Agile Chambers: Roundtable Interview 1: Turbulence: An interview with the creative development team

Transcription of interview with creative development team from Turbulence. Recorded on Wednesday 7 December, 2017 at RMIT University’s Design Hub, Melbourne, Australia.

Facilitator: Associate Professor Lawrence Harvey, Chief Investigator

Participants: Juliana Hodkinson (Composer), Cynthia Troup (Librettist), David Young (Director), Deborah Kayser (Performer), Peter Humble (Filmmaker)

Agile Chambers was part of Agile Opera: Chamber Opera in a New Era, funded by the Australian Research Council, the Australia Council for the Arts, Chamber Made Opera and Federation Square Management.

FACILITATOR:  Good afternoon, and welcome everybody to the first of three lunchtime talks, as part of Agile Chambers. My name is Lawrence Harvey and I am a Chief Investigator on the mothership project which is Agile Opera funded by the Australian Research Council.

Firstly, I would like to start off by congratulating the artists and creators of Turbulence. We have just seen a performance of that; yet another iteration of the work, which we will be discussing in just a moment.

To my left, is David Young, director for the production; Peter Humble, filmmaker; and Cynthia Troup, librettist.  And, also, via Skype, on a pink chair opposite me (laughs), is Juliana Hodkinson, composer, who I am just meeting right now. Hi, Juliana, how are you?

So congratulations to all.


This afternoon, we have the opportunity for…and, also, Steph [O’Hara] and Deb Kayser as well, who are involved with the project (laughs); going off my notes—very detailed notes—on the back of this piece of sheet. Thank you, and well done to everybody.

The coming together of everybody for this project—well, for the actual, original creators/versions of the work—now goes back some years; but it was only this Saturday that everybody managed to get together again to start working through the version of the work that we have just seen.

One of the activities we started off with on Saturday was to do a debrief of the most recent performance of the work which was in Lorne, in September. I thought we might start back at that point, where we took the opportunity for the creators to go back through and to, as I said, conduct a debrief out of that particular production. Because one of the things that’s happening with these works—which we are looking at through the research project—is the way in which they become mobile; they can be remounted either in whole or in reconstituted parts or, in fact, quite different versions or contexts.

So there’s this real mobility to the works; which in some ways we could go back and say, “Well, it’s embedded in the notion of the living room opera; that it moves out from the living room into other spaces; and this is what we are looking to investigate through the remountings that we are looking at in the gallery this week”.

So what I thought I might do is ask David, Pete and Cynthia, maybe just to recap a few of the ideas that we touched on, on Saturday; of their experiences of the Lorne performance in September and what were some of the aesthetic, creative, technical issues that came out of that remounting in September.

DAVID:  Sure. Shall we discuss this? So, one of the key questions that came out of our Lorne presentation, we basically had a film and we kind of did the karaoke version; where Deborah, and we also had Anneli Bjorasen, the other performer there; at times they doubled with the film or they lip synced. There were some beautiful things that we found during that process. But one of the main consequences of that was this kind of “set and forget” effect; in terms of the audience really sitting there and getting a feeling of like, “Oh, right, this is just a film that is going to run and” so they decided checking their phones and not … basically disengaging.

So that was one of the key things that we wanted to try and grapple with a little bit here; and we used this very rough and ready “mute and pause” kind of strategy, in order to enable and empower Deborah to intervene into the … not just the soundscape or the sonic material, but, also, into the timeline.

And I thought it worked really well (laughs); as a very, very simple device. I think it just dropped in this element of danger or at least unexpectedness or a sense of, “Okay, we don’t exactly know what’s going to happen and we can’t entirely rely on the fact that this is just going to, you know, this recording is just going to keep running untouched/uninterrupted”.  How did you guys feel? We will just hear from maybe Cynthia, first?

