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The Orpheus Variations: Deconstructing Memory Through Myth

A reimaging of a beloved myth as an exploration of memory + the past, The Orpheus Variations is the perfect marriage of form + content to create a wholly unique + engaging theater-going experience. The piece—collaboratively created by the Deconstructive Theatre Project—tells the story of a man confronting his present reality in the wake of his wife’s disappearance, innovatively interspersing a series of vignettes spanning Orpheus and Eurydice’s shared past. Perfectly encapsulating the semi-deluded state many of us enter when overcome with grief, Orpheus’s idyllic memories become inextricably intertwined with his present reality as the audience is transported into a quasi-dream state.

Robert Kitchens [Orpheus] in The Orpheus Variations. Photo by Mitch Dean.

The Orpheus Variations succeeds beautifully in conveying the tragedy of this tale by artfully mimicking how the brain synthesizes the infinite raw sensory stimuli of everyday experience to construct our own personal versions of reality. In keeping with the company’s name, the cast members deconstruct moments from Orpheus and Eurydice’s time together into their constituent sensory elements. In a rather remarkable technological achievement, sound, lighting, and live action are seamlessly stitched together in real time to create a stunning filmic narrative projected above the ensemble members as they carefully construct, enact, and film each scene below. The chaotic on-stage action is counterbalanced by an overarching voice narration–a sort of lyrical inner monologue–underscored by evocative live music, which, together with the live-fed film, mirror the brain’s imposed narrative on experience. Thus, the audience member is at once invited to use their own brains to patch together the fragments that make up the characters’ past, and to watch Orpheus + Eurydice’s own cohesive interpretations of those very same moments played out on film, illuminating what these characters have subconsciously chosen to compose their own versions of reality given all of the same sensory information.

By creating a piece that is reflective of the brain’s inner workings, the DTP has provided the viewer with the unique opportunity to create their own journey within the overarching theatrical journey unfurling on stage. The piece reveals how truly subjective our own experiences are—how reality is merely an imperfectly generated construct, often vulnerable to our own personal expectations + narratives. As I observed [and was subjected to] how experience + memory are constructed, I became viscerally aware of my own brain’s inherent deceit + trickery. With this frame of mind, the real tragedy of the story [at least for me] became all the more deeply felt—that while desperately in love with each other, these two characters inhabited two distinct yet intimately interwoven realities, which ultimately drove them apart.

Robert Kitchens [Orpheus] & Amanda Dieli [Eurydice] in The Orpheus Variations. Photo by Mitch Dean.

The form of the piece has the added effect of bending space-time, as the audience witnesses past, present, and future unfolding on stage all at once until they are virtually indistinguishable. This time-bending effect is jarringly reminiscent of the inconsequence of time during periods of mourning—how in times of desperation and intense grief we can slip into a world of revised // idealized memory, clinging to the hope that it can somehow become our own present + perfect version of reality. The Orpheus Variations thus reveals the ultimate corruption that comes with such motivated recollection.

All of the above said, I now must disclaim that what I find most exciting about The Orpheus Variations—both in watching the performance and from my earlier conversation with writer + director Adam J. Thompson—is that it is quite literally impossible for any two audience members to experience the piece in the same way. By design, each performance contains an infinite number of possible journeys–from film to construction of film to individual actors and back again–creating an intentionally subjective, wholly viewer-dependent theater-going experience. Once the curtains went down, I sat down with Adam and the DTP team to moderate a talkback in which several of the audience members shared their own personal journeys through the piece, each differing from the next by varying degrees. Given the same inputs—the same film, actors, sound, lighting, narration—every one of us in the theater followed a completely different trajectory to take away a deeply personal experience in a rather elegant reinforcement of formal theme.

By simultaneously deconstructing both the mind’s interpretation of reality and the theater-making process, The Orpheus Variations has masterfully reinvented what live theater can mean for the individual, while illuminating the utter complexity + subjectivity of our own consciousness.


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Performed at HERE Arts Center, The Orpheus Variations was conceived and directed by Adam J. Thompson and developed collaboratively by the members of the Deconstructive Theatre Project. For more information about the company please visit their website + Like them on Facebook.

