Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Music as an Ecosystem: Composing for Windtopia

Long Star College – Kingwood lecture
March 31, 2016
by Chris Becker

I. What is Installation Art?

[Mona Lisa (1503-1506, 1517?) by Leonardo da Vinci.]
Artists are always seeking new ways to express themselves and share their vision with the world. Artists love to explore, and as a result, the very definition of "art" is always changing.

Some types of art are easier to appreciate than others, simply because what is being shown to us is familiar and easy to describe. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa resonates with us almost immediately on an emotional level, thanks to the beauty of the composition, and the mysterious half smile of its subject. But in the years since the time of da Vinci, artists have developed forms of creative expression that can leave the viewer confused and asking themselves if what they are seeing is even really “art.”

II. History and Examples
I believe installation art developed as part of a larger mission by painters, poets, photographers, dancers, and filmmakers to completely change way people looked at and experienced art.

One of the first examples of installation art was the 1938 International Surrealism Exhibition in Paris, which was organized by two founders of the surrealist movement, André Breton and Paul Éluard, and designed by artist Marcel Duchamp.

[Coal sacks hung for 1938 International Surrealism Exhibition in Paris.]

Duchamp's plan was to turn the exhibition into a disorienting but stimulating experience. In order to get to the gallery where paintings and sculptures by several different artist's were on display, visitors first had to walk down a long corridor named “Surrealist Street” and filled with mannequins, each one clothed and decorated by a different artist. In the gallery, coal sacks stuffed with newspaper hung from the ceiling and leaked coal dust onto the people and the art. The gallery was completely dark, the only light came from an electric powered metal grill (or “brazier”) which stayed lit for the duration of the show. Visitors were given flashlights to look at the art, and several of the paintings and objects were hung on revolving doors instead of the walls. Much of the floor was covered with moss and leaves, and one area had been converted into a pond, complete with lily pads and reeds. Somewhere in the darkness, a dancer performed a strange and provocative dance. Finally, coffee beans roasted on a small grill and filled the gallery with “a marvelous aroma.”  

If installation art initially began as a way to challenge people's preconceptions about art, it has since developed into a very popular artistic medium, with several distinct, defining characteristics: 

Installation art is installed in a venue, but not always in a gallery or museum, to create an environment where you may forget where you actually are.

Installation art often incorporates the architecture of the venue as an element of the work. 

The objects and elements within an art installation may slowly change over a period of time, be it an hour, several weeks, or even years. 

An art installation can be peaceful and encourage contemplation. Or, it can be overwhelming and scary. 

In an art installation, two or more mediums or sensory experiences are presented simultaneously. Instead of just a single art object, an art installation might include a painting, a prerecorded piece of music, video, leaves, flowers or dirt spread across the floor, and a live dancer or actor, each competing for the attention of your senses. But each element is there to enhance the others, like the spices in a recipe. 

[Terra (1999-2001) by Jacqueline Bishop.]
In 1998, I was asked by artist Jacqueline Bishop to create a score to accompany her art installation Terra. Terra consists of 200 to 400 4" x 4" oil on wood portraits of endangered and extinct birds arranged and hung symmetrically to create a wall of remembrance or prayer. The portraits are hung according to color and tone to evoke the change of light that occurs from dawn to dusk. Actual bird nests from North, South, and Central American regions where Jacqueline has traveled are also a part of the installation, and create another rhythm to the visual presentation. 

I composed and recorded 25-minutes of music to play continuously in the gallery where Terra was installed. (Terra traveled to several museums and galleries from 1999 to 2001.) My score includes African and Brazilian instruments, which evoke the forests and jungles Jacqueline has explored, photographed, and painted, sounds of nature, including rain, thunder, and of course, birds, electric guitar, and mezzo soprano vocals.

By combining paintings, nests, and other objects with a prerecorded music and sounds, Jacqueline and I hoped to transform the experience of looking at Terra into one where you were transported to another place and another time, be it the past or the uncertain future of the planet. 

III. The Music for Windtopia 
A. Tools
My home recording studio consists of a Mac computer, a pair of monitors to listen to back to whatever it is I am working on, microphones, a tube preamp, and various percussion instruments. I use a software program called Ableton Live to record, edit, process, and mix my music. I can take any recorded sound and do all kinds of crazy things to it, such as reversing it so it plays backwards, filtering it so you only hear the high frequencies, or adding reverb so what you are hear sounds like its in a cave or a cathedral. Ableton Live allows me to work with sound in the same way clay is shaped and molded by a sculptor. 

This is what multiple tracks of recorded sounds look like on the computer screen when I’m working with Ableton Live:

[Screenshot of five tracks of vocals as they appear in Ableton Live]
I also have a handheld digital recorder which I use to record outdoor sounds. I’ve recorded a lot of stuff with this recorder, including trains, cars, rain and thunder, insects, and birds. Houston is a great city for birds, and I’ve recorded a lot of bird songs while walking around my neighborhood. 

