Creative researcher merges ASMR with Opera

ASMR Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response UniversityLee Scott fulfills three roles at Bath Spa University in the UK as an educator, digital technologist and graduate student.

He is a creative researcher in digital media, the subject leader of Creative Computing, and a Ph.D. candidate in interactive experiences for web and mobile devices in the School of Humanities and Cultural Industries.

Lee also has a deep interest in opera.  And this is not your grandmother’s opera – this is “new opera”.

New opera is technically-mastered, digitally-optimized, emotionally-charged, story-driven, and carefully coded for internet delivery, smart device consumption, and headphone immersion.

New opera may remind you of another type of sensorial and emotional experience, and Lee would agree.

Lee’s other deep interest is ASMR, and so he collaborated with the ASMR artist adreambeam to produce the digital-based web opera, “The Village.”

Another advantage of delivering and experiencing opera through electronic media is that Lee was able to research and analyze viewer behaviors associated with the ASMR aspects of his digital opera.

In my interview with Lee he shares how the collaboration with the ASMR artist adreambeam developed, the relationship between ASMR and opera, his insights on frisson vs ASMR, his development of an ASMR and opera-themed game, research data from his web opera, and more.

Below are my questions in bold, Lee’s answers in italics, and several links so you can learn more about Lee, the artist adreambeam, digital opera, and sample some of Lee’s ASMR-infused digital opera.

What is digital opera?

Lee, “Digital opera can be characterised as an emerging body of work that collides computing, creativity and the operatic form.  Qualifying outputs retain or transform certain qualities of opera; combining modes of storytelling, music making, interactivity, collaboration and distribution that reflect the sociocultural themes and production practices of digital culture.

There are many recent live performance works that could be described as ‘digital opera’.  Examples include Scott Deal and Matthew Burtner’s, Auksalaq (2012), a ‘telematic’ opera delivered across several interconnected, but globally distributed venues that share musical materials in near real time; and Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers (2012), a robot opera where the protagonist governs all scenographic elements via a complex matrix of gestural and biometric sensors.

My particular area of interest is new opera conceived for and delivered via digital platforms such as the Internet, smartphones and wearable technologies.  In this domain, there exist operas that engage social media (Rossum’s Universal Replicants, Martin Rieser & Andrew Hugill 2014), that adopt web-based collaborative production methods (Free Will, Opera By You 2013; Libertaria, Sabrina Pena Young 2013), and that exploit the interactive, and ‘always on’ nature of mobile devices (You Are Here, Jaakko Nousiainen & Miika Hyytiäinen 2014).”

What is the relationship between ASMR and digital opera?

Lee, “ASMR and opera compliment one another very well in my opinion, although such a pairing may not be immediately obvious.  It all reduces down to the role of the voice in each discipline.

For me, the operatic voice is a primary carrier of human expression within the form.  It not only reveals the story, but it serves to shape the way we respond emotionally to it.  The operatic voice is a powerful tool for generating affect.

The ASMRtist has similar intentions.  She exploits her voice as a vehicle for expression, where her goal is to incite physiological reaction.  The ASMRtist, like the opera singer, attempts to communicate to her audience through more than just the words she utters.  Her goals are to construct an affective experience – perhaps even a transformative event – through the way she delivers such words.

Opera traditionally employs several distinct styles of singing.  One style is ‘bel canto’, or lyrical/beautiful singing, which was favoured particularly by composers within the classical and romantic opera canon.  This style of singing not only helped to put forward the emotional weight and dramatic nature of a particular narrative, but it ensured that opera singers could be heard above expansive, loud orchestras.

As audio amplification entered theatres, and as digital media became commonplace in opera production, new styles of operatic singing began to emerge.  Composers (and performers) now investigate the texture of the human voice as an expressive force (One, Michel Van de Aa 2003); some dispatching recognisable words altogether in order to focus attention on the voice as a generator of sound objects (see Erin Gee’s non-semantic vocal compositions).

