(Vanessa Voskuil - photo by James Sewell)
This collaborative work of challenging-to-describe art was organized by Zachary Crockett, and served as the dissertation for his PHD in music composition (at the University of Minnesota). Months before I entered the process Zac joined forces with choreographer Vanessa Voskuil, and at her suggestion invited visual artist David Mehrer to the team. They’re all amazing so check out their respective pages!
(Zachary Crockett / me - photo by Justin Schell)
Zac began the creation process by composing a recorded soundtrack that would serve as the foundation for the whole piece. In its totality the track was about 45 minutes of sparse, ambient soundscape divided into 3 sections by 2 climaxes of much denser, intense textures.Ambient excerpt: 2nd climax:
Based on an early draft, him and Vanessa began brainstorming themes and concepts off of which the work would be based through a long series of emails. This early draft was much more sparse than Zac intended for the final product, but Vanessa had very positive feedback about the expansive/open texture and convinced Zac to keep it lean/simple. Some examples of themes/concepts that arose throughout the process: ritual, expansive, earth, fire, light, sound, unity, negotiation of space, attraction/repulsion, etc., which led them to the title: “VOCA::Omni (Ritual #1).”
(David Mehrer - photo by Justin Schell)
The sculptures (David’s creations) that Zac, Vanessa and David decided to incorporate into the piece all produce different qualities of light – my favorites being the 55 galon lamps and empty basin because they have the common theme of light as a volume, which I find very evocative. David’s sculptures really helped me get into the right mindset for this production because of how urgently they invite interpretation without imposing any definite guidelines on the substance of said interpretation. Every component of this performance was designed to do exactly that, and the unity of intention saturated the whole experience with a feeling of raw creative energy – rehearsals and performances alike. So at the first of only 4 rehearsals the sculptures and musical sound scape were in the late stages of development, but there was still a huge amount we didn’t know about the end product.
(Zac / me / Vanessa / Nathan Hanson - photo by Justin Schell)
One of the components of the performance was a live musical aspect, and the instrumentation Zac decided on was: alto flute (Zac), tenor saxophone (Nathan Hanson), grand piano (Solange Guillaume), and cello (me). Zac had composed two structured improvisations for this production, and on paper they couldn’t be any different from each other. The first piece was a trudgingly slow chorale with very strict parameters, leaving very limited avenues for individual interpretation – in many ways the composition fits the tradition of ‘classical music,’ employing expansive phrasing, dramatic arrivals, resolutions of suspensions, beautiful melodic shapes and harmonic movements. This was layered on top of Zac’s pre-recorded track, and the combined texture underscored Vanessa’s fabulous solo movements. My biggest regret of the production was that I so unevenly split my attention between my own playing, listening to my fellow musicians, and watching Vanessa – with so little rehearsal time to get used to dividing my attention this way, my eyes just glazed over and went almost completely inside my head. I think it worked with the aesthetic, but it would have been more powerful if I could have interacted with Vanessa, instead of simply trusting her to react to the music.
Excerpt of First improv (Vanessa Voskuil - photo by Justin Schell)
The second piece that we played was a much more individualized structured improv. in the tradition of Pauline Oliveros, throwing (most of) the rules of the classical canon out the window and focusing on one simple concept. This was also played over the 2nd climax of the prerecorded soundscape as an accompaniment to Vanessa’s movements, but we musicians actually walked over and gathered around Vanessa during the shared musical/dance climax while playing our instruments, which was super intense. This was especially interesting to watch since Solange and I had to walk while playing cello and grand piano, respectively. haha. And even though these two pieces were so dissimilar, they both somehow perfectly supported the piece as a whole – I think. It’s really difficult for me to imagine the piece from the audience’s perspective, but I do know that the whole thing felt very unified from the inside, and all I could do was try and communicate that impression.
Excerpt of 2nd improv (Zac's diagram from instructions for 2nd structured improv.)
To me, one of the strangest/coolest aspects of this piece was that everyone was incorporated into the group movements. Vanessa designed the choreography around our limited/nonexistent dance backgrounds, and the primary goal was unifying the intention behind our motions, rather than defining exactly how we were articulating our bodies. Everything was based on interactions with David’s sculptures, namely the big white luminescent barrels; we touched/shook/climbed on them, moved them around the stage, walked around them and flicked their lights on/off. It was really bizarre for me to be performing in front of an audience without my cello in hand, but then again it really wasn’t. This piece reminded me that no matter what the style/content of the performance, the primary goal is to communicate your intention to the audience and everything else is just supporting that directive.
(Solange Guillaume / me / Zac - photo by Justin Schell)
We have loose plans to perform this piece again this summer, hopefully outside on a beautiful starry evening, so stay tuned for any information regarding future performances. And keep your eyes/ears peeled for news of everybody mentioned above!