If I need to write out notes for a musician to read and play, I use a music notation program called Sibelius. 

Using all of these tools, I can create a piece of music that is just one track, or a complex composition like Windtopia, which is made up of dozens of individually recorded tracks of music. (I actually lost count of how many tracks of music I recorded to create the score.)

B. Music as an Ecosystem
When I create a piece of music, especially a longer piece of music, I begin by imagining an ecosystem where all of the sounds in the piece will live and interact. 

An ecosystem is a single, localized environment where living species and non-living elements interact. For example, a rainforest is an ecosystem distinguished by humidity, tall trees, lots of vegetation, exotic birds, and big insects. A desert is another example of an ecosystem, one that is arid and dry, has very little plant life, and only a small number animals and insects living in it. 

The process of imagining an ecosystem of sounds for a piece of music is similar to preparing to write a science fiction story that takes place on another planet. As the writer, you have to imagine what the air is like on that planet, as well as its weather, and what colors dominate the landscape. Once you imagine all of this, you can begin to populate the planet with indigenous life forms (i.e. "aliens"), and maybe the odd human visitor or two. Certain animals that live on your planet may not be able to live on another. The sounds of your alien world are also important to consider. 

Mark Chen's Windtopia is a vision of the future, where global warming and manmade greenhouse gases have nearly destroyed our planet. Windtopia is an imaginary corporation that builds wind turbines. The company first introduced its urban wind farms in the year 2037, and in 2045, celebrated the building of its 50 millionth wind turbine. While providing a much needed source of alternative energy, these turbines have also managed to wipe out our planet’s bird population. This doesn't worry the spokespersons for Windtopia. Windtopia believes it is more than just another energy company. In its advertising, the Windtopia's tag lines include “We power the world with wind!” and “Wind power is the savior of humanity.”

So while wind power has its benefits, and Mark’s concern for the survival of our planet is genuine, he has imagined an ecosystem of the future that is ruled by a powerful, totalitarian business. 

C. No Beginning, No End; Sonic Threads
The photographs, paintings, and videos Mark has created for Windtopia gave me plenty of ideas for sounds and music, and I spent a great deal of time making sure the score complemented all of these visual elements. Mark's images in combination with my sounds and music create the ecosystem that is the world of Windtopia. 

I wanted the score to sound like a journey across planet Earth in 2045. In one section, I tried to evoke the feeling of being out in the country, far away from city life. You hear cows, a sheep, and my mother’s dog, Molly. Bells and chimes recur throughout the score, like something you might hear in a spiritual retreat somewhere in the mountains of Asia.

There are also the sounds rain, thunder, wind, and the voices of an outdoor crowd, like something you might hear in the middle of a busy market. 

There are actually a lot of voices in my score. Sometimes the voices are plain and dry, as if the person speaking were standing in front of you. Other times, the voices sound like they are coming out of a loudspeaker. And other times, they sound like a voice you might hear in your head. 

[Depeche Mode Music for the Masses album cover art by Martyn Atkins]    
For another section of the score, I imagined the interior of an empty spaceship, with a prerecorded announcement looping endlessly as the ship slowly orbits around our turbine covered planet.

There are several straightforward, musical passages in the score. Some are of peaceful and lulling, one is very grand and majestic, and most have a sort of martial-like quality to them. Some of these passages are meant to evoke the kind of music Windtopia the corporation would use to promote itself to the general public or accompany a presentation to its shareholders.

To some extent, I was inspired by propaganda art, especially that of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). 

There’s a section with several layers of cellos, all played by Olive Chen. I recorded Olive playing a piece of music I composed, and then transformed the recording to evoke the sound of the turning blades of a wind turbine, perhaps ultimately spinning out of control.

At one point, you hear the sound of birds in my score, which Mark initially didn't think belonged in this ecosystem. But my idea was that what you are hearing are not living birds, but instead the memory or perhaps the ghosts of birds that are now extinct. The birds you hear in my score are actually a collage of several bird recordings treated with lot of EQ and reverb, which gives the bird sounds an eerie, otherworldly quality. The bird section is followed by the sound of a passing helicopter, which is another kind of bird, a mechanical bird, perhaps policing the skies. (While living in New York City, I got used to the sound of helicopters.)

Off and on, throughout the score, you hear sound of wind turbines. (The turbines were recorded by Mark for me to use in the score.) I think of these and other recurring sounds as musical “threads” that help to hold the entire composition together, even when they are absent. When and where I choose to place these threads helps to create what I would call the poetry of the composition. (This is actually different than how a motif, leitmotif, or idée fixe is used in classical composition, as I believe the absence of a “thread” is as important as its presence.) 

Unlike a song, a string quartet, or a symphony, there isn’t a real “beginning” or “end” to my score for Windtopia. It’s a long piece, over 36 minutes, but it doesn’t really matter where you begin or stop listening to it, especially while you are immersed in Mark's ecosystem of photographs, paintings, videos, and the occasional live spokesperson for Windtopia.

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