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11 December 2020

Invisible cities: the real and the imaginary 2020

Chris Williams Image: Chris Williams  

Chris Williams discusses two lockdown projects with the chamber choir SANSARA: an interactive audio-visual experience, a golden string, and the digital co-creation project re:create, both built from the opportunities of a crisis.

Aside from enduring an unprecedented use of the word 'unprecedented', I don't think the burdens of 2020 have been equally shared amongst us all. The scale and scope of disruption has been - of course I want to say 'unprecedented', but won't - unimaginable, but also individual and personal. And at the risk of sounding like a politician, now might not be the right time to take full account of that, but I do want to share one thread of my year that unexpectedly emerged from the mess.

As actual plans for 2020 were swiftly thrown out the window, I found myself imagining the shape of new ones. At the time I was chatting at length to Tom Herring, artistic director of the award-winning London-based chamber choir SANSARA, about everything from what it means to make music as a community - what it could mean now - to the idea of eternal return and network theory, always 'eternally returning', with no sense of irony, to our mutual interest in the idea of 'strange loops'. As the very symbol of what it means to make communal music, choirs found themselves at the coalface of a crisis.

SANSARA · re:create (Soundcloud)

I am reminded of Marco Polo's words in Calvino's gnomic novel Invisible Cities. Of Baucis - a city set on stilts high above the clouds - Marco notes that, removed from the reality of daily life on earth, its citizens could look down, entranced by the earth below, and 'contemplate with fascination their own absence' from it. It's both a terrifying and an invigorating thing to contemplate your own absence, but that is what choirs around the world were forced to do.

Tom and I were watching the rise and rise of the now familiar 'virtual choir' tessellations and wondering what other new interactions these 'interesting times' might afford a choir. On the one hand, the problem is a deeply practical one - how do you make music that 'normally' requires subtle and minute adaptions of pitch and tempo in response to other people in the room, when there is no room and there are no other people. It is also a deeply existential question, as anyone who has spent hours aligning sibilants on a 'virtual choir' will tell you.

Another invisible city in Calvino's novel is Ersilia - actually it's many cities. In Ersilia, every time a relationship between people is established, it is marked by stretching a string between the households 'to establish the relationships that sustain the city's life'. When the web of strings becomes so tangled it is impenetrable, Ersilia is rebuilt somewhere else. The houses are dismantled, leaving only the strings - a physical manifestation of the connections between people 'that sustain the city's life'.

Surrounded by our own invisible city - a deserted London - we wanted to make something that celebrated the interconnectedness of community and music - to tie strings between households - and 'rebuild' something. 'Phase 1' and 'Phase 2', as we were unimaginatively calling them, were both slightly different responses to the strange new reality. Phase 1 was to test what we could actually do with singers recording from their phones and laptops - whatever technology they had in their bedrooms. Restrictions wouldn't allow anything else.

Composite video demonstration of a golden string.

This became a golden string, a digital realisation of an existing piece of mine. As much as anything else it was always a piece 'about' the space in which it is performed, and so seemed a perfect candidate for exploring our new 'invisible cities'. I hope it draws the audience in in two ways we couldn't 'in real life'. A binaural mix, plus a few acoustic tricks, create an enormous virtual acoustic through which disembodied voices float, while the piece itself became interactive. Navigating four different video channels, the listener creates their own personal version of the piece, enveloped by the voices of the choir. You can test the results for yourself here.

Phase 2 - re:create - was something more open-ended, ambitious, and, I think it's fair to say, an on-going experiment. Assisted by Arts Council England (phase 1 was done on 'a not-so-golden shoestring', if you will), we were able to record choristers, each in isolation, but with a real microphone, once government restrictions had eased. We had no 'end goal' in mind with these sessions and encouraged singers to explore their own voices, to find sounds that were intimate and personal. At the same time, there was an open call - still ongoing - to anyone, no matter their experience, expertise or technical set-up, to contribute some sound with their own voice, to 'sing' with the choir. The resulting collection of samples is now freely available as an audio library for anyone to explore and use.

Re:create is less a performance or a piece, than a framework for musical interactions (at a distance). It invites people to contribute their voice in whatever way they want, and asks composers to respond to these musical prompts, but really the distinction between performer and composer is re-cast entirely. Ideally we'd love this interaction to become recursive, iterative, unending - a constant feedback loop - to be a dialogue where creativity is decentralised, living in the strings connecting people, rather than within the walls that cut them off.

Along with the marvellously talented Jasmin Kent Rodgman, SANSARA gave me the chance to be the first composer to explore the original offerings of sounds in re:create. True to the ideals of the idea, that work is an ongoing process, with new tracks to be released in the coming months, all under the title 'Simulacra', a word that seemed to capture both the process of recording samples - copies - of the human voice, and of repeating and reconfiguring those copies into something else, to build something entirely new, imaginary but unimaginable.

In my planned 2020, I accepted the only composition fellowship offered by Duke University to begin my PhD; I had my first concerto, commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for Dinah Woods, premiered; and a song cycle, I pray the sea, setting the words of Behrouz Boochani amongst others, toured by The Song Company. Though these plans shifted from the real to the imaginary 2020, I am hopeful they can all happen in 2021 instead. But the real 2020 brought unplanned ideas and ways of being in the world that none of us imagined. So for all that has been lost - and I cannot for a moment diminish how enormous that loss is and will be - I think it's important to reflect a little on what was found too. To clumsily butcher the original, 2020 seemed to be what happened when we were busy making other plans. It was a time to unravel new strings, to recalibrate, and to 'contemplate with fascination' our own absence, but then - like the citizens of Ersilia - rebuild again.

Marco Polo described a bridge, stone by stone. When asked which stone holds the bridge up, Marco says 'The bridge is not supported by one stone or another… but by the line of the arch that they form.'

Challenged again: 'Why do you speak of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.' Polo answers: 'Without stones there is no arch.'

> Chris Williams - AMC profile


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