Audible Image/Visible Sound:
Donald Swearingen's Living Off The List
September 23-24, 2000 A Traveling Jewish Theater, San Francisco
by Pamela Z
(This review first appeared in 21st Century Music Vol. 8, No. 1)
Within the community of electroacoustic composer/performers, we often chucklingly categorize ourselves as either being "knob twiddlers" or otherwise. Knob twiddlers are the ones who sit in front of an audience at a table covered with little black boxes wired together with a maze of black spaghetti (or these days a single black laptop with a glowing white upside-down apple) and fill the room with synthesized or sampled sounds using only the subtle motions required to type commands, move faders, or "twiddle" knobs. Many of us have been gladly attending these sorts of concerts for years (some for 20, 30, even 40 years), and are not at all bothered by the lack of visual stimuli to correspond with the sounds being presented. One goes to this kind of concert to listen. (And perhaps to do so in the company of the other 30 people we see at every electronic music event.)
But, for some people, it is desirable or even necessary to have some kind of visual or theatrical element to look at while experiencing a live music event. With acoustic music, they argue, one sees the motion and effort of the players as they strike, strum, blow, or bow their instruments. (Although I have seen some keyboard players who don't look nearly as expressive as artists like Carl Stone or John Bischoff as they intently caress the touchpads of their Powerbooks!) Still, perhaps to fill this need, or perhaps to simply satisfy the scientist-like curiosity that many of us seem to have, over the years there have been a number of composer/performers developing and/or using gesture controllers in performance. Donald Swearingen is one such artist. Swearingen says that his choice of using these controllers is not at all a backlash against "knob-twiddling", but, for him, music is a very physical thing and these controllers are one way to express that physicality. In his latest solo performance work, Living Off The List, he concocted a thoroughly satisfying feast of sound, light, motion, and image using sampled texts (read mostly by members of the companies "A Traveling Jewish Theater" and "Strange Fruit") and found images from various sources. In this ode to the endless long lists we all make, the instrumentation consisted of numerous sensor-based MIDI controllers (mostly designed and created by the composer), two Macintosh computers running MAX MSP and Director, and two video monitors. Amidst all of this technology squeezed onto ATJT's small stage, he created an engaging work that came across as theatrical, intimate, and very human.
Moving from one little station to the next, he used calm, direct gestures to control both the sound and the video images. One moment he was wearing his "MIDI Jacket" and raising, lowering, and bending his arms to trigger samples of Cory Fischer reading "to do" lists. The next he was filling the air with Albert Greenberg's vocalizations by "plucking" the red, luminous "strings" of his laser harp. Then, he was releasing little bits of Naomi Newman reading from fortune cookies and Annie Kunjappi reading Richard Feinman anecdotes by alternately shielding and exposing an array of small light sensors with his hands. Generally, he was controlling both audio and video, so that changes in the sound were often accompanied by simultaneous changes in the imagery. In one rather humorous sequence, he used small flashlights on a row of sensors along the floor to trigger images of familiar yellow and black safety and warning signs while simultaneously triggering blood-curdling screams. He did this repeatedly with various innocuous-looking signs (like the one with the little stick figure slipping on a wet floor, or a pair of rubber gloves warning of the presence of toxic chemicals), each instance soliciting unbridled belly laughs from the audience. It felt as though he could have continued doing it indefinitely and people would have never stopped laughing uproariously, but he eventually transitioned into another segment giving the audience a moment to catch their breath.
Though the evening was often lighthearted in tone, there were also segments which were dark and thought-provoking. There was a segment which mounted one morbid statistic upon the other in a detailed account of how many people had died from what causes, and how those numbers compared to the number of people still living. The entire work was grouped into four separate movements– each of which was introduced by a short spoken bit performed live by the composer. For these little introductions, he used a pitch-to-MIDI converter to translate the rhythm of his speech into harmonically varied, pitched material. In one of them, for example, he "spoke the blues" while in another he spoke a Mozart piano concerto.
Though the visual elements were constant throughout the evening, many of the video images were simple (often showing animated text), and Swearingen's demeanor on stage was generally casual and pedestrian. These elements were well integrated, and the piece was clearly theatrical, but the star of the show was unquestionably the audio art. Donald Swearingen has a gift for making sampled text come off sounding very lyrical. His roots as a pianist and keyboardist continue to influence his sound even though he no longer uses the keyboard as his main controller. And, even though his sound sources are largely text and household objects, he performs them with a composerly, pianistic flair. One has the refreshing feeling that all the theatrical elements and complex performance systems are not being used as a smoke screen to mask the lack of anything below the surface (as is often the case in this era of tech-seduction), but rather as an elegant vehicle for delivering a very delicate load of precious cargo. Living Off the List, which was performed without an intermission was just long enough that the audience felt comfortably full at it's conclusion, and many of them remained for an informal, after concert talk and Q and A session with the composer.