CYNTHIA:  I think connected with that sense of us wanting to avoid this atmosphere that the audience seemed to pick up in Lorne—that the film was predominantly the focus and the driver and the nature of the work—was also this sense of what we did in Lorne; we did our best to draw focus to live performers that we had in addition to the film. But there were many conditions that really didn’t allow us to pull focus very much at all on the live performers. And we talked, when we debriefed about Lorne, the fact that in our culture at the moment there’s so much overstimulation and appeal to the visual sense, that that’s what we are working towards at Lorne. There is also the incredible aesthetic beauty of Pete’s work on screen which is justly attractive and appealing.

What we have tried to do here at RMIT is subvert the excessive frontally. Pete has worked incredibly hard to split the screens and we have created a dynamic arrangement with a receding sightline for the screen setup. We have got a narrow aisle and two sets of seating banks. So we have tried to put air and dramatic dimensionality between and around the screens, between/around the audience, to restore that sense of the spatial tension between the two characters, the mother and the daughter, sitting in different places in the airline cabin but compressing the space between them through their respective sonic interventions.

And I think I agree, David. It works incredibly well to give Deborah so much control and take focus; because she well deserves it, with everything that she’s been doing today, both the things we rehearsed and the things she improvised in that performance.

I guess what’s worth putting on record here is: I really would have adored to see the same opportunities taken by our second character Anneli; because where we would have a real tension from behind—so behind our seated audience—right through to passed the screen. It would have meant that we actually added more dimensionality, even with respect to our live performance; which means that we have created yet again something completely new, that heaps building on what we discover.

DAVID:  Yeah, and that was actually one of the second things that we then structurally had to address here; “Well, Anneli is not here; like, the performance is missing; how do we deal with that?” So there were a number of strategies that we used in terms of creating a mother plane and a daughter plane. There’s obviously the 3D printed image/statuette of Annaeli which brings her into the space. We put the chair; the pointedly empty chair there. And, also, some text, some stage instructions. But, yeah, I think that still remains a question; “how, you know, is that possible or desirable at all, to attempt to work—to find a way of representing or embodying the other performer—when they are not actually here?”

CYNTHIA:  While I have the microphone, I will just respond, and then I will pass the mic to others. My feeling is, it is not ideal to lack the second live performer, although…

DAVID:  …obviously, it is not ideal. The question is: is it an interesting experiment to try and even grapple with that.

CYNTHIA:  I think it’s been interesting because it’s forced us to ask the technology to do something else. So, in a way, to ask the technology to play a role that it often plays in normal life; which is a kind of compensatory role, rather than… If you can’t meet in person, you resort to Skype, even though you would rather meet in person; as we know with Juliana, we would rather have her here. But there are ways in which technology can actually make something possible, as opposed to nothing.

For example, the use of the text onscreen works beautifully. The main response I have to that is; there are important stage directions which did add a huge amount of drama to the live performance and which helped to structure Pete’s film; and a key stage direction which literally lifts the whole work to another level is the direction we are in for the first time and the only time. In the whole opera, the daughter/mother are standing, facing one another and they are locked in a direct gaze. And that particular image of relationality being quite direct for a moment, then sets up the contrast with the mother’s reverie in the aria, and her mention of solitude and mention of separation.

What I felt was: if we have some text that gives us a strong image of daughter’s movements and interventions in the cabin, we need to have them all; and that’s something that we didn’t have time to look at. But I think it is a little bit “all or nothing”, otherwise we are wondering “what happened when she stood up; or did she disappear or did she come back again?”  From that technical note, I would say I really enjoy the fact that the text was there, the cross fades were beautiful and the fact that it identifies that screen with a certain space that belongs emotionally and sonically to the daughter. But I am really interested in what Pete has to say about the text.

PETER:  Yeah, no, I am just happy that I got to try something new today.

DAVID:  This was the first time we all saw the text.

PETER:  Yeah, we have never done it.

DAVID:  It was a world premiere.

