On being a dance musician

As I cross over the 150 show mark this year (with three months still to go) and since I’ve had a couple of slow weeks I’ve been reflecting on how I’m still spending close to half my gigging time playing for dancers as I’ve been doing over the past decade or so. As I prep my Bach and the Muslim World project/recital, I’ve been exploring another world of dance (baroque) and how that the movements of a baroque suite are comprised of dance movements and how that relates to the dance movements of Turkish Fasıl, Arabic Waslah, and North African Nawbah. Before concert music became a thing, music most often served dance.

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on dancing while playing the cello (part 3: Performers as Co-Creators)…

A recent piece by  Sugar Vendil titled Performers as Co-Creators at NewMusicBox discusses a current piece using musicians as dancers and brings up many of the issues I’ve discussed in my previous two installments of this on dancing while playing the cello series. The Nouveau Classical Project is developing a piece, Potential Energies, which will premiere in Brooklyn at BAM Fisher on May 29.

Continue reading “on dancing while playing the cello (part 3: Performers as Co-Creators)…”

Opera: “I’m not dead!”


With all the talk about San Diego Opera, the Met Opera, and a bit further back, the closure of New York City Opera we might be quick to say that Opera is a dying art form in the US. Indeed, a recent NAI report shows that Opera attendance is steadily declining from a recent high in 2007 of 3,568,000 to 2,304,000 in 2011 (of course, this report is also showing increased attendance at Symphony Concerts from ’09 – 25,443,000 to ’11 – 26,812,000 — more than 10 million more than the declining NFL audiences in all three years. But these are besides the point.

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in “Fidelio.”
Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in the Bollywood version of “Fidelio” by the Skylight Music Theatre.

Bill Eddin’s recent post is by guest blogger, Viswa Subarraman, conductor and Artistic Director of the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee. Subarraman and Skylight recently produced a Bollywood version of Fidelio and the director has some things to say about the San Diego Opera’s decision to call it quits.

San Diego is choosing to go quietly into that good night. The rest of us are choosing to fight to preserve an incredible 200+ year old art form. You know how? By doing great theater. Would we love to hire the Renee Flemings of the world? Sure! But let’s be real – it ain’t gonna happen in Milwaukee. So what can we do? We can find the future Renee Flemings of the world and give them a shot at learning and honing their craft, so they can go on to those big paychecks and big stages. I’m very proud of companies such as ours and Fort Worth Opera that seem to nurture the next generation of great opera singers. It’s also great for our audience – they have the opportunity to see these wonderful artists develop right before their eyes. We also focus on our communities.

Subarraman says, “It is sad to me that a company with the resources that San Diego has doesn’t understand that downsizing, creating variety in their programming, finding young, talented singers (read cheaper) to mix with the stars on stage isn’t diluting the art form. It’s called progressing the art form.

and closes with the admonition to

Try things. You might find that you actually diversify your audience base, which might allow you to start raising even more money. Funny how that can work in so many cities where we create magic with our “diluted” companies! I’m sorry to see San Diego lose its opera company, but man… what an opportunity for some creative opera people to take those resources and bring great art to a community that still wants it.

This echoes a piece I read (thanks to You’ve Cott Mail) by Mary Wisniewski discussing all these big Opera Organizations failing while a plethora of smaller and new opera companies are cropping up all around Chicago–which shouldn’t detract from the fact that the Chicago Lyric has seen its ticket sales up 15 percent for fiscal year 2013.

The smaller Chicago Opera Theater (COT), known for out-of-the-box productions like Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie,” last year saw a 20 percent jump in subscribers, said general director Andreas Mitisek.

New companies have sprung up as well. Haymarket Opera Company specializes in the Baroque era, and South Shore Opera Company has done shows using African-American casts, including William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island.”


After my previous post, which discussed the Louisville based Thompson Street Opera Company (as well as my own Klingon Opera which premiered in Louisville), and after performing at Classical Revolution Cincinnati doing some arias from the Klingon Opera last year and getting to hear “The Bubble” by Jennifer Jolley and Kendall A. produced by NANOWorks Opera (North American New Opera Workshop) there, I’d say Opera is evolving and thriving in ways that the big organizations are masking due to all the media attention they get (that Negativity Bias at work again).