Free from the limitations of big, bold dynamics, the operatic voice can explore new modes of expression.  Modes that are perhaps more intimate, and internalised in nature.

This is the environment in which my ASMR music exists.  I’m interested in creating opera that is designed specifically for delivery via headphones.  With this mode of listening, I find that the more familiar styles of opera singing translate poorly – they are too strong, or too full.

The smaller sounds, quieter sounds, subtler sounds that ASMR trigger videos present are, in contrast incredibly well suited to headphone reproduction.  If you add smartphones into the picture, which can offer highly personal, one-to-one interactions, all of a sudden we access a side of opera that is intimate, close, and nuanced.  This is the territory I’m attempting to explore.”

What do you view as the similarities and differences between frisson and ASMR? Do your operas invoke both?

Lee, “I see some distinction, however I appreciate why other people might view them as sides of the same coin.

For a while I concluded that musical frisson was linked closely to the climactic – perhaps unlike ASMR.  This is because I often get ‘chills’ at the opera (usually Puccini operas), typically as the power and emotional intensity of the music peaks, and then gently falls away.

But then again, I experience musical frisson outside of this context.  For instance, when revisiting the music I grew up listening to – when being reacquainted with certain lyrics, melodies and progressions that used to, and still do, resonate with me on an emotional level.  This scenario reveals a more personal dimension to the phenomenon.

When discussed in this context, musical frisson doesn’t seem too different to ASMR, which can be inward looking and highly intimate.  The differences are more evident for me when I compare the physiological sensations that each phenomenon triggers.

I find musical frisson totally overwhelming. I get goosebumps.  It hits me as a wave, travelling from head to toe.  ASMR is more localised, far subtler, and far more sedating.  I sink back into ASMR, whereas I am elevated by musical frission.”

Do you know of anyone else whom has done something similar?

Lee, “Occasionally I encounter somebody who is trying to fuse ASMR and music.  Some results are very impressive, however the voice is usually not the principle feature. These pieces tend to be quite textural.  They remind me of some of the soundscapes I used to listen to that contain ‘binaural beats’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binaural_beats).

There are also pieces of music that have ASMR qualities, that don’t intend to be ASMR compositions.  I find that a good deal of this work is electroacoustic in nature.  You should check out some of Luciano Berio’s work.”

The ASMR artist adreambeam is the voice of the character ‘Harmony’ in your web opera ‘The Village’, how did this collaboration develop?

Lee, “The Village is a web opera that describes events within an unusual virtual community, from the perspective of seven rather distinct characters.  Some characters have mythological underpinnings, and some are more contemporary in their appearance and values.

‘Harmony’ is one of the former.  She is the keeper of the ‘fountain of accord’ – a font that supplies an elixir to the village that unifies the community and provides them with blissful, dream-filled sleep.  ASMR clearly influenced Harmony’s design, and so it made sense that an ASMRtist voiced her.

I approached several well-known figures through Facebook and YouTube, receiving little response, but then I was fortune enough to find Natalie (adreambeam) on an e-lance site called Fiverr (https://uk.fiverr.com/adreambeam).  I was delighted.  I used to fall asleep to Natalie’s videos all the time.

We discussed the project through Fiverr, before setting out to create some test recordings.  The web is such a powerful tool – Natalie is in the states and I’m in the UK, yet it was effortless to put together a very close and detailed collaborative relationship.  I sent her a script, and a loose set of performance directions as a starting point.

The initial results were excellent, however we decided to tweak a few elements of the production such as microphone placement/proximity, pacing of delivery, and the balance between whispered and soft speaking techniques.  We also switched out several words for others that we deemed to be more effective ASMR triggers.

After a second cycle of recordings, I edited each take and sent final composite ‘arias’ to Natalie.  Once she was happy, I constructed the ‘music’ (perhaps sound design is a more accurate term) around her vocal performance.  Things worked so well that we ended up collaborating on a bonus piece for The Village, which is the one linked to below.”