PETER:  Until this morning, I didn’t even know that was going to happen. So that was fun, you know. In a way, yeah, I like that fact. I mean, it interests me. Well, if we are going to do this live kind of version with the film, it sort of makes sense for me to be live as well; to have some sort of live element. Whether that … I mean, obviously, if we have, you know, the text could be obviously embedded in the image, so that would take away that live element that I did today. But, yeah, I mean, for some further development, from my point of view, some kind of live projection element which is yet to be explored would make sense. So that sort of ticked that box for me today.

FACILITATOR:  But this was also the first time I think you have done it as a split screen; is that right?

PETER:  Oh, yeah, the film, it is the first time it’s been split. But it was kind of imagined like that from the very beginning. Like, putting it …

PARTICIPANT:  … not executed.

PETER:  Not executed, that’s right. So putting it together—the versions up until now, which were just a single screen, split down the middle—was done because its first version was a web-based outing. And so, yeah, even though I imagined it as a dual screen, their circumstances were that it had to go out into the world as a single screen work, as a film. So it was great to get an opportunity to split the screens.

FACILITATOR:  And in the conversation that we had on the weekend, David, you mentioned that one of the other conceptions of the work, in terms of discussing things like interactivity and liveness, was that, in fact, the soprano should have a lot of control over images, over creation of the work, possibly even own sound spacialisation as well. Could you see that coming in subsequent versions?

DAVID:  Yes, I wanted to quickly hear from Deborah, being the soprano we keep… Deb, some thoughts on today, on this kind of version?

DEBORAH:  The initial response is that I’m not used to being in control. So it’s always, “What would the composer like? What would the director like?” It’s one of those things in retrospect, where I don’t consider that I have done a reasonable job or let myself believe even halfway that, until I have checked in, “The director is actually happy? Oh, okay. The composer is? Oh, great, tick that box.” It will occur to me in about six months’ time that I am okay; not to mention, of course, librettist being happy. So to be given the opportunity to control a show, I am thinking, “Mmm, what, who do I check in with, to make sure they are okay with what I am doing?” So it is kind of risky and I won’t speak for all sopranos but “brain in the moment”, yeah. Anyway, there were a couple of moments when I thought, “Oh, gosh, I forgot to do that, so this is coming up. I can make this look more deliberate and tweak the moment,” but, yeah.

DAVID:  Did you feel in control?

DEBORAH:  No, I never realised I was in control of anything until months later (laughs). But, you know, that is unique to me. That is parenting, probably.

DAVID:  But I know from working with you for more than 20 years, that very often you are there trying to hit that cue or you are kind of subject to the conductor or the ensemble or this inexorable timeline. This was different.

DEBORAH:  It is different. I suppose it starts to approach a form of improvisation with known elements around you. If you do it over and over again, you start to feel freer in that and give yourself more licence to go places within various parameters. It’s always much more fun if you have got somebody that you are working with, rather than, I mean, I am working with technology and that is usually not a reliable mix in my life. It is enough to change a light bulb. So if Steph were playing with things, well, that would be an interesting thing, in the absence of Anneli.

But with this performance today, with the absence of Anneli, in my mind, we don’t actually know quite why she is absent, so we do miss that dramatic ending; where two figures were clearly on the aircraft altogether and there’s that big “bang” next stage and we are not sure whether one’s bopped the other or whether the plane pitched and we just fell on one another, or one of them is concussed, or why we have to emergency land.

So that whole drama is not afforded to us; but Anneli’s absence…it could be that she’s just momentarily stepped back to the gallery during the particular piece or that she was never going to get on this flight anyway, because she wasn’t able to; or maybe I am reliving a memory of something. So her absence brings many other loadings to the story.

I guess we covered that dramatic ending in her absence by bringing a drone in, to sort of change how we would end it, with the deconstruction. So it’s still quite powerful with her absent, but I do miss her being in the space, dear girl.

DAVID:  What occurs to me, when you are talking as well, is that the composer, the librettist, the director, the filmmaker indeed, even the sound/vision operator did actually hand-over control, you know, within parameters. So on the one hand, there is a great deal of trust, that we are all showing towards you; but I think it also speaks to somehow the robustness of the material. We do have this very robust, structured composition with a libretto, now a film, now a recording. You know, we do have very robust, primarily, works; which then allow us to let go of some of the other kinds of controls that we would normally want to have.

