Giant killer hornet extract, marathon running, Scottish bagpipes, Balanese gamelan, Japanese taiko, interactive digital animation . . . blend all these ingredients, shake or stir, and you have Marathonalogue, a new multi-disiplinary, cross-cultural show that promises to be one of the performance highlights of the year.
The show, which runs February 18 to 20 at the Norman Rothstein Theatre, brings together a number of artists including Kenneth Newby, Aleksandra Dulic, Melissa Ftrzelec, Oliver Szeleczky and Brendan Edward Wingrove, who will be creating interative computer-animated projections, and composers Michael O’Neill, Boyd Seiichi Grealy and I Wayan Sudirana. They will be joined by musicians Sylvia DeTar, Elaine Ng, and Eien Hunter-Ishikawa.
The Bulletin asked Aleksandra Dulic and Michael O’Neill to share their thoughts on the upcoming show.
In Their Own Words
Michael O’Neill & Aleksandra Dulic
I loved the concept for this piece from the moment I heard about it. Whose idea was it, and who brought all the artists together?
Michael O’Neill When I saw an article in the newspaper—Naoko Takahashi wins women’s marathon after drinking an extract distilled from giant killer hornets at the Sydney Olympics—long after Naoko had won at Sydney, I was struck by the imagery that it conjured up, unforgettable, and I immediately thought of the raspy, buzzing sound of bagpipes as a representative, or stand-in for hornets and taiko for pounding of feet on pavement. I thought of Boyd, who I know from working with Uzume Taiko. Some time later, I was investigating a processional form of gamelan from Bali, called Beleganjur, and thought, hey, bagpipes, taiko, and gamelan are all processional instruments, ensembles. At least they can be. I’d heard of, or was part of, collaborations between each pair—pipes/taiko, gamelan/pipes, and taiko/gamelan—I thought it was time to bring all three together. Wayan Sudirana from the gamelan at UBC, is both a composer and fabulour player, and he had composed new music for Beleganjur ensemble, so he was a natural to be invited into this ensemble. I had just finished working with Kenneth Newby and Aleksandra Dulic on a gamelan shadowplay, so it was easy to imagine this developing idea as a shadowplay, with video. They listened to the idea and immediately ‘saw’ it as animation.
Besides Naoko Takahashi and her downing of giant killer hornet extract, was there any other inspiration for this piece?
MO For me it brought to mind previous experiences that related to this image–Noaoko and giant killer hornets. Running. I’ve always loved running and thinking about this got me outside running in different size circles. A loop around city blocks, the nearby park, to the video store. And speaking of videos, it may have been the video Gerry that made me imagine a global marathon, which is what our work is stretching into being. In Gerry, two guys go for an afternoon walk to a ’point of interest’ and get horribly lost on the way. They never reach their destination and the landscape they travel through begins to look a lot like the wrong continent. So for me, I’m interested in this idea of being in a state of self-propelled solitude. And to speculate, or envision what would happen to your consciousness, your imagination, in this situation.
Aleksandra Dulic From the first moment, we wanted to explore visually the idea of transformation. Because the main concept was to visualize the experience of running the marathon, which is in a way a steady state, and at the same time a very rhythmic experience. We thought that the visual transformation would provide the richest ground for visual research. Because animation as a medium has no physical limits, the limits are only conceptual, we were clear that animation would be the right approach for the project.
One of the main trajectories is the transformation of running body from human to animal. The idea was that these transformations would reflect the various states and places that the marathon runner goes through. Another trajectory for transformations is the movement from external to internal world. The external world is represented through physical transformation form runner to animal, while the internal world is represented through abstract animation. The abstractions take a form of visual music, as a pure non-narrative exploration of rhythm and form. We are developing techniques where the visual medium is played like a drum, a kind of musical instrument that visually expresses the same kind of abstraction that is inherited in music. The musical dynamics of visual material represents the internal and embodied experience of running.
MO Then there were a host of other discoveries, some of which will find their way into Marathonologue: We encountered Atalanta, the fleet huntress who joined the Calydonian boar hunt. She demanded that each of her suitors race her, the winner to be rewarded with marriage, the losers to die. Hippomenes finally won her by dropping three golden apples that she stopped to retrieve; the Tarahumara people of Northern Mexico who regularly run 100 mile races in thin huaraches (sandals) made from old tires; Pheidippides, a professional runner who is said to have run from Marathon to Athens to inform the Athenians that they had won the battle against the Persians, thus running the first Marathon (‘Marathon’ is Greek for fennel). He uttered the words “Chairete nikomen” (Greetings, we have won), then dropped dead; the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami who complements his writing (which entails many hours immobile at a desk) with running (which entails many hours…). Check out his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
I’ve heard taiko and bagpipes together and I’ve heard taiko and gamelan together, but never the three at once. Is it a challenge blending the three instruments, given that they are each so distinctive?
