When people incorporate art and technology, the first question is, how do you get the technology to work? This has been true since the days when early electronic composers manually cut and spliced audiotape to the lengths they wanted, and it’s true for today’s multimedia, multi-computer productions such as “Auksalaq,” the so-called telematic opera by Matthew Burtner and Scott Deal that rolled out at the Phillips Collection on Monday night. “Auksalaq” involved amplification, projections, electronic enhancement, simultaneous broadcasts in several physical venues and its own smartphone app so audience members could comment and even, to a limited degree, manipulate sounds.
The second question is, what are you using the technology to say? This question is one “Auksalaq” is struggling to answer.
Those who were there might counter that “Auksalaq” said plenty — indeed, that it was stumbling over itself in its eagerness to get its message across. It’s about global warming and its effects on the climate in Alaska, and it incorporated a lot of documentary-style techniques: photographs and time-lapse videos of Alaskan landscapes and icescapes, scientific maps showing the waxing and waning of the ice shelf, and even film footage of climate scientists and a Native American spokeswoman talking about the issues. These were linked together with sections of hypnotic poetic text sung and intoned by Lisa Edwards-Burrs, a member of the EcoSono Ensemble, a group founded specifically to further new music and ecological awareness.
But with so many (figurative) trees, the piece got somewhat lost in the forest. It wasn’t quite a hard-hitting documentary on climate change; the talking heads were smart but not edited, and the images were not always illustrative as much as simply decorative. Then the soft, new-agey lull of the sung texts tended to diffuse the message, even or perhaps precisely because of Edwards-Burrs’s lovely, strong, earth-mother voice. At one point, she enjoined listeners to inhale deeply and exhale, and then let us know that we were breathing the air of Alaska and were all interconnected. The moment may have resonated for some people; to me, it smacked of “Kumbaya.”
As for Burtner’s music, if you think of what the term “eco-music” might sound like, this was it. There were amplified bowls of water — a la John Cage or Tan Dun — dripping and roiling under musicians’ hands; dried stalks of plants brushing and rattling at each other in hoarse whispery tones; birds’ feathers burr-burring when held against a fan; all interspersed with sharp thwacks of percussion and gently caressing flute lines and Edwards-Burrs’s lulling, semi-improvised singsong that, at some junctures, worked in words culled from audience comments on the app.
Some of it evoked the delicate spareness of another Alaskan composer, John Luther Adams (whose name popped up in an audience comment on one of the video screens). But when the line is broken through the interpolation of nonmusical content, this kind of music can start seeming like mere ambiance or accompaniment. I think part of the point was to create a meditative space, but I don’t think the result was quite as profound or moving as the creators may have hoped.
Although this was its official premiere, “Auksalaq” has been honored and featured at conferences and in papers for its technological advances, and it was notable that, apart from occasional losses of connectivity on the app, the whole thing came off without any technical hitch. Burtner leads the Interactive Media Research Group at the University of Virginia, and it’s apparently another MIT-style creative lab doing interesting things. Clearly, he’s got the technological side of the equation down. But the medium is not the whole message that he wants to transmit, and the content of “Auksalaq” needs another pass through the think tank.
Burtner and Deal are ambitiously trying to make an important point, and with all these resources, there are ways they could make it a lot more strongly. At the end, rather than wrapping up the piece, they threw it open to the audience, asking people to comment (via the app) on how the work had made them feel. That’s not good enough. If this is an opera, give it a finale.