Of course, Opera’s death has been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t evolving in ways that mass media representations of it can hope to show given the focus on big organizations. As Rosenberg notes in the link, “Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world ‘stillborn,’ ‘as something outdated.’” and they “acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains ‘a huge relic’ and ‘an enormous anachronism.’

The irony being that in 2020 the Royal Opera in Britain has commissioned four new works for the 2020 season inspired by Žižek.

The Royal Opera will challenge leading European composers Kaija Saariaho (Finland), Mark-Anthony Turnage (UK), Luca Francesconi (Italy) and Jörg Widmann (Germany) to create large scale new operas. The vision is for four distinct operas, each one in part inspired by the composer’s response to a set of questions developed in collaboration with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “What preoccupies us today? How do we represent ourselves on stage? What are the collective myths of our present and future?”

In other somewhat related news, my interactive video and cello project, Camera Lucida, will be giving a performance and a talk/performance at The International Žižek Studies Conference next weekend. While we can only be there for one day of the conference and will not likely have much of a chance to interact with Žižek, our day talk/performance will focus on a piece we call “Fossils” which uses appropriated text which will be incorporated in the multi-media performance (with Acro-Dancers, Holly Price and Christopher Cox) both as a pre-recorded element and live by me.

Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida's "Fossils" at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI.  November 10, 2012
Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida’s “Fossils” at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI. November 10, 2012


The closest analogue I can think of to our performance would be the late, Robert Ashley’s “Different Lives” which is a completely different and more experimental way to approach opera.

Opera isn’t dead, it’s just changing far too fast for most people to understand and morphing into new forms and smaller, more nimble organizations which can produce works that can be a bit more experimental and exploratory. As long as we allow the Crisis folks to dominate the discourse, we’re not going to see much focus on this.

Live Music for Film

Two of the most turbulent times for musicians happened due to the film industry.  Or rather, I should say that the film industry disrupted live performing music culture twice.  The first was when Cinemas started to replace the thousands of Opera Houses in the US as entertainment destinations for the population.  The second was with the advent of sound in cinema which forced an estimated 22,000-26,000 musicians out of work in just a few short years in the late 20s.

Maya Beiser performing Michael Harrison's "Just Ancient Loops" with film by Bill Morrison
Maya Beiser performing Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops” with film by Bill Morrison

So it’s with a little bit of irony that live music for film is making something of a comeback.  Most of us are familiar with Philip Glass’ 1994 “La Belle et la Bête” – and opera for his ensemble and film.

Less familiar is the Filmharmonia Duo which began as a musical project to recreate the music for the 1920 Russian Scifi silent film, “Aelita, Princess of Mars,” back in 1990.  The project has since recreated other scores to other works with Filmharmonia Ensembles that have toured around the world.

Aelita, Queen of Mars with live music by the Filmharmonia Duo at the IU Auditorium 26 October 2013
“Aelita, Queen of Mars” with live music by the Filmharmonia Duo at the IU Auditorium 26 October 2013

I discovered the Filmharmonia Duo (in an IU Auditorium brochure) just last week when my partner in Camera Lucida (an interactive video/cello project) while attending a performance at the 2013 Orphans Midwest Film Symposium at IU given by filmaker, Bill Morrison, and the ever awesome cello goddess, Maya Beiser.  It was the world premiere of All Vows with music by Michael Gordon and the program included “Light is Calling” (music again by Michael Gordon), “Cello Counterpoint” (music by Steve Reich) and “Just Ancient Loops” (music by Michael Harrison) all accompanied by film by Bill Morrison.

Cello Goddess, Maya Beiser, with Camera Lucida (Roxell Karr - video and electronics, l; Jon Silpayamanant - cello and electronics, r)
Cello Goddess, Maya Beiser, with Camera Lucida (Roxell Karr – video and electronics, l; Jon Silpayamanant – cello and electronics, r)

I’d first seen the Reich piece and video on a recent TEDtalks presentation given by Maya Beiser.  The presentation also featured  David Lang’s “World to Come” with video by Irit Batsry.