What reactions have your received in regard to the incorporation of ASMR into your operas?

Lee, “As a piece of creative research, The Village employed various methods of embedded data capture.  Some methods were statistical (i.e. how many time a character was visited) and some were anecdotal (i.e. questionnaire based).

The results of the research were rather revealing in terms of how users engaged with the character, Harmony.  A visitor to the web opera would typically either listen to Harmony’s ‘aria’ in its entirety, or would discontinue playback after a short period of time and move on in the story.

This clear split in engagement could suggest that the ASMR element was compelling for those who continued to listen (often these users would skip through other characters), but less convincing for those who did not.  This data is, of course, not substantial enough to make firm conclusions.

The results of the questionnaire were however more persuasive.  Visitors were asked to pick their favourite character and to describe what they liked best about them.  Of the seven characters in the Village, Harmony ranked second.  Comments alluded to her ‘soothing voice’ and ‘calming character’, which was pleasing for many visitors.  One or two people indeed recognised these were ASMR influenced pieces, and reported that they experienced tingles.”

You are working on an “opera game” for mobile devices which also incorporates ASMR? Can you talk a little about your approach?

Lee, “Although the ASMR treatments in The Village were for the most part well received, I don’t consider them to be music compositions.  They are instead highly curated spoken word pieces with accompanying ASMR-inspired textures.

I do however have ideas for something that is a little more ‘organised’ that exploits both binaural (or 3D) recording techniques and a new notation system for directed the ‘performance’ of the ASMR vocalist.  The forum to test such ideas is a location-based opera ‘game’ I am creating called, Fragments.

Fragments is an music-led experience for smartphones that takes place in the historical city of Bath, UK.  The player begins their opera in a well-trodden park in the centre of town.  They encounter the protagonist virtually – through video and sound – sleeping silently on a park bench.  When she stirs, the player quickly begins to understand that this figure has no memory of the previous evening’s events – she feels confused, scared, and alone.  Her name is all she can recall.  It is Lucy.

The player takes responsibility for Lucy, guiding her through the city to collect fragments of her lost memory.  Each location provides a new piece of the puzzle, and reveals new pathways to explore.

What is the connection to ASMR?  Well this game is all about affect.  It relies on its ability to facilitate a meaningful connection between the player and the protagonist.  Although Lucy is for the most part imaginary (we see her only at the beginning and end of the work), the player must develop a sense of responsibility for her well-being.  They must be genuinely empathic, and to do so, Lucy must connect with them on a highly personal, perhaps emotional level.

I think ASMR is the perfect tool to help achieve this.  The thing that surprises me most about ASMR, is the way in which it erases the barrier of mediation.  When I listen to trigger videos, the ASMRtist is no longer across the Atlantic, but right here.  The screen, the headphones, and the network disappear.

I still don’t fully understand why, but I sense a connection with the practitioner.  I experience genuine feelings of intimacy, warmth and trust.  I don’t think I’m the only one who does.  It is significant, and is the driver for my opera.”

Do you experience ASMR? If so, what are your triggers and how would you describe your sensations?

Lee, “I do experience ASMR, and my triggers are almost entirely sound based.  Of these, I find the voice the most effective by far.  Whispering and plosive consonants (p’s, t’s, d’s) work well, especially when delivered using close microphone techniques.

Videos that feature binaural sound recordings (3D audio) were my ‘go to’ for quite some time.  It was something about the unexpected placement of the voice – the way the practitioner moved between ears, behind the head etc. – that was so compelling.

For me, ASMR manifests exclusively within the scalp.  It is a sedative, tingling sensation that seems to have the effect of attenuating all other stimuli.  When I’m experiencing ASMR, my mind it totally transfixed on the source – the voice, the tapping and so on – there are fewer distractions.

