness and in manipulating this brain activity it is possible to argue that I am doubly conscious in this musical composition. Similarly to my other compositions, ‘Yafo’ and ‘La Mer’, there is an element of time-shift, whereby my MRI scan was conducted a few months ago, yet the audiovisual work I have created is immediate, in the present and can be performed any number of times (with a MIDI controller), with varying outcomes and compositional possibilities. Initially, the musical textures were determined by the image of my brain as a graph, whereby pitch was scaled via the Y axis, and amplitude dependent on brightness.  The structure of the piece, although partly improvised follows a predetermined form. Firstly, the sagittal, axial and coronal images of my brain will individually control the five synthesizers constructed in Max MSP. The sagittal, axial and coronal images are then mixed, time-stretched and reversed; all of which determining the music.

In both cases, the brain appears at once as progressively sculpted, stabilised, and divided into different regions – as something formed and formative as described by Malabou’s term ‘plasticity’: little by little to the extent that the volume of connections grows, the identity of an individual begins to outline itself.   However, the more time passes, the more this ‘first plasticity’ loses its determinist rigor. Malabou may describe this as the ‘sculptor’ gradually beginning to ‘improvise’.[2] What I am doing is showing the outline, and secondly sculpting/improvising which demonstrates the brains plasticity (i.e. manipulating the visual image as well as sculpting a musical representation).  ‘Science’, and here, in particular my MRI, is researching visual representations, however I am illustrating the ‘networks and flows’ of neuron activity through sonic representations. My brain has been interpreted visually, and I am expressing the human networks and flows of neurons.   Malabou states that, “what should we do with our brain? is not a question reserved for philosophers, for scientists, or for politicians – it is a question for everyone.”[3]  In this composition I intended to illustrate that a musical interpretation of brain ‘plasticity’ might well be more immediately accessible than scientific or philosophical discourse.

Malabou states that plasticity fundamentally ‘contradicts rigidity’ In other words, it “designates suppleness, a faculty for adaption, the ability to evolve.”[4] She also uses the term as meaning plastique which describes an explosive capability.  The plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, ‘formable,’ and formative at the same time. ‘Plasticity’ is situated between two extremes; the image of taking form or ‘sculpting’, but also the annihilation of all form such as an ‘explosion’.  However, Malabou claims that rather than this being detrimental to progress, it can also be dynamically generative.  The dissonant and seemingly catastrophic ‘explosions’ in my composition, which show a disruption of the visual movement on the MRI sound like ‘feedback’, but rather than destroy the composition, constitute moments which seemingly re-new and recreate the connections of the synapses as symbolized by the flashing green lines on the screen.  The fact that I am able to create and recreate this composition by manipulating the MRI illustrates a layering of consciousness and arrives at what Jeannerod describes as a  ‘new freedom’ associated with Malabou’s theory of brain plasticity and the ability to “[impose] our own organization on the world rather than submitting to the influences of a milieu”.[5]


In the introduction to What should we do with our Brain?, Marc Jeannerod states:

“The analogy between cerebral organization and socioeconomic organization should thus, at the very least, lead us to an awareness of the relation between the subject and his brain.  Abandoning the thesis of a rigid, predetermined, directing organ for the thesis of a supple, adaptable, plastic organ permits the political emancipation of the brain, the transition from a “soviet” to a “liberal” brain.  But what is the consequence of this conceptual reversal for each individual?  The brain has not changed.  Humans in the Middle Ages, the Industrial Revolution, and the liberal revolution all have had the same brain, with the same capacities for learning and adaption”. [6]

In response to this one could argue that what changes is the organization of society, the outcome of such organizational forces and macroscopic, epigenetic interactions over which the brain has little influence.  Thus the problem is, rather, that of understanding how an individual brain may respond to the challenges of its social, cultural and physical environment. Malabou positions her book at the center of this questioning.  For her, the brain makes possible the fundamental organic coherence of our personality, our self.  The self is the result, the reflection, of the ordered functioning of the neuronal networks and flows comprising the brain.[7] Thus my portfolio demonstrates my own understanding of epigenetic stimuli, and a personal response to my own experienced social environments.



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FINEBERG, J. (2000) ‘Spectral music’, Contemporary Music Review, 19(2), pp. 1–5. doi: 10.1080/07494460000640221

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JEANNEROD, Marc in Introduction to Malabou, C. (2008) What should we do with our brain?. New York: Fordham University Press

MALABOU, C. (2008) What should we do with our brain?. New York: Fordham University Press

MULDER, J. (2013) ‘Sound Resources: Environmental Installation’, Leonardo Music Journal, 23(23), pp. 18–19. doi: 10.1162/lmj_a_00145

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Sonic Postcards (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 19 June 2015)

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[1] Malabou, C. (2008) What should we do with our Brain?  New York: Fordham University Press. p.12

[2] Malabou, C. (2008) What should we do with our Brain?  New York: Fordham University Press.  p.20.

[3] Ibid. p.11

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jeannerod, Marc in Introduction to Malabou, C. (2008) What should we do with our Brain?   p.xiv.

[6] Jeannerod, Marc in Introduction to Malabou, C. (2008) What should we do with our Brain?

[7] Ibid. p.xiii-xiv