Theater, computers and composition intersect
On Thursday’s Yarn/Wire concert in UW-Milwaukee’s Unruly Music series this week, music was the focus. Watching the performers on stage could be distracting. Friday the same quartet – Yarn/Wire – collaborated with David Bithell, who focuses on the action on stage – combining music and theater.
Bithell brings many tools to his work. He adds synthesizer, audio samples and occasionally spoken word or modified trumpet to music for pianos and percussion. The musicalilty of works is less important than the visual drama. Players relate to one another. They can activate sensors linked to computer programs. Computer programs manipulate lights, create sounds and appear to introduce additional “actors” to the stage.
“Drama” was stripped to its essentials – very few words, simple repetitive actions, focused lighting, selective shadows or crude close-up video projection. Actions revealed patterns, but the patterns were unpredictable by design. Writes Bithell, “My main job as a composer/performer is tampering with the evidence.”
Bithell designed the evening as a continuous series of acts over 70 minutes on a stage littered with cables, props, percussion instruments, lights, camera and a projection screen. The lighting revealed just one area at a time. The links that follow accurately represent the vignettes, directed by Bithell’s imagination, that the audience witnessed live Friday night.
The opener, Whistle from Above, shows Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio at play. When they struck platform, a light switched off — except when it didn’t, in which case the action might turn on a light on another platform. Later the platforms played by themselves. Controlling these actions became one obsession of the team. Cause and effect was called into question. Combining to play paired drums, the percussionists began competing with one another. Each used small cowbells to dampen the drumming of the other. The composition expanded to include drums, striking of tuned cowbells and dueling sticks. These short scenes combined action, surprise and amusing rhythms.
Bithell’s face was the focus of action for the most entertaining selection, YesNo. Moving the head left or right, up or down appeared to trigger sounds as a sensor responded to the moves. Sounds evolved from “pong” to broader synthesized phrases to dogs barking, horses hooves and a selection from an early Hollywood B Western. Again the role of the actor was called into question. Was he controlling the sound or responding to a rehearsed set of transitions? In a talk-back after the program Bithell declined to say.
(In follow up conversation Saturday, Bitthel described the setup in some detail. A video feed of his head motions were interpreted by a computer and translated into a numeric code. At different segments of the work, each code activated a selected sound. The design allows for improvisation at Bithell’s discretion.)
The closing segment – Paraguay – was built around an evolving product, the Liminal Surface. This table top complex includes multiple cameras, tubes and blocks that react to touch and focused lighting, including hand-manipulated LEDs. Two-dimensional wire sculptures of trees and faces were moved onto the surface. Variations in lighting, camera location, feedback sound loops and background sounds permit an uncertain “story” to evolve. The crude character of this prototype got in the way. At times it seemed Bithell was one step away from playing with toy soldiers, especially with the crude LED lamps on cables looming large in close up video. (The evolution of computer games suggests a future path. Objects programmed with actions and sound management could be manipulated by avatars controlled by performers in real time.)
The complex interactive toolkit allowed actors to manipulate their environment. But when and how that worked varied, in part because the interaction patterns were hinted at, then changed in unpredictable ways. Are humans controlling the performance or are they in a programmed environment that they only occasionally appear to control? Reviewing video recordings of prior performances, the scripts seem fairly stable, so much of the control seems to rest with the programmer/script-writer. A proscribed mix of audio tape and pre-recorded video could create the same theatrical result. Does it matter? The evolution of performance is enhanced when interactive tools are in the mix.
The music itself was less memorable than the experiments in visual effects and theatrical games. Percussion sequences were central to the action, synthesizer sounds reminded one of science fiction sound tracks, occasional voices advanced the drama. But often the drama – the games actors played – shaped the music and detracted from the pretense that composition was central to the evening.
Check the Unruly Music preview for details on the very different performances to come. Look for comments on each of the performances the following day. (On this busy weekend, they may be in the More Stories box.)