Does Wagner do your head in?

Does Wagner do your head in?

The Transforming Musicology team was in much evidence at last week's performances of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Birmingham Hippodrome (5-9 November). With the invaluable support of the Hippodrome, we have been able to capture physical data from at least seven participants for each opera, six of whom valiantly attended all four operas - a total of some 15 hours! Seated together in excellent seats in row K, they were able to enjoy the full operatic experience, which, to judge by their comments we heard in the intervals and after each show, was pretty intense. The Shimmer3 devices each wore on a wrist seem to have performed perfectly, and don't seem to have become uncomfortable, even over the two-hour stretches of the longest acts. These measured three basic types of data: galvanic skin response (GSR), heart rate (HR), and their micro-movements in three dimensions.

As well as all this physical data, which was automatically stored on SD cards built into the Shimmer3s, our brave Wagner expert, Oxford DPhil student Carolin Rindfleisch, was in a corner of the lighting control room maintaining a log (itself automatically timestamped) of operatic 'events' on stage and in the orchestra pit. To make this happen, our Oxford team have been developing some special software which we shall continue improving during the rest of Transforming Musicology, as it undoubtedly is going to find lots of other uses for anyone studying performance arts where timing is crucial. This data, albeit subjective (Carolin could hardly be expected to log every single minor event that might or might not affect some or all audience members), is in itself remarkably rich, including details of lighting and scenery changes, significant character entrances/exits and moves, even the singers' gestures.

The past week has mostly been taken up with getting all this data into shape for the rigorous statistical analysis which we hope will reveal a great deal about how our volunteer subjects reacted to Wagner's music-drama, both individually and collectively. The first big task, which has taken up most of the time, has been to ensure that all the various sources of timed data are in synchronisation so that we can be sure that an event logged at time t on device/source a refers to the same time-point t on all the other devices/sources. This is surprisingly tricky to do, and we are fortunate that we could rely on an internet connection from which we could obtain UTC, for our master computer. Aligning the Shimmer devices was done by asking the subjects to clap together about five minutes before the start of each opera; this shows up on each device as an extreme set of movement data-points, while the sound of the clap was relayed to our control room by walkie-talkie. After adjusting for the small differences and lags between the devices, the walkie-talkies and our internet connections, we are now confident that we know precisely when (in terms of time-offset and vocal-score page) each event occurred so we can begin looking for patterns of correlation between score and data, as well as between subjects.

We'll be showing off our first results, and some preliminary interpretations of them, both psychological and musicological, at our Hearing Wagner event in the national Being Human Festival, next Saturday 22 November. This is also happening at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where we've been lucky in obtaining the services of the world-famous neuroscientist, Sir Colin Blakemore, who will act as our host for the day. Sir Colin, who coincidentally is the Principal Investigator on a parallel AHRC Large Grant project, Rethinking the Senses, just happens to be a great Wagner fan, and hugely enjoyed Siegfried at the Hippodrome on Saturday 8 November. He'll be asking the intriguing question, "Was Wagner a neuroscientist?" I can't wait to see what, exactly, this means; something along the lines, "How does Wagner do your head in?", I assume.

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