ASMR presents differently in all people I know who claim to experience it.  I find this rather intriguing.  What does ASMR feel like across the spine, or the arms?  Would encountering such physiological effects reconfigure my relationship with ASMR?

In the last two years, I’ve found that the intensity of my ‘tingle’ reaction has dulled considerably.  I’m not sure why this is the case.  Is it possible to develop a tolerance or desensitivity to the phenomenon?  In any case, I am not overly disheartened because I find trigger videos are still profoundly relaxation.  I feel lucky to have experienced ASMR at all.”

Do you have other favorite ASMR artists in addition to adreambeam?

Lee, “Too many to list!  Some staples for me are Asmraurette (sadly no longer producing videos), Just A Whispering Guy https://www.youtube.com/user/JustAWhisperingGuy (Duff The Psych), ardra neala https://www.youtube.com/user/ardraneala, Heather Feather https://www.youtube.com/user/HeatherFeatherASMR and for something different YouTube comedian Wyatt Kane https://www.youtube.com/user/wyattkane (ASMR parody).”

What fascinates you the most about ASMR?

Lee, “I first encountered ASMR trigger videos while living in Leicester (UK) in 2011.  Like many others, I used them to help me sleep.  Soon enough they became an important part of my routine, and I couldn’t round off the day without them.  I had anxiety and insomnia difficulties at the time also, which ASMR helped me to better manage – most likely because my mind could finally switch off at night.

ASMR has been a constant in my life since then; across relocation to 4 cities, the challenges of new job opportunities, the stresses and joys of PhD research, and of course, the numerous personal obstacles that required careful navigation.

I didn’t discuss ASMR with anyone for quite a long time.  Describing such an intimate experience felt unnatural and a little uncomfortable.  In recent years, this has however changed, and as a consequence I felt able to incorporate it into my art practice.  This is how I’ve always communicated best.

I no longer consider ASMR as an unspoken component of my daily life.  It is integral, I want to share and celebrate it.  I never did see myself becoming an ASMRtist (for one I have a slight Birmingham (UK) twang that is not particularly relaxing…) but I am glad that ASMR can inform and influence other things that are important to me, such as music-making.

So what fascinates me most about ASMR?  The ability it, and the culture that surrounds it, has to be transformative.”

Will you be doing some ASMR research in the future?

Lee, “I can’t see myself moving away from ASMR within my arts practice any time soon. I’m not particularly interested in unpacking the science of ASMR (contrary to what my computer science side often nudges me to do), but I’m quite sure it will feature persistently across my creative work.

In research terms, I’ll continue to explore ASMR in the context of affective music and sound design for headphones, but as my personal relationship with ASMR evolves, so will the nuances of my investigation.

Where do you see the understanding and perception of ASMR in ten years?

Lee, “Efforts are being made today to collate personal accounts of ASMR, which will of course, contribute to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

In ten years, ASMR will not be considered a neologism.  It may remain fringe, but it will be accepted as a physiological event – as musical frisson is considered to be.  Empirical research will support the existence of ASMR, however overwhelming anecdotal evidence will embed it firmly within digital culture.

The creativity we observe in trigger videos will extend into new families of ASMR inspired art.  Animation, music, gaming and live performance forms will adopt ASMR as a tool to deliver affect – enriching the emotive qualities, and intensity of each.

Moving away from art, ASMR will begin to be recognised more formally as a potent support tool for some cognitive, emotional and mental disorders.  Practitioners of this alternative mode of therapy will grow in number, and will conceive collectively a standardised set of triggering techniques.”

Click HERE to learn more about Lee

Click HERE to read an article about digital opera co-authored by Lee

Click HERE to hear a sample of ASMR digital opera composed by Lee

Click HERE to experience Lee’s web opera, The Village’ (The character of Harmony is the ASMR artist adreambeam)

Click HERE to visit the YouTube channel of adreambeam

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