Composer Mikel Rouse designed the visual components of his multi-disciplinary work, Gravity Radio, a song cycle played by string quartet
Do gravity waves exist, like sound waves or light waves? This physics conundrum intrigues composer Mikel Rouse, who designed the visual components of his multi-disciplinary work, Gravity Radio, a song cycle played by string quartet that started touring last January. The piece was then reworked in Juniata, PA, for performances at BAM’s Harvey Theatre in New York in December, then on to Cleveland and more dates in the spring.
“A lot of composers are interested in science,” says Rouse, whose inspiration for sound waves traveling great distances was radio station WLS in Chicago. “I lived in a small town in Missouri, where our smaller stations would shut down at night. Then WLS from Chicago snuck into my transistor radio. I couldn’t find it early in the evening, but around 10-10:30, it began to creep in. By 11pm, it was very clear and gone again by the morning. The music could have been from another planet—early Motown and mid-1960s music, and the British invasion, The Beatles and Stones. Commercial radio played a wider variety then, an incredible cross-culture of influences. Where I lived, they played mostly country-western.”
This late-night phenomenon led Rouse to incorporate radio reports, taken live every day from the Associated Press news wire, into the live production as what he calls “a reflection on CNN and infotainment, as well as giving the work fresh content. The music doesn’t change, but the news items do,” he explains. “The same song accompanies very different news, from day to day, and you hear the radio slowly coming into focus. Shortwave radio sounds creep in, then the string quartet, then the news report, between the songs.” The lyrics for each song, from upbeat to love ballads, are general and can reflect on any of the news pieces. “This has an immediate effect,” says Rouse. “It can be informative as well as entertaining.
“All my works are visual,” Rouse adds. “I wanted to illustrate a visual atmosphere and show a film I shot all over the world, what I call earth-bound images.” The images—shot in HD video with the frame rate of film—are projected onto the back wall of every theatre, no boundaries, and no borders.
“[TroikaTronix] Isadora software creates a simple interface between the film and audio,” says projection designer Jeff Sugg, who works as a technical guru with Rouse. “As is frequently the case, the visual side is very much Mikel’s world as well. He’s been shooting video for a long time, as in The End of Cinematics. I help create the technological language to make it happen. In this case, he wanted the images to pulse with the audio, and the music to drive how the image reacts. I provide options A, B and C.”
Sugg notes that the Isadora interface is especially useful for taking the piece on the road where the sound might vary. “Isadora responds to the sound level, using it for motion blur, taking the images and making them more mysterious,” he says. “Images correspond to the level of sound coming from the stage and are triggered by the sound level, with Isadora fed from the mixing board. The question is how much sound it takes to trigger the projector. It’s like the film is living and breathing to the sound of the radio.”
For Rouse, this live radio environment takes him back to his bedroom in Missouri, while the film incorporates travelogue shot around the world, as well as conversations. “The image also gets blurry at times to maintain a painterly aesthetic,” notes Sugg, who uses an eight-core Mac Pro tower for multi-channel playback. The projectors change from venue to venue. In BAM’s Harvey Theatre, for example, they comprise two 12K Sanyo XF46 units stacked on the balcony rail.
“The piece is straightforward but with an edge,” says Sugg, “something that people don’t see every day. The film complements and empowers the music; they talk to each other in a facile way, as elegant as simple, yet with a powerful effect.”
The lighting and film design are intrinsically tied to the music. “Mikel’s film was my inspiration for choosing colors,” says lighting designer Hideaki Tsutsui. “My lighting design, specifically for cueing, is driven by the music and rhythm from his songs.”
Tsutsui uses two 2kW Fresnels on the floor, far up stage of the band, to create the illusion of radio waves and distance. “My idea was to initiate the feel of an almost dreamlike world, yet it is the real world,” he says. “It symbolizes the real information from Associated Press that is integrated with this show. Mikel usually doesn’t like to discuss the concept too much. He lets me bring my vision to the table first. It is a fascinating approach, and this is my fifth show with him.”
The rig also includes various degrees of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, PAR64s, and 6' mini-strips. “I needed to take into consideration that we have very short setup time to get this show up, so the choices for each fixture had to be effective,” Tsutsui says. “As a lighting designer, I am very excited about the recent development of lighting console software. I am using an ETC Eos console at BAM. University of Texas at El Paso, where I teach, has an ETC Ion. Both consoles share the same software as well as an offline editor for Eos/Ion. This technology allowed me to program the show offsite, email the show file, and the lighting crew at BAM can put the show into the console. I am a true believer of cueing the show in advance to save time at the show site.
“As a concept of the show, we wanted to have the images projected on the back wall,” continues Tsutsui. “This means that there will be some distance between the performers and the film images. I did have to coordinate with Jeff about the height of the image, so that my trim height of electrics was high enough. We also decided to incorporate a haze machine into the show to make the beams of light more visible. My goal was to create more dimensions and merge the beams of light, using the film image compositionally as a unified visual element on stage.”