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This performance began as an exploration of liminal spaces in the context of a post-modern world. The lines between a suburban, consumptive society, fraught with binaries and thresholds while on the fringes of nature, were what interested me the most. However, this line of thought quickly took me to far more ancient places, to a view of nature driven by animism and pervaded by spiritual introspection. In Celtic Ireland, to give an example, every stone and river is witness to a myth. The Celts of the old world as described by anthropologist Marie-Louise Sjoestedt are constantly straddling the line between the natural and the supernatural. Meanwhile, off in northeast Georgia, mountaineers worshipped the pre-Christian deity “Adgilis Deda”, the “mother of locality” or so called “place-mother”, a protective spirit inseparable from her environment and from the Georgians’ relation to the natural spaces in which they dwell. This concept of a protective spirit was even used by the Romans, which they called “genius-loci”. The ultimate liminal space for me to explore then became the spectrum of nature and society, of humanity and spirituality. And so I became drawn to early polyphonic vocal music, from folk traditions as eclectic as Bulgaria and Georgia to Christian hymns sung all across Europe, and deep into the Russian Orthodox Church.
The piece Agni Parthene, which I sung with FFT processing in my performance, is a hymn sung in Old Church Slavonic, from a melody supposedly given to a Greek monk in a vision. The voice being the most essential instrument to both my music and my spiritual contentedness, I began to appreciate the value of breath and repetition for sinking into myself so as to interpret these old words. Though not a Christian myself, I’ve begun to perceive a continuity between Christian (as well as pagan) chants and modern electro-acoustic music: both are concerned with long gestures, introspection, and spacial awareness. Envelope, intonation according to the acoustics of a space, the timbral (or overtonal) content of a harmony, these are all the common tools of both electro-acoustic and polyphonic vocal musicians. And so I found my medium: I wanted to create a piece that linked electronic processing, composition for strings, and vocal polyphony in a way that appeared seamless, without clear starts and stops, so as to invite the audience to question the nodes at which one form begins, and another ends. Like a waveform whose pitch is defined by the frequency at which it completes a cycle back to zero, the vocal polyphony would serve as a return point, or an exhalation, to imply a greater periodic structure.
However, one thing was missing: I wanted to incorporate the final element necessary to ground this project in human interactivity, that is I needed a rhythm section. Thomas Turino describes ethnomusicology with the term “the politics of participation”, and I must agree with him. Music as a social act reaffirms its own potency, and invites it into the human space in a way that is not aloof or overly spiritual. And so I worked on developing my songs with my band, to really develop their groove and concision. Having such a vibrant ensemble to play this music with me was essential for the composition process itself. I believe that the excitement of playing in a group is what makes the musical medium so viscerally pervasive and valuable in society.
One final note, for the visual component to this piece I extensively explored Lissajous forms, which I believe are the essential visual companion to all of the thematic work I’ve developed. To put it briefly, Lissajous patterns are figures that are sensitive to the ratio a/b for two different waveforms (a, b) such that their relative phase is proportional to that ratio. What this expresses visually is a geometrically satisfying pattern that illustrates consonance, which in early Western music is the holiest sort of harmony. That consonance is sensitive to ratios described by the harmonic series, where each overtone is an integer multiple of the lowest base frequency. The ratio of an octave (2/1) or a fifth (3/2) comes up in (I’d venture to say) any and every musical practice that one can name. It took hundreds of years for Gregorian singers to accept intervals that weren’t “perfect” (their earliest polyphony used only fourths, fifths, and octaves, to serve the function of becoming closer to God). And we know that Western African cultures valued the ratio of 3/2 to order both their music and their societies (and this is just to name a couple of examples).
Patterns, periodicity, intervallic structure, feedback, these are all descriptions essential to the phenomenon of music as well as to the complexity of natural ecosystems, human society, electrical mechanics, and even how we breathe. An inhalation, an exhalation. A zero and a one. A positive and a negative. Without these dualities, my project could not exist. And where the beauty lies is in the liminal space between those nodes. That is what I call the Thin Blue Seam, inspired by Carl Sagan after having a hypnagogic vision. That is where my project starts, ends, and will inevitably repeat as I move on.
This has been a work in progress.
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Anton-Ojeda, Sebastian, "Thin Blue Seam" (2017). Senior Projects Spring 2017. 171.
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