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20 November 2020

Video practices in art music, scoring for dreams and empathy in oceanography

Daniel Portelli Image: Daniel Portelli  

Daniel Portelli gives an overview of his recent paper (Leonardo Music Journal, MIT Press) and shares some of his recent creative engagements.

I've recently put into words my creative activities in 2014-2016 - a period I've come to think of as a formative one. The result is outlined in the paper Music Gesture and the Correspondence of Lines: Collaborative Video Mediation and Methodology.

Over this period, I investigated music-gestural lines and shapes as a means of generating ideas, sound, actions, and meaning. My practice involved overlaying digital annotations onto gestural movements that are captured on video. This allows musical gestures to be transformed by the performer in a reflexive practice where gestures are turned back in on themselves, in circular iterations.

Focusing in on gesture in this way offers the space to think deeply about how the brain perceives movement - such as through 'active inference' - that is, not by commanding the body to move, but by constantly predicting how the movement will feel in the moment, as it travels to where you want it to go.1 The scores are novel methodologies where video media is codified and actualised by a performer. Such works invite performers and audiences to open up their senses and engage in a process where music and dance are intertwined as undifferentiated practices.

My article was written before the pandemic and a lot has changed since then. Video has now become ubiquitous as a means of communication, and a large number of musicians also disseminate their work using video (e.g. performances delivered online in innovative ways). My interest, however, lies in the novel uses of video in contemporary art music practices. For me, video is more than a camera pointed at a live performance. I once made a work in which I gave the person with the camera a score, alongside the musicians. Every element in a performance is important and potentially meaningful, and nothing should be seen has having less value. The intention is that my video process ideas help people to reflect deeply about their integration of video and see it more as part of a holistic system, to be used as music and as a generative parameter in the music.

Scoring for dreams

Dream Recorder (2020) is a new work born out of a conversation with friends, exchanging dream stories. This prompted me to think: would it be possible for someone to perform a piece of music in a dream? I then wrote a piece suitable for solo recorder, to be performed in a dream.

The performer is asked to enter a deep state of embodied concentration, studying the score in meticulous detail, and mentally rehearsing the performance. A sub-contrabass recorder is recommended, but other recorders in the middle to lower registers should suffice. The performer can practice on an imaginary recorder and use images and recordings. I recommend in my notes that the performer should practice reality-checking to realise they are dreaming (e.g.: pushing two fingers into the palm of one's hand to see if they pass through). And then, when they see the recorder, they proceed to perform the rehearsed part. For me, the dream is the work itself and needs to be written down as soon as the performer wakes up in order to capture it.

Scientists are close to being able to read and interpret brain activity during sleep and reconstruct them using image processing to convert them into movies2. The technology isn't sophisticated enough, but one day it might be possible to listen to a recording of someone's dream performance.

Dream Recorder (2020) - score excerpt (larger view):

Diagram Description automatically generated
Link to full score: http://danielportelli.com.au/dream-recorder/

Empathy in oceanography

Whale Fall (2021) is for flute, violin, cello, electronic bass, synthesizer, percussion, and anonymous dream reports - taken from the COVID on MIND and Pandemic Dreams research studies which are/will be publicly available. This piece has been commissioned by Ensemble New Babylon, in Bremen, Germany, scheduled to premiere on 4 July 2021.

This work is about the phenomenon of 'whale falls' - a story of death nourishing life. A journey which sees a decaying, polluted whale sink to the ocean depths; with its body providing sustenance for sea creatures for decades to come.

In recent times, oceanographers have noticed that the pitch of the whale songs has downshifted. Theories attribute this to changes in migration patterns due to climate change as there is more carbon dioxide in the water, higher temperatures, changes in food availability, and acidification. Whales themselves are swallowing more pollution, and the whale fall is subsequently contaminating the deepest parts of our oceans. The performance will reflect on the plight of the blue whale, a species which is highly vulnerable to changes in the environment and how we treat the earth.3

Spoken and vocalised parts are derived from recordings of people recalling dreams about falling, being underwater, drowning, and the sea. This is my way of emotionally connecting and empathising with the narrative of the whale fall. The instrumental sounds consist of falling tones, low-frequency hums, and material derived from detuned whale recordings. This all becomes infused in an aurality of empathy for the whale's arduous plight against anthropogenic climate change.


Other recent works include The Three Ecologies (2020) and its companion piece New Possibilities for Misunderstanding (2020). See also The Glass of Imagination which forms part of an audience participation section for the piece New Possibilities.


1. See: James Kingsland, 2019, Am I Dreaming?: The New Science of Consciousness, p. 101, based on the innovative research of neuroscientist Karl Friston - for more on Friston, see for instance this article.

2. On this topic, see for example this video by Natalia Bilenko and Valkyrie Savage.

3. See: Rebecca Giggs, 2020, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Scribe Publications.

Further links

Daniel Portelli - AMC profile

Daniel Portelli - homepage (http://danielportelli.com.au/)


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