Roxell and I spoke to Maya for a bit about my video and cello project (the previously mentioned Camera Lucida).  Some of that was explaining the program, Isadora (named after dancer, Isadora Duncan), designed by programmer Mark Coniglio for Troika Ranch specifically for real time manipulation of media.  In our case, video. Here’s an excerpt of our first performance in Madison, Wisconsin last year with dancer, Christine Olson.

As the software was designed specifically with dancers and movement artists in mind it allows the movement captured by dancers to be manipulated in real time, creating effects that are all too familiar to those of us who use effects in music (delay, feedback, distortion)–but with video!  Probably one of the most interesting pieces (using a similar program designed by Friede Weiss) seamlessly in live performance can be seen in Australian based Chunky Move’s “Mortal Engine.”

So Camera Lucida is designed specifically to work with dancers and movement artist though two of our upcoming projects will be more along the traditional lines of live music for film as we develop a documentary focusing on the local Steamboat Culture in this area and as I score music for the silent film Phantom of the Opera which will also feature my new music group, the Mothership Ensemble.

Given how quickly technology is moving, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this relatively new genre of live music for film or video projection to start moving in directions many folks couldn’t have foreseen.  The documentary project and Phantom of the Opera film won’t simply be “static” projections.  Roxell will be manipulation them in real time while leaving a portion of the total projection area for non-manipulated images.  New technology has allowed the videographer or filmaker to be an active real-time collaborative partner in ways that simply being the content producer.  There are a number of groups doing work like this in addition to us, Troika Ranch, and Chunky Move.  Some with large companies that include live music and aerialists in addition to dancers and projection such as Quixotic Fusion in Kansas City to the “dance-imation” duo of ARTheism from Austin.  Here’s their TEDtalks presentation, “Dancing with Lights.”

There are still some of the more traditional performances too.  For example, a local film series happening here (sponsored by the Louisville Film Society) in Louisville had showings of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films back-to-back but with a different ensemble for each performance. A local big band did the first performance and Bourbon Baroque (a Baroque Orchestra I often play with) did the second and a Hip-Hop artist did the third.

Poster for the series of Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin films with live musical accompaniment at the Dreamland Film Center
Poster for the series of Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin films with live musical accompaniment at the Dreamland Film Center

Large ensembles are also getting into the act.  Greg Sandow mentioned the recent “Art of the Score: film week at the Philharmonic projects” by the New York Philharmonic which had screenings of Hitchcock films and “2001: A Space Odyssey” with live scores performed by the orchestra (September 17 – 21, 2013).  The 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, a full orchestra/choir that regularly performs live concerts of scores during live projection of films, From what I understand, have featured the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek movies and a number of the Pixar films to sold out audiences throughout Europe.

I look forward to seeing what tomorrow will bring!

on dancing while playing the cello… (part 2: Music as Choreography)

Still from "Pavane" - an imaginative rendition of the Fauré piece by cellist, Marston Smith, and dancer, Karolina Muyingo.
Still from “Pavane” – an imaginative rendition of the Fauré piece by cellist, Marston Smith, and dancer, Karolina Muyingo.

In my previous post I talked about the Choreography of the Mouth when learning how to sing in multiple langauges and mentioned I would post about Music as Choreography.  Here is that post.  As I said previously:

It’s simply about the choreography of the mouth (my next post will talk about Music as Choreography) which is really no different than the choreography of any other part of the body. You move or you manipulate your body in various ways to make a sound. Sometimes that sound comes from your body (e.g. your voice), and sometimes that sounds comes from some external device that your body is interacting with (e.g. musical instrument).

Obviously there’s a difference between being, say, a musical act with a choreographed or semi-choreographed stage show and a performance that was designed as a theatrical piece.  In the end, the difference isn’t much more than the level and difficulty of “precomposed” choreography.  Whether you’re putting on a rock show and headbanging (e.g. Apocalyptica) or running around the stage (e.g. the late Mike Edwards of ELO), it still involves some kind of choreography–even if that is just spontaneous and improvised choreography.

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