Premiere of Unmute for laptop ensemble.

I have always found singing in choirs a deeply poignant, community-building experience. For me, there’s something uniquely joyful about joining one’s voice with others in a collective sound created by instruments housed in their users’ bodies. But of course not everyone has a voice that can sing. Unmute, then began as a challenge to myself: could I write a “voiceless” choral piece that would replicate at least something of the shared bodily experience of singing together? Using facial mapping and tracking, the electronics for Unmute determine the vowel that a player performs and use that in combination with a selected scale degree to control triggering of sound files. Hand motions performed above a Leap motion sensor provide control of dynamics and timbre. I imagine Unmute as providing an augmentation for a sung choral experience and as (hopefully) bringing that experience to a broadened array of sound-makers. Let’s sing (or “sing”) together.

An excerpt of scene 3 of Laying Out the Colors, featuring an aria by Art, the older uncle of the male protagonist.

Laying Out the Colors tells the story of a fictional Minnesotan woman and her partner through the lens of the life and paintings of the 19th-20th century Norwegian painter Harriet Backer.  Throughout the piece, song moments are delineated through the practice of tableau vivant (“living pictures”); the onstage characters freeze in the arrangement of one of Backer’s paintings, an image of which is projected behind them.  This creates a reflective pause in the action in which other characters are free to reflect both upon their own lives and those of the frozen figures.  These moments of visual rest and sonic action allow for intimate looks at the inner lives of the piece’s characters. 

Hanna is a young painter who has just graduated from college and returned home to make up her mind about what she would like to do next and whether she wishes to pursue art as a career.  While cleaning out the attic with her mother, she discovers a number of Harriet Backer’s drawings, as well as scores and compositional sketches by Harriet’s composer-pianist sister, Agathe Backer-Grøndahl.  She is captivated, as is her romantic partner Tom, who is a pianist.  Hanna and Tom take artistic inspiration and direction from Harriet and Agathe, but they also draw divergent conclusions on the nature of fulfillment and what sacrifices are necessary to create art from the two women’s lives.   While Hanna and Tom tease out what is most important to each of them and whether those desires might pull them apart, Harriet and Agathe hover in the background of the work, dream-like visitors invited in by Hanna’s discovery.  They bring with them touches of a sound world that includes Norwegian hardanger fiddling, late 19th-century piano repertoire, and open, reflective harmonies.  The core story of the piece is extraordinarily simple: the competing pulls of home and discovery, love and art, and the most basic choices we each have to make.

 Watch the full show.

 

Jumprope (2009), SSA trio.  Performance by Johanna Agnarsson, Jillian Gohman, and Flannery Cunningham.

 

Strings Attached, an interactive dance piece with gestural control of sound and visuals using two GameTrak controllers with Max/MSP, Jitter, and the machine learning software Wekinator.  Performed by Katrina Jones (dance), Rebecca Uliasz (live visuals), Andrew Pitcher (guitar), and Flannery Cunningham (hammered dulcimer).