Stuart McLeod—EEG wiz.
Stuart McLeod—EEG wiz. Stuart McLeod

Stuart McLeod and Brain Trust's May 21 show at the Rendezvous' Jewelbox Theater represents the rare chance to witness Music for Guitar Orchestra and Brain Waves, which is exactly what it says on the tin. To realize this monumental work, which is partially guided by the patterns generated by McLeod's brain waves, the Seattle drummer/percussionist/composer enlisted four guitarists (Rob Henson, Korby Sears, Mark Schlipper, Guy Whitmore) and two bassists (Barbara Trentalange, Marc Laurick) to perform the piece. After the jump, McLeod—who also creates minimalist electronic music; check out the spellbinding Tetraktys—explains how this unusual concept and concert came into being.

The Stranger: What factors led to this piece coming into being?
McLeod: I've long wanted to automate the aspects of music that strike me as arbitrary and compose the parts that seem logical. I'm doing this with both the guitar orchestra pieces and the brain wave pieces. The overarching structure is often composed and the details are left to the performers. "Algorhythm 2," for example, is a process piece. The score is a flow chart. I play a neurosynth and the guitarists imitate it and each other creating layers of feedback loops. The other end of the spectrum are the three Suspended Movements. The music is entirely written out, but the guitarists choose how to play the chords and lead parts.

What is your goal with this work? Do you view it as a conduit to feelings of transcendence?
I create music where I don't have total control and so have that Cageian moment of surprise. I like to automate music so that I too can immerse myself in it and be a listener as well as a performer. That perfect moment is when time stops. Your hands may be moving around the drums, but you aren't thinking about what you are playing. Your mind is elsewhere. It is transcendence.

What were your directions to your band?
The band is given scores that range from written instructions and flowcharts, no notes, to scores like Terry Riley's In C (a big influence) with written musical cells, but the players assemble the piece, to through-composed pieces that still give the performers choice.

I hear a lot of Rhys Chatham’s majestic tones and irrepressible propulsion (at times) in the Suspended Movement tracks. Would you say he influenced you? If so, what is it about his music that appeals to you?
Rhys Chatham is definitely an influence on the Suspended Movements. I'm not using special tunings like Glenn Branca and I like the heavier motorik beat with Chatham. I like group sound, mass sound. I achieve this by having lots of players cycling through self-similar fragments. Or performers all playing so fast that it smears into one sound mass. Or having no solo/lead/melodic parts so listeners have to pay attention to the “background.” Or just using lots of reverb.

McLeods Brain Trust rehearse, mindfully.
McLeod's Brain Trust rehearse, mindfully.

Photo by Marc Laurick

What do your brain waves sound like? Meaning, how does a listener discern them in the music? Does what you actually think about influence the sounds?
The piece "neuropera" is a non-verbal opera of the mind. It's a meditation on the nature of identity. Do we control our thoughts or are we just observers to our thoughts? Is there even an "I"? I've programmed certain parts of the piece using the freeware puredata like when to switch synth patches or what content will be operated on and then transmit my brain waves via EEG headset to my laptop. The software translates my various attention vs. meditation levels into numbers, which are then used to make decisions as to what images to show, which supertitles to show, which MIDI notes to play and how fast, etc., and this then projects onto the screen and drives my synthesizer. I've wanted to do a piece like this since I first heard Alvin Lucier's Music for Solo Performer.

What else do you have on the horizon this year, musically speaking?
The next project I'm thinking about is adding my drums into the mix. So play drums along to my brain waves while doing live sound processing and be my own one-man band.