headphone-driven performance

In HEADPHONE-DRIVEN PERFORMANCE performers try to imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones. The performers have never heard these sounds before, and yet they are asked to reproduce the input as it happens--with every word, pitch and expression accurate and no lag time whatever. This last requirement makes the task quite impossible and the result resembles a strange, dramatic and mostly indecipherable new language--even though the source material is, for the most part, plain English. Here and there an intelligible word or phrase emerges. In some sections, simple movement directives are added, electronic signal tones cueing the performers to listen for instructions. To preserve the necessary element of surprise, each performer can execute a given role only once, or, alternatively, the headphone input must be different from night to night. Mock-up tapes are used for auditions, training and rehearsal.

Headphone-driven performance is not an improvisation. The compositions are highly structured; and yet there is not--and cannot be--a written score. Most of the input material is speech, not song, and much of it is highly dramatic. This work is characterized by highly organized interplay between performers and musical accompaniment. The accompaniment and all of the headphone parts come from a single 8-channel digital tape.

Headphone-driven performance focuses attention on the present moment--no one knows what will happen next, and the performers can't afford to look back. The audience shares in the very real sense of tension and danger. Raw emotions become abstracted and aestheticized; vocal behaviors happen that would otherwise simply be unobtainable.

This work is part of a continuing interrogation of the basic functions and assumptions of existing equipment. Headphone-driven performance exposes the technology of the recording studio by turning it inside out: recording equipment is normally used to translate what is live and ephemeral into something static (for the purpose of mass production). Here this application is reversed, and machines become the catalyst for a one-time-only live event, exposing raw human qualities in the performer.

So far, the headphone-driven pieces include

the solo Travelogue,

Headset Sextet, a six-movement suite for six vocalists plus tape (read a review),

and, with choreographer Douglas Dunn,

the 80-minute Spell for Opening the Mouth of N, for eight wireless-headphone-driven singer/actor/movers and a dance company of ten.

British composer Gavin Byars put headphones on musicians in 1,2...1,2,3,4 and Serenely Beaming and Leaning on a Five-barred Gate (both 1970). There are probably many other similar instances as well. Some of the techniques and concepts used in headphone-driven performance evolved through collaboration among the original members of the headphone-driven singing group Nancy--Joshua Fried, Iris Rose and James Siena.

Travelogue is performed by one headphpone-driven performer with taped musical accompaniment. Travelogue addresses issues of communication, individuality and control. the title refers to feelings of dislocation, alienation, exhilaration and despair often experienced by travelers--and everyone else, for that matter, at one time or another. In the course of the piece, the performers experiences and portrays and extremely wide range of emotions, from giddiness to bewilderment to terror.

Performances: Bang On A Can Festival (soloist Dora Ohrenstein (Philip Glass Ensemble)); ISCM's World Music Days Warsaw 1992 (soloist Shelley Hirsch); New York's La MaMa Theater (soloist Dina Emerson (Meredith Monk Ensemble)); The Knitting Factory (soloist David Moss)

Headset Sextet--a concert piece for six headphone-driven vocalists and taped accompaniment. Read a review.

The movements include:

1. "8/9 Canon" Two performers deliver a strident speech (political oratory?) in a double canon after the style of Conlon Nancarrow. The two voices and two music tracks proceed at different tempos in a ratio of 8:9, catching up with each other such that all four parts end in emphatic unison. In addition, the accompaniment (based on isorhythmic arpeggiated 9th chords) decelerates dramatically over the course of the piece. Calm returns in a wistful coda.

2. "1st Cumbia" Cumbia is a dance rhythm popular in Colombia and Mexico. Here performers (unwittingly) execute phase patterns la Steve Reich, to a Cumbia beat.

3. "2 Transformations" First transformation: a heated dialogue, perhaps about free will, that gradually accelerates. Second transformation: a passacaglia or set of variations of increasing density, in which a spoken passage is gradually warped by digital processing of the headphone part. The accompaniment to the whole movement is based on the speech rhythms and pitches of the second transformation.

4. "Simple Canon" Identical vocal parts enter at staggered intervals. Rage gives way to giddiness without warning, and everyone stops with perfect timingbut they dont know it.

5. "2nd Cumbia" An original song, and finally no phase patterns or canons. A concluding blast puts the performers in a state of suspended animation.

6. "Kaleidoscope: Deep space or fiery re-entry" The performers seem to bid a fond farewell over a pulsing tonic in 8 against 9.

Performances: La MaMa Theater, New York; Lincoln Center--Walter Reade Theater, with The Bang On A Can All-Stars (two movements only); Israel Festival, Jerusalem--Gerard Behar Theatre, with The Bang On A Can All-Stars (two movements only); Paradiso, Amsterdam, with The Bang On A Can All-Stars (two movements only); Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA.

Spell for Opening the Mouth of N--a full-length performance created in collaboration with choreographer Douglas Dunn. The 10 members of Douglas Dunn & Dancers interact with 8 headphone-driven performers, with taped musical accompaniment (all instruments by Joshua Fried). Design is by Mimi Gross, texts by Ruth E. Margraff and Joshua Fried, lighting by Carol Mullins.

In Spell, performers wear wireless belt-packs allowing complete freedom of movement. The interplay of performers' responses to various instructions (headphone input, choreography) becomes a metaphor for the intersection of cultural "instructions" in contemporary society. Spell for Opening the Mouth of N premiered at The Kitchen, New York in November 1996; it was presented at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in August 1997.

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