Reflections on the EMPAC Opening (SEAMUS NEWSLETTER, Winter, 2008-9)

By BARTON McLEAN

During the first weeks in October, those of us obtaining tickets to the often sold-out performances heralding the opening bash of EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York were treated to glimpses of what the future for the arts may hold. In these opening weeks I witnessed a world where sound, image, movement, gesture, color, architecture, spatiality, texture, were disassembled, to reemerge again in new forms and processes that were forged through the catalyst of technology, in the elegantly futuristic umbrella of the physical building, with its 120 million dollar state-of-the-art Concert Hall and its cornucopia of other theaters, performance spaces, café, walkways, not to mention the sculptural beauty of the building itself.

Make no mistake – this entity is not just another theater complex. There is simply nothing like it on this planet. EMPAC is to all the experimental arts – video, computer graphics, film, interactive processes, music, software, performer/instrument interaction, dance, theater, lighting, (I could go on) -- what IRCAM is to music/technology. Containing four state of the art performance spaces and a number of facilities for artists in residence to develop their work, supported with an impressive technical and administrative staff virtually unheard of in the USA for a non-profit, experimental institution, EMPAC has already placed itself in the forefront as the entity to watch in terms of any sort of cross-platform, experimental, technologically-based artistic endeavor, whether it be performance, residency, or research. It has a yearly budget to support performance events alone of c. 1 million dollars from the Jaffe Foundation, and the total budget for the physical plant and equipment surpasses 200 million dollars and counting. It also has the unequivocal support of RPI president Shirley Jackson, who has been the driving force behind the effort, along with the visionary direction of Johannes Goebel.

The joy of just walking through the foyers and experiencing the beauty and elegance of the interiors and exteriors is in itself a profound artistic experience, one that colors and directs everything that transpires.

THE OPENING FESTIVITIES

Upon partaking of the first of several posh receptions with tasty and unusual food and drink available free between each event (one had to be careful not to outstretch one's hand, for fear that one of the numerous catering staff would place a caviar-laden cracker or glass of champagne in it), we attended the inaugural black tie concert in the Concert Hall. Featuring traditional music from Ives to Robert Schumann to 14th Century spatial choruses performing in all corners of the hall, the program afforded our first real glimpse into how this new venue, without question one of the most acoustically and architecturally innovative (and expensive) concert halls in the world, would sound. The haunting strings of the Albany Symphony playing Charles Ives' "Unanswered Question" began the concert, floating in the vast space as if looking for a place to reside, and finding only -- a vast space. I was clearly disappointed in the lack of presence of sound, which seemed to be floating upwards in some distant space. However, Johannes Goebel, who has spent unprecedented time, expense, and engineering expertise on the acoustics, and music curator Micah Silver cite extenuating circumstances that might have caused this impression and are adamant in their praise of the hall's acoustics.

But the hall redeemed itself with the Robert Normandeau acousmatic concert, a 16-channel, 40-loudspeaker tour de force with four electroacoustic works exploring the acoustical characteristics of this cavernous space. With four layers of speakers arrayed from ceiling to floor, and with the Montreal-based composer actively at the computer diffusing the channels throughout the spatial realm of the hall, I was struck by how skillful he was in not only avoiding the trap of using musical material that was inappropriate for intensive spatial treatment, but also in how his music, and his performance in panning and diffusing the sound, seemed to work exactly in tandem with the characteristics of this huge area to fill. He also seemed to devise specific roles for each of the four layers of speakers, the topmost having much of the foreground material, and the lowest speaker layer containing the nebulous and often low granular type of atmospheric material. The mainly acoustically-derived sounds (from such diverse sources as trains, the voice, and nature) were nevertheless disguised just enough so they became abstract and thus usable as basic sound materials, but yet retained enough of their original source characteristic to make them plugged into our subconscious. It was then fascinating to hear these very organic sound washes, complex in their detail but forceful in their impact to the point of evoking powerful visual impressions as well, move throughout the hall, activating each of the enormous spaces in complex but yet pleasing and unpredictable ways. It is as if the composer and the hall became one in a glorious celebration of acoustical and musical perfection. It was my choice as being the most successful event of the EMPAC opening weeks.

Other noteworthy events included "Voyage" (by a group from Kyoto, Japan called "Dumb Type"), a multimedia work of sensitivity and surprising twists in the 400–seat Theater, a spectacular venue capable of producing virtually any kind of stage, opera or multimedia event. The loosely articulated theme of dislocation, uncertainty, and groping for personal direction was played out with solo and group dancers, often crying out and singing. Their movements were unusual to the point that one would not even think of it as dance, but rather as an organic, often statically-holistic depiction of the theme through many scenes, all different and all supported by lighting, video projections (at one time the video becoming the stage set with a reflective surface on the floor mirroring the projection) and effective music which at one instance, when the music of "Over the Rainbow" entered alongside an evocative steady chime articulated and anchored the two, fusing them into a fascinating surrealistic sense of dislocation.