DEBORAH:  I think if we were going to go in and do a season, we would probably prepare and each filmmaker, librettist, director would come in with a wish list and say, “Don’t interfere with this bit, this bit, this bit and this bit,” and we would actually probably structure it much more. Oddly enough, it would start to take its own shape and rhythm, with repeated performances.

But the involvement of having Cynthia live as a librettist to work with us at this point is a unique situation for me; because usually the librettist surrenders everything, the minute they hand the libretto over; and then they have not much chop on what’s happened, until they rock up on opening night and think, “Oh, gosh, look at what happened to my libretto.”  And that goes back to the Chamber Made librettist workshops and those sorts of discussions.

So it is great that Cynth is still with us and along for the ride, to say, “Don’t let this bit of text disappear,” or, “Can we change the inflection of how this goes?”, and all those things. I think if you went into a season, so called giving the soprano the controls of the plane, not really well advised, “Give me plenty of tips,” so that it is still essentially your work and it doesn’t turn into a strange kind of aircraft.

CYNTHIA:  Just on that, it is worth saying for the record as well that one of things that we wanted to try after Lorne was having Deb, in a way, take on some aspects of Anneli’s part; in the sense that, “Let’s recall the opera score for soprano and actor.” So Anneli mimics Deb’s singing but she doesn’t actually ever sing. She makes a lot of noise and she speaks and she does these very intense forms of iteration, which have a sonic quality that’s part of the palate of the work. But I was really, really thrilled to see Deb working with the microphone and repeating some of her lines, giving us full phrases; so that then we could really enjoy the musical treatment/performance of those, as part of her character. I think it worked really well.

The funniest thing about that is that I had forgotten that in the libretto there is that instruction that “any line can be repeated.” And it was Pete that found it and wanted to put it up on screen. So that was just a delight. It just shows how congruent our working methods have been with the original conception of the work.

FACILITATOR:  So now that you have taken this particular work through a number of versions, iterations and contexts, how would you approach a whole new work, seeing some of these possibilities? Would you start off thinking in a completely lineal work? Would it start off modular and could be put together?

DAVID:  There’s two things that I wanted to say. One is that the process we have had in the last few days, has been extraordinarily ambitious; because we actually had three outcomes to deliver. One was an excerpt performance; one was a performance which you have just seen; and we are about to set up the installation version. So it’s already a multifaceted, complicated work; which was live and then there was a film and blah, blah, blah. You know, we sort of arrived on Saturday having to trifurcate it into these other forms.

So we have been working with those challenges, but it’s been, frankly, rather miraculous that we have managed to explore as much as we have. I think that the work, uhm, it’s interesting. It is very clear that when we commissioned the work, and I think when Juliana and Cynthia said about “creating this work”, it was not imagined as a film. It was not imagined as an installation. That was actually not on our minds; it is a living room opera.

So the first thing that we would maybe do differently is think about, “Oh, okay, is this maybe going to be something else?”, from day one. And I think that already changes how you think.

It also makes me think about what Margaret Cameron would very often say to us, when we were starting on a new project; and she would very often say, “Don’t define what it is. So don’t call it a ‘play, book, radio piece’.” You know, she really encouraged us to suspend that, almost as a conceptual game/lever; just to let it float. Of course, it falls into some form. So that would be one thing.

The other thing that I wanted to say, that I think is kind of interesting, is that it started as this very live performance; where everything was live, the fans and the pocket piano playing in the playground and the samples being triggered. You know, there really was quite a flight crew making all of those sounds happen, vocalisations and Deborah and peanuts on microphones, whatever.

And then it sort of turned into this ebook, somehow, which was this purely, purely digital thing. It was basically a film but it was actually not a film; it was an ebook. You had to go into this rather complicated Danish website and watch it as an online experience. So it kind of went from pure analogue or basically, let’s say, live analogue performance to pure or as pure…well, pure digital.