The Biggest Sound You’ve Never Heard

Despite having lived in New York for six years, I only first heard about The Dream House, now in its twentieth year, a few weeks ago. Tucked away in Tribeca, The Dream House is a sound + light environment designed by musician La Monte Young and visual artist Marian Zazeela. Not fully knowing what to expect, I ventured to the MELA Foundation at 275 Church Street to have a listen.

I arrived at the nondescript building that houses The Dream House, slipped off my shoes, and entered a warm, spacious, magenta-tinted room. Immediately, a cacophony of sounds began beating on my ear drums, engulfing me in a thick droning sound. An acute sense of panic swept over me—friends were coming to meet me and I didn’t think I could bear the drones for a moment longer. As I nervously paced the room, however, I started to notice something rather strange and amazing: the sound was actually changing with every move I made, right down to the tiniest, most subtle tilt of my head!

sound waves

[top] sine wave [bottom] more complex sound waves

The Dream House’s unique soundscape is a tribute to the mesmerizing power of pure mathematics, as is readily evident from the composition’s [105-word-long] title: The Base 9:4:7 Symmetry in Prime Time...1 To construct this seemingly infinite array of sonic possibilities, Young deftly employs the physical + mathematical nature of sound to compose with numbers and ratios rather than notes on a page. The sounds of The Dream House—like any other sounds—begin when the four floor-to-ceiling speakers start vibrating, setting surrounding molecules in the air in motion. As these molecules bump against each other, regions of high pressure compressions and low pressure rarefactions form a mechanical wave as the sound travels.

The most basic unit of sound is the sine wave—or the sinusoid. The frequency of the sine wave, or how quickly it oscillates up and down, dictates pitch; higher frequency waves emit higher pitched sounds, while lower frequency waves emit lower pitched sounds. The Dream House is composed of sine waves at 35 different frequencies over the 10 octaves that span the audible range for humans [20 Hz – 20,000 Hz]. Young intentionally chose each frequency to be some multiple—or harmonic—of the fundamental frequency of 7.5 Hz: beginning at the fourth harmonic [30 Hz] and ranging up to the 2224th harmonic [16,680 Hz].2   Within the room, each frequency has its own point of resonance where it is heard the loudest: the lower tones resonate in wide niches towards the middle, while the higher tones occupy much narrower bands of resonance scattered throughout the room.

from time to time, the mela foundation holds concerts within the dream house environment.

To create such an acoustic environment, Young paid very special attention to the relationships between the various sine waves, specifically to the intervals between their frequencies. These intervals can be related as ratios between different frequencies.3   For The Dream House, Young chose only to work with the frequencies in the 9:7 interval, using only the pitches found in between A and C#. Young further placed a special emphasis on harmonics within that 9:7 intervallic spread that are prime-numbered—divisible only by 1 and themselves. Each prime harmonic that appears in the composition introduces a totally new interval into the soundscape, as it produces a frequency ratio that cannot be reduced any further. As a result, the more primes used in the piece, the more unique intervals become knit into its aural fabric.

If you begin with the rational numbers and learn what they are, physically, musically, vibrationally, and spiritually, then they’re like stepping stones toward other more evolved places. ∇Δ La Monte Young

Pure sinusoidal sounds are actually never found in nature. Instead, the complex sounds we encounter every day are an amalgamation of several of these sinusoidal building blocks at varying frequencies that overlap and interact to form more complicated waveforms. Four monolithic speakers are found in each corner of The Dream House, emitting sine waves at different frequencies from floor to ceiling. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine these sine waves colliding + coalescing with one another over every square inch of the room to create the installation’s surreal droning atmosphere.

photo

me. moving through the dream house.

The music of The Dream House is unique in that it does not progress linearly through time as notes are played out from a score to a stationary audience. Instead, the music moves as you move through the environment over time. It is music that quite literally exists in three dimensional space, necessitating complete immersion into the environment of the piece: “It depends on where you are sitting or whether you are stationary or moving. As your head moves, your ears behave like fingers on a stringed instrument, activating the various nodes that emphasize different partials of the harmonic spectrum.”4  

The Dream House is the culmination of La Monte Young’s career-long fascination with the infinite and eternal. I spent over two hours engaging with this utterly bizarre space. Tilting this way and that // moving through various heights // spiraling through the room [// even standing on my hands!], I tuned into the dynamics of the room, and found that I could never encounter the same sound in the same way twice. Embedded in The Dream House’s sonic landscape are limitless possible musical journeys based on your exact trajectory through the room, so that every visit is entirely unique and perfectly tailored to that given moment in time.

