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Opera on a global scale: Auksalaq at IUPUI

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Percussionists rehearse for a 2010 New York City performance of six quartets from 'Auksalaq." Selections from the opera were performed beginning from 2010, but Monday marks the world premiere of the piece in its entirety. - JILL STEINBERG
  • Jill Steinberg
  • Percussionists rehearse for a 2010 New York City performance of six quartets from 'Auksalaq." Selections from the opera were performed beginning from 2010, but Monday marks the world premiere of the piece in its entirety.

If you want to think of things in traditional terms, IUPUI professor Scott Deal is the conductor/producer of Auksalaq, an opera about the Arctic that premieres Monday, and his collaborator, University of Virginia professor Matthew Burtner, is the composer. But that's not the whole of it.

For starters, it's a “telematic” opera, meaning the opera house, as such, is a global superstructure. Telematic, as an adjective, refers to the application of any sort of telecommunication or informatics technology to any concept or thing.

In this case, it means that the content of Auksalaq will be shaped by performers playing in venues around the world, by video and audio mixed in one location and sent out via the Internet to many others, by audience members contributing to the presentation via laptops or cell phones. As such, audience members in any one space will see and hear things happening immediately before them (such as live performances in the same room), as well as content created halfway around the world.

Auksalaq will premiere in seven venues simultaneously, ranging from IUPUI's Campus Center Theater to a New York City art gallery to a Norway academy. All performances will start at 5 p.m. EST on Monday, Oct. 29, leaving Norway to sell its performance as something of a late-night party because of the time zone shift.

Scott Deal has been here before, though not quite on this scale. As Director of the Donald Tavel Arts and Technology Research Center, he's been involved before with these kind of telematic, online performances that gather together performers in various venues. And it's a case of a happy marriage of content and form, according to Deal, because climate change is “a global issue that crosses borders and affects all of us. What better way than to use the Internet to invite discussion.”

I discussed the work with Deal in his basement studio during a free hour or so in a busy month for him.
The idea for it first took shape in spring 2007 after Deal attended a colloquium at the University of Alaska, North by 2020, that considered the socio-ecological impact of climate change on the Arctic. (Read: Deal's essay, "Climate Change as Telematic Art," included in the collection, North by 2020: Perspectives on Alaska's Changing Social-Ecological Systems, published in 2011 by University of Alaska Press and borne out of the aforementioned conference.)

Deal met Burtner at the time, and then decided to pitch him his idea of a opera on a global scale about a global problem. “I like to compose, but it's not in me to write the music for a whole opera,” Deal said. “I thought if anybody would understand the Arctic, he would,” because Burtner grew up in Alaska and had written previous Arctic-themed work.

Burtner enthusiastically accepted, and the first performance of the piece, without much of the technological apparatus that will be included next week, was in Indianapolis at the Central Library during 2010's Intermedia Festival.

That performance featured a collection of chamber pieces for five percussionists, played on conventional instruments as well as objects that could be found in the natural world (water, tree branches, rocks; piano, cymbals, bongos). That “live” music makes up part of the opera and hasn't changed much since Burtner first wrote it, but this world premiere expands on that performance significantly.

"Auksalaq' calls for three video screens, each showing a separate content feed. - JILL STEINBERG
  • Jill Steinberg
  • "Auksalaq' calls for three video screens, each showing a separate content feed.

Audiences (at least at IUPUI) will see three video screens in the performance space. The one on the left will show live performances in various venues, as well as interviews with experts on climate change and Arctic imagery. Deal will live mix the left screen at IUPUI and send out that feed to all venues.

The middle is devoted to more Arctic footage and art video, compiled by Jordan Munson, an IUPUI professor and a member, with Deal, of the electro-acoustic trio Big Robot. Munson will live mix that video at the Washington, D.C. performance; all other venues will play a pre-edited compilation of that footage off DVD.

The screen on the right is a little different. It works off the NOMADS system, a versatile software developed by the University of Virginia that allows audience members to engage with a performance in different ways, depending on the needs of the performance.

“You can take your laptop or a mobile device, log in and then type in your thoughts, making the screen a thought wall,” Deal said. “Then at another moment as soon as someone logs in, that'll create a dripping sound that Matthew recorded. That's emblematic of the fact that the more people we have on the planet, the more things melt. Later, a stylus will appear on app that can be moved to manipulate Arctic wind sounds. Sound will waft up from audience, as well as loudspeakers.”

All venues and performers will work off a single score featuring discrete chamber pieces played to a clock to determine tempo. A master clock embedded in an IUPUI-developed application named Backstage will allow performers at all locations to coordinate their efforts, as well as exchange text messages and respond to cues to play their parts.

This isn't Deal's first rodeo, but he's not entirely comfortable with that feeling of indeterminacy either: “It's kind of a wild ride; maybe I'd like it to be a little less hair-raising, because it keeps me up at night! It's hard, but I think it's the ethos of art right now. I love symphonic music, but I'm not really interested in working that aesthetic. You have to embrace that idea of letting go and letting other people shape the content in a way that'll work for them.”

Deal said the work, which will feature interview clips of sober scientists and fiery Native activists as part of its melange of extra-musical elements, isn't exactly agitative, but it does have a point of view.

“Putting anything in front of someone is not a neutral act; there's always some activism behind it. Having lived in Alaska for 12 years, having seen and heard the climate change begin to occur — through unprecedented forest fires, the migration north of plant life from the south — I felt this could be my contribution," Deal said. "Some people might be good at going out and speaking about it, like an Al Gore; some people might write their congressperson or send money. But as an artist I felt that I could take this idea, and then I could help create a conversation, and that when I retire, I can look back on it as something that I feel really good about.”

Scott Deal at a video console. - JILL STEINBERG

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