And then I feel like we have kind of been wrestling it back from that and actually what—just from what I have heard now as well—it’s like, “What we would like to keep doing is make it more and more live and less and less digital. You know, we would love to have the text being projected analogue; and maybe it would be great if Pete had the original 16 mil footage of the scene; and we can put that on the chairs as well.” You know, it’s kind of—we have kind of gone from one—the pendulum has swung one way and inevitably, we are wanting it to swing back the other way.

FACILITATOR:  We just have a few minutes left.  And..

HELEN:  I saw it the first time it was done. I saw it the first time it was done in Caroline’s place. So I understand the power of the fans, as a kind of character. The whole title of the work was “Turbulence”; so already there was a vibration in the air. So in terms of our sensibilities, making sense of the material and the matter, the spatial potential, all of the elements, the element of air was very important, a flight.

The notions of consequence, it kind of slips through spaces. So that kind of was present in it too. And then I had forgotten that I had remembered that so much; and I arrived late, both occasions. So I don’t know if I had missed something at the beginning. And I thought I was in a different work; because I was aware of what the ingredients had been. I was aware of some technical needs to try and spatialise the screens and split them. So then I thought, “Okay, there’s a challenge. There is a question/construct that’s been thrown down here now, in this space. Is it that everyone is trying to be interdisciplinary and make work that go from one format to the other? And Chamber Made, as you say, has always been creating responsive work to different architectural potentials, that investigate a site or the different layout; and what that place offers to the work. All of that was in this space now. So, therefore, I thought, “Okay, I am in an installation.” Actually, the first thing I thought, “I am in an installation.” I could have been sitting here or, as in many installations, there’s the privilege seat, where you can choose where to be. This way, we had a spacial design of the chairs/aisle. I thought, “Actually, we could have had the chairs on the other side.” It could be like, “We can see the screens from both sides.” This idea of the “absent person”. The other projection; could it be that there are lots of different ways of addressing this, if this is what you want?

So my question was:  “What do they want?”

FACILITATOR:  Thanks for that question, Helen.

HELEN: It came out, “What do you want?”

FACILITATOR:  I think we will take that as the question, because we are rapidly running out of time here.

HELEN:  I could go on.

PARTICIPANT:  What do I want? (laughs). Because we were setting it up as both a performance space and an exhibition space; it’s a mixture of the two. So for the next few days, it will be a different experience, in terms of: “you can choose your seat; you can put”

PETE:  Yeah, I think that was all.

FACILITATOR:  Any other responses from our panelist to Helen’s question?

CYNTHIA:  I do think that we all want an immersive experience; an experience that takes the mind of the audience into a place that has an internal congruence. From my point of view, in particular—and I might take the risk of speaking for Juliana as well—an emotional tonality that if you stay with the work, if you stay with your intention/engagement, that that actually shifts. It changes in intensity and it changes in implications that can then be part of what we hope, really, I guess, is a sense of engagement from the point of view of each of our audience from their own experience. We have set up, I guess our idea was to set up a mythic space. The mother/daughter dyad is a primordial dyad. And in opera, that is always brought to the fore. So we bring it to the fore; we keep finding ways to make sure it’s to the fore, in a way that takes the attention of our audiences and allows for their own enriching, in memory, and in sensory presence to the vibrations we literally/metaphorically offer.

So from my point of view, if I think about it from that perspective, I don’t mind that Helen felt she was in an installation. She felt something and she stayed. And there is a lot of sonic imagery and verbal imagery and actual imagery in respect of Deb’s embodiment and shared embodiment of the audience there in those seats, to lodge in the memory and that is probably of greatest interest to me; that the work keeps having a life outside the parameters of our presence making it in realtime.

FACILITATOR:  In the interests of ensuring that life continues, what we would like to do now is to finish this part of the discussion, so that we can reset the installation version. And could you please thank our Turbulence crew who are here today; and, also, to Juliana. Thank you, Juliana.


FACILITATOR:  And we will wrap it up there. Thank you.

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