Innovative, immersive, visionary. These are not terms ordinarily associated with contemporary classical music and string quartets. Then again, Visions & Voices’ Measures & Frames, performed for a packed house at Newman Hall this past Saturday, was far from an ordinary concert.
The first collaboration of its kind for USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and Thornton School of Music, Measures & Frames featured the internationally renowned Pendrecki String Quartet performing five pieces of contemporary classical music paired with original visuals projected against a three-screen display for an unforgettable pairing of image and sound.
Two of the chief visionaries behind this innovative new multidisciplinary art form are John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts faculty Mike Patterson and Candace Reckinger, who helped organize the event and, along with a team of animation students (named below) designed and directed three impressive original pieces for show.
Mike and Candace are no strangers to innovation in visual music. Their work in applying hybrid visuals to musical form dates back to their award-winning 1985 music video for A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” They also worked with Visions & Voices in 2011 and 2013 to produce Rhythms And Visions: Expanded and Live I and II, two events that used live visual music performance and architectural projection mapping to transform SCA into an immersive electronic music experience.
“We were known for blending media back when there was no term for it,” Candace explains. “People would just say, ‘That thing you do, where you mix animation, live action, and effects.’”
“We really want to do special projects and new media work at this school,” Mike says. “That’s our goal. That’s what Candace and I came here to do.”
Knowing this, Rob Cutietta, Dean of the Thornton School of Music, arranged for Mike and Candace to meet with Veronika Krausas, who teaches composition at Thornton and had done work in visual music in the past.
“It was kind of like a blind date,” Candace jokes. “We met [Veronika] for coffee and just hit it off right away.”
From there, Veronika explains, “We started becoming friends and came up with this idea along with Marek Zebrowski, who is the director of the Polish Music Center and friends with David Lynch, [who made an original animated short for this event]. So the four of us got together and said, ‘Let’s do a project with the Penderecki where it’s all music, film, and string quartet and video.’ We applied for a Visions & Voices grant, and they were great. They funded the project.”
Veronika, Mike, Candace, and Marek spent the next year planning and designing one of the most innovative and intensive collaborations the University has ever witnessed. Mike and Candace met with the composers of the three pieces for which they would provide visuals—Veronika’s “Midaregami,” Jeffrey Holmes’ “Kirurgi,” and Thomas Adès’ “Arcadiana”—and worked with their team of animation students to design original animations and hybrid visuals aimed to highlight and enhance the abstract, visceral complexities of the pieces.
“Music is abstract and invites the audience in—the visuals have to do this too,” says Mike of their process. “The multi-sensory experience invites the audience to understand the form of the music in an expanded way. If you’re depicting the music too literally, you’re limiting the freedom to personally engage.”
Candace elaborates, “We want to create a conversation between the pictures and the music. We’re making something more like a painting: a world that embodies a story-like idea or emotion. It’s an audio-visual experience that gives the audience a new entryway into the music. Suddenly we see structure and form that we couldn’t see before. What seemed impenetrable and unfamiliar can suddenly become inviting and enjoyable, especially with a very conceptual, sophisticated piece like ‘Arcadiana.’”
Indeed, like most contemporary classical music, the compositions featured are extremely challenging even for a more trained ear.
“All the music in this is atonal; there is no key signature,” Veronika describes of her piece, inspired by a collection of poems by Akiko Yosano that also served as lyrics for the piece as sung by Soprano Rebekah Barton. “For some audiences not familiar with new music and it’s their first time hearing not one but five new works, it’s tough. I think that the added dimension of the video helps smooth that out a bit. This is a way for audiences to actually experience the music more and become more familiar with it. The video helps acclimatize people to the sounds, and then they’re more able to appreciate them.”
If the diverse crowd that delivered a standing ovation at the evening’s conclusion is any indication, this type of visual music experience has opened the doors of classical composition to a newer, younger crowd than the form has seen in quite some time.
“This is for an audience that is very sophisticated visually and demands visuals,” says Candace, referring to the younger generations’ culture of YouTube and other visual mediums. “It puts classical music on a very visceral level for a contemporary audience.”
“This is something that this University ought to do a little more, where various departments bring together their strengths into a project like this and have a wonderful opportunity to display creativity and also inspire a new generation of students to do something with music and image,” says Marek, who agrees with Candace and Mike’s belief in a bright future for this medium. “Since time immemorial, the audience wanted to see the gladiators fighting the lions. They wanted the blood spilled, and I think that this is one of those instances where something intangible is happening, something unique is happening. I certainly think this could be a trend that could be repeated elsewhere.”