To experience the interactive soundscape that embodies the very definition of the infinite, be sure to check out The Dream House at the MELA Foundation for a suggested [and well-worth-it!] donation of $5.

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. The Dream House.

Sept 22, 2012 through Jun 15, 2013.

Thursday to Saturday 2:00pm to midnight.

275 Church St. New York, NY, MELA Foundation


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1 The full-length title is The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119.

2 One of these multiples, 60 Hz, is actually the operating frequency of the North American electrical grid, so that the very sound that comes out of the speakers while they are operating is actually incorporated into the soundscape!

3 Many of the sounds we hear in Western classical music can be reduced down to an intervallic ratio of 2:1 [the octave], 5:4 [the major third], or 3:2 [the perfect fifth] ratio.

4 Terry Riley on La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in a 1967 essay. Quote taken from here.

[in]Focus

New York-based artist Jeff Elrod paints abstractions using basic computer software through a technique he calls “frictionless drawing.” But it was not his technology-infused artistic process that struck me when I saw his latest exhibition—Nobody Sees Like Us—at MOMA PS1. Rather, as I walked into the small, square room that displayed his work, I was overcome with the most disorienting case of vertigo I have ever experienced.

jeff elrod. echo painting [b/w]. 2012. uv ink on canvas. courtesy of the artist.

jeff elrod. echo painting [b/w]. 2012. uv ink on canvas. courtesy of the artist.

By the end of my first half hour at PS1, I had fallen into my normal museum going routine, exercising my visual sensibilities. Having some aesthetic sense of what to stop and look for in a piece, I honed in on visual cues meant to evoke some greater feeling or meaning. Circle a sculpture // observe its lines, contours, visual textures. Pause by a photo // take in its composition, subject, tone. So, when I walked into the room that housed Elrod’s four-piece exhibition, I was entirely prepared to flex those very same sensual muscles once more, only to find my eyes incapable.

As I stepped in, my entire visual field was engulfed by a series of four canvases, each adorning its own wall: Blue FigmentEcho Painting (b/w) [shown right], Echo Painting (green), and Brown Soft Machine. Light from the monochromatic images was streaming through my cornea making its way through my iris, which was appropriately expanding // contracting to control the amount of light that passed through my pupil. However, once that light hit the lens, my eyes suddenly malfunctioned. I felt immediately unsteady, my eyes flailing to find some refreshing focal point that would actually allow my brain to make sense of what it was seeing. I became hyper aware of the tiny ciliary muscles attached to my eye’s lens as they mechanically contracted and relaxed, adjusting the shape of my lens, trying to bring those obscured images into focus. Absorbed in a room that was designed to be out-of-focus, try as they might, my eyes could never reach even some semblance of focal resolution.

basic anatomy of the eye.

Much to my eyes’ chagrin, Elrod’s paintings are designed to vex our vision, intentionally arresting the eye at the focal stage. In doing so, he challenges the eye to perform its usual aesthetic duties—look at the image, focus on the image, process the image. Using digital software, he processes his own original drawings into these blurred images that “create visual fields that resist coherence.” Amorphous images that are, by design, incapable of resolution: “The space, shapes, and lines from the artist’s original drawings are lost and the indeterminate blur that he produces becomes the paintings’ dominant aesthetic form.” In one broad, blurred stroke, Elrod deftly drew my awareness to a very specific aspect of my visual processing machinery by forcing it into a sort of system overload. A heightened awareness for a sense we so often take for granted, especially as we necessarily rely on it to take in and understand visual art.

Nobody Sees Like Us derives its appeal not as a series of four images because you never really end up seeing anything in any traditional sense. Instead, inherent in the series’ artistry is the sensation of sensuous suspension. A constant feeling that i was on the cusp of something. That in just a few more moments, my eyes would pull through as they had done a million times before and reveal what was behind all that obscurity. 

To experience the most satisfying sense of optical dissatisfaction, visit Nobody Sees Like Us at MOMA PS1, showing on the second floor until April 1, 2013.

Jeff Elrod. Nobody Sees Like Us.

Jan 20 – Apr 1, 2013

2nd floor, MOMA PS1