A sense of connection

'Something New in Sight & Sound' offers a collaborative concert experience

Most music lovers would agree that music is not only an auditory sensation but an emotional one as well. "Something New in Sight & Sound" seeks to celebrate that ear-heart-mind connection with an innovative, interactive blend of live music, visual art, emotional feedback and -- this is Silicon Valley, after all -- an app.

"Something New in Sight & Sound," which will hold its debut concert at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View on Saturday, June 18, is a collaboration between local musicians Justin Schrum and Hazel Keelan, who will play three works by the English composer John Ireland (1879-1962). While they perform, Caroline Mustard (of the Mobile Art Academy) will create and display digital art inspired by Ireland's "Three Pastels."

Audience members will have an active role as well. In addition to creating their own digital art, they can use a new app, Sensemo (developed by the Menlo Park company Vtricity), to share their emotional responses to the music in real time, as well as gain some insights into the minds of the musicians.

"Getting people inspired by something different, that's the plan," violinist Keelan said.

John Ireland's highly emotional, Impressionist compositions were a major influence on the project's development, and pianist Schrum, who said he's been "obsessed" by Ireland's music for years, is eager to shed new light on the composer's work. Keelan, originally from the U.K., teaches with Schrum at a school in Sunnyvale and happened upon him playing an Ireland piece about a year ago. The two soon hatched collaboration plans, with Keelan especially fascinated to learn that Schrum experiences synesthesia the phenomenon in which one type of sensory stimulation or cognitive perception leads involuntarily to another. In Schrum's case, he senses colors with music. The two pondered what it would be like if audiences could see the colors Ireland's music brings to Schrum's mind. Would that forge a greater connection between the musicians and their listeners?

Schrum worked with Sensemo creator Peter Ebert to program the app so that the colors displayed on the audience's devices correspond with those Schrum experiences at certain points of the music. Being able to convey a bit of his synesthesia "brings a whole new level of comfort as a musician. It's beautiful to be a part of," he said.

App users are also able to select -- from a wheel of choices including "amazed," "peaceful," "sad" and "cold" -- words that express their own emotional response to the music, as well as choose colors to add to the collective projection, and trace colored lines and shapes onto Sensemo's Tetris-like grid (which are also visible to everyone using it). Sensemo, Ebert said, is "the world's first instant emotion-feedback cloud." Attendees can download and install the app upon arrival at the show.

"All audiences are allowed to do at (a typical) classical concert is clap," he said. "We would like to create an environment where they can instantly share their emotions with others, including the performers."

He said it could bring up some interesting insights, such as whether getting real-time feedback from the audience changes the way the musicians play, how people from different cultural backgrounds respond differently, and how the colors Schrum perceives differ from those selected by the audience.

"All these emotions become visible in the room and you can share and have conversations about it; that's the big dream," Ebert said.

The June 18 concert will be Keelan's first-ever recital as a soloist (she usually performs in orchestras or chamber groups), and while she's nervous, she's interested to find out whether the connection between her and the audience will have a positive impact on her anxiety -- and her performance.

"It's way bigger than two people playing. It's more about inspiring people, and bringing community to a project," she said. "It's not about how good or bad I am as a player ... the idea is that everybody gets something amazing out of it."

The team hopes to build on the project for future endeavors, including broadcasting performances via live stream (so people can listen, watch and contribute from anywhere) and exploring musical improvisation based on the colors and emotions expressed by listeners.

"We would love to get people's ideas on our next steps," Keelan said.

The team has also been trying out the music and mobile-art pairing by performing at social gatherings and in classes throughout the community, with everyone from young children to senior citizens. At a recent rehearsal in Menlo Park, Keelan and Schrum played while a small group of listeners tried using an iPad sketch program and experimented with Sensemo's features. As the music changed from a slower, placid style to a lively, joyful one, the words on the screen began to switch from "peaceful" to "anxious" and "cheerful," transforming as they rained down from blues and purples into sunny, golden yellows.

"The project started from (Schrum's) passion for this composer and became this bigger vision of, 'How can we bring this all together so the audience will be part of the performance in a new way, to transform what a classical concert could be like?' We're just, like, buzzing with excitement," Keelan said. Her enthusiasm, delivered with a bright smile and British accent, is contagious.

"Hazel inspires people to do things they wouldn't have tried otherwise," said Lisa Martinez, an artist and docent with the Los Altos School District who was so moved by Keelan and Schrum's visit to an art class (taught by Mustard) that she ended up becoming the project's graphic designer and helped coordinate workshops. She said she loves the feeling of creating visual art while absorbing music.

"You can see your hand creating the brush stroke as that music ebbs and flows ... you stop worrying about what you're creating and you just listen without thinking," she said.

And while some might feel trying to chronicle their emotions via a technical device distracts from the musical experience, Martinez said there is great value in the interactive aspects of "Something New in Sight & Sound."

"For the audience to be able to emote their feelings and see what they're feeling up on the screen, that's going to really generate more excitement," she said. "Audience reaction might be stronger if they know the artists are reacting to how they feel about it."

Martinez is especially enthusiastic about inclusivity, dispelling the notion that classical music is best suited to a stuffy, formal atmosphere.

"I've been to classical concerts where you have to shush, and you can't bring your kids. I really feel strongly that I can bring my 8-year-old and he can be on that iPad, realizing that classical music is really amazing," she said. "They are free to be creative, participate and, hopefully, say, 'I like classical music and this is cool.'"

What: "Something New in Sight & Sound"

When: Saturday, June 18, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Community School of Music and Arts at Finn Center, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View

Cost: Tickets are $10 adults/$5 kids and seniors.

Info: Go to Sight&Sound.


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