MO Somehow we are hardly thinking in terms of ‘blending’ the instruments. It’s the ensemble of people and instruments that we’ve got and we’re just working together to make it sound . . . satisfying. Each composer knows their own ensemble best and tend to use the instruments that they’re more familiar with. But we’ve all composed for all three ensembles. And there is movement between ensembles as well. The taiko players are playing gamelan. The gamelan players are playing taiko. And everybody, hopefully including Aleks, will play a ‘macanAulos’, a little homemade reed instrument made from a plexiglass tube with a practise bagpipe reed stuck into the end of it. We sound like a swarm of hornets on some kind of human hormone.
Of course we’ve gone to great lengths to find gamelan instruments that will blend harmonically with the pipes. Especially the gongs. They were chosen specifically to complement the tuning of the pipes.
AD I love this project for this curious cultural blending. Each instrument and musical approach has its own character and intensity, and yet they blend together seamlessly. This project is so much a reflection of Vancouver reality . . . . I am from Serbia, Eastern Europe, and Michael at one point remarked that my runner looks like a character from a Greek myth. I guess we all bring our cultures to the play, and these cultures fuse together somehow so well.
Are the three given equal weight in the composition, or does one play a more dominant role?
MO I’d say equal. We haven’t had a chance to stand back and weigh yet. But it has been like a potluck dinner. Everybody has brought something different, but all parts complements each other to make a fabulous 15 ‘course’ whole that no one person could have imagined or produced.
Aleksandra, I see that Marathonalogue makes use of “interactive digital animation.” I take it this mean that the visuals are not pre-set, but will evolve as the show progresses. Could you explain how the visuals will play out in the context of the show?
AD Well the visuals are partly set, in that there is lots of pre-animated material. For example, the character animation is done as many separate loops that can be stitched seamlessly on demand. Which allows us to perform the character, in the same way we perform, or move around, the characters in computer games. Also there are many layers of pre-animated animations, so combining these layers in response to the music is another level of interaction. We developed many techniques that enable our animations to respond to music rhythmically, by triggering the selected set of materials at the right time. Finally there are some aspects of our interactive system that are purely generative, such as a swarm of bees flying around the character or character’s movement across the screen. Computer algorithms in real time animate these generative elements and we can interact with the algorithmic processes. Finally our performing animator, animation performance software that Kenneth and I have been developing over the last five years allows for many different inputs. From layering different materials and influencing computer animation algorithms, which I already mentioned, to controlling the compositing parameters, color, scale, movement, etc. As well, we can integrate live stop motion animation with all the layers of pre-animated materials. Basically we are VJ’s.
Another important element to understand compositionally is that we collectively created a structure of the work. We have been working on that structure from the beginning. While we know what happens when and how, within that structure there is a lot of room for improvisation. This is where the performance becomes very exiting. The ability to respond to events that are happening on the stage, to respond to other performers and to the audiences with your own visual material is most exciting part of working in this medium of interactive animation. The production is not finished in the animation studio, but it is completed on the stage.
I see my interaction with the performing animator equivalent to playing a musical instrument, or more precisely playing a visual (music) instrument.
Taiko, gamelan and bagpipes pretty much epitomize acoustic music, yet you are blending them with digital animation, which is at the other end of the spectrum. How are you bridging the potential aesthetic gap?
MO I don’t really experience an aesthetic gap and perhaps for these two reasons: The content of the video is a runner which most of us still imagine taking place, for the most part, outdoors. Especially marathon. I think it’s acoustic instruments that are still more easily associated with performing outdoors. Along the way I saw a YouTube video of a great group of taiko players playing alongside the track at the Tokyo Marathon. The taiko drums, and the movement made a very natural combination. And that was video and acoustic music. Reason 2: the video in our performance will be performed live, synchronized in performance with the music. And vice versa. I think this direct interaction of the visual and audio realms will create an aesthetic ‘bond’ rather than ‘gap’.
AD Well, on that level there is no aesthetic gap, in that all the pre produced animation material is drawn with hand on paper, frame by frame. Then we scan all the drawings and transform them into the loops and foreground and background layers, which we can interactively manipulate.
Our runner has a basic running cycle, from which she can transform into various animals and creatures, such as a lion, a bird, Minotaur etc. depending where she is in the evolving marathon story. But the runner and all transformations are drawn by hand with ink on paper.
I would like to use this opportunity to thank our students who worked with us on developing animated material for this performance. We are working with three talented students from University of British Columbia, Melissa Ftrzelec, Oliver Szeleczky and Brendan Edward Wingrove. They developed various elements of the pre-animated material.
presented by the Cultural Olympiad
and Gamelan Madu Sari
February 18, 19, 20, 8pm
Norman Rothstein Theatre,
950 West 41st Avenue (at Oak)
tickets: ticketstonight.ca, 604 684 2787, $20 (general) $15 (students/seniors)