"Louder," performed by a huge company from Norway called "Verdensteatret," was a technologically complex work with no less than six computer operators with MAX/MSP and "C" type programs controlling various objects moving about on stage (such as Asian–style shadow puppets), a huge robot spider, various video projections and audio processing, and many performers on various original instruments, and with an array of loudspeaker horns, some rotating, each with a tiny video projected on it. You really had to see it to believe it. The setup must have been truly heroic. The broad theme, a trip through Vietnam and the Mekong Delta, was articulated by the music instruments used and the video backdrop of Vietnam scenes. The performers came and went, each in turn (and sometimes together) doing their thing, to the point of my thinking "gee, what the hell will they do next!" But although I was immensely impressed with the effort expended into the production and the tightness of the performance, the music itself was grungy, boring and too loud. In my experience with attending electroacoustic concerts, handing out earplugs before the event, no matter how safety-correct and laudable, signals one thing to me; this concert is not going to challenge the music sensitivity part of my brain. And it did not. The music, such as it was, reminded me of the street theater tradition and the work of Mauricio Kagel in the 80's. But Kagel did it with so much more elegance, and his music really meant something.

In the EMPAC Studio 1, the other fabulously-equipped black box space, a 360 degree panoramic screen was employed in "Hybrid Space," presented as a lecture by Workspace Unlimited (Belgium), which used video game technology as a departure into truly futuristic parallel words of exploration, the closest to "innovative" of any of the events. One sat at the center as the surround video was operated by two performers, each controlling one half of the space. We were entranced (and sometimes made physically dizzy as well) by the seemingly endless virtual worlds able to be created and explored before our eyes, some physical and others phantasmagorical and beautifully abstract. One of the highlights was when we were shown examples of the virtual time/space/sound continuum being improvised on the spot. Like other entities, EMPAC is focusing on video game technology as serving as a springboard for a whole new area of artistic exploration. Unfortunately, also as in videogames, the mindless music accompaniment mostly belonged more in an elevator than as companion to this wonderful new field of creative endeavor.

"As if a Stranger" by Richard Siegal/The Bakery (France, USA, Germany) was a solo dance/theatrical performance with live cello obbligato in which "images, movement, presence, and streams of words weave a seeming narrative." As with the other two, theatrical lighting and video played a major supporting role. Although the beginning dance sequence in which the soloist writhed and twisted snake-like around the floor was a bit lengthy, the overall production was filled with delightful and elegant surprises, as when the dancer-now become narrator filled the screen with his poetry recitation accompanied by effective and eerie distortion of his video-captured facial image.

Four short commissioned "Dance Movies" films were shown in the Concert Hall. These were somewhat traditional but mostly of high quality. Hopefully in the future, as the EMPAC research facilities are opened to these filmmakers, more daring and technologically innovative projects will ensue. I longed to see something of the quality and sophistication of a Dennis Miller, for example, with his wonderfully abstract crystalline shapes and colors moving in space, but in vain. The thrust here seemed to be more along the lines of the short film festival, which is typically concerned with the more traditional narrative. I am thinking that perhaps the idea of restricting these widely promoted commissions to only the subject of dance imposes an artificial restraint, resulting in their being off limits to more experimental video and film creators.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

One of the very best features of this new EMPAC entity is that it is exposing American audiences to an unprecedented concentration of cutting edge new work from the very best artists and groups worldwide, barring no expense. And their new fall schedule just announced promises more of the same. Check it out at http://empac.rpi.edu/events. And to think that it is a short 25-minute drive from my home. Who would have thought?

As I sadly left the last event of the opening two weeks, a nagging question surfaced: Will the many creative artists and performers in the years to come be energized or intimidated by the profound elegance of the EMPAC spaces and facilities? On first impression, I had both reactions simultaneously. But on reflection I realized that in the long haul, for all its impressive credentials, EMPAC will be only as good as its choice of creative and research artists and its public events make it, and as evidenced by the mixed quality of the opening events, this jury is still out, but we are profoundly hopeful.

Composer/performer Barton McLean is currently touring with wife Priscilla as The McLean Mix music/media duo. They can be reached at mclmix@cisbec.net, as well as on their web site at http://members@cisbec.net/mclmix/index.html.

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