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PACMF09 Salt Itinerary : Digitality and the Opera

[Link to Salt Itinerary webpage]

"The term 'digital art' has itself become an umbrella for such a broad range of artistic works and practies that it does not describe one unified set of aesthetics". [1] Computer art and multimedia art are two terms that preceded the term digital art. Similarly in the world of opera, the term 'multimedia opera' was used by the authors who integrate digital technology to their operatic opus, and the term digital opera is less often used (for example "digital opera in three dimensions" Monsters of Grace by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson). Generally, it seems possible to distinguish two broad groups of digital opera: the first includes works whose digitalism is primarily based on usage of multimedia means, and the second, works whose whole structure is built on digital principles. In this text I will demonstrate those two groups of operas by two examples - 'multimedia opera' Itinerario do Sal (2005) by Portuguese poet and composer Miguel Azguime and opera One (2003) by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa.

While writing The Death of the Author ("La mort de l' auteur", 1968), Roland Barthes contemplated on the hand which moves relentlessly, on the mixture of different texts, on the performativity of the body which writes. This highly influential essay still conceptually coincides with multiple contemporary artistic practices. In a recent sound poetry performance work The Air of the Text Operates the Form of the Inner Sound ( O Ar do Texto Opera a Forma do Som Interior ) by Miguel Azguime (1960), Barthes's text was metaphorically played on the stage. Dressed like a cabaret man in dark elegant shirt, dark pants with braces, Azguime himself was sitting at a table, talking in Portuguese, writing, laughing and making percussive noise. His narrative was on authorship, sounds, silence, gaze, body, text, the air. He was making sounds using a pencil as he simulated the act of writing. Those percussive sounds together with the sound of the verses he recited were processed live with electronics. The narrative on problematization of the authorship together with the gestures of the author/performer/writer served both as a dramaturgical frame and as sound material. [2]

After experiencing it, you will probably ask yourself about its genre: Is it an electro acoustic music composition? Is it sound poetry? A music-theatre, performance art, a multimedia opera? Or, it is all of those together?

The Air of the Text Operates the Form of the Inner Sound presents one of the strongest Azguime's interests - to show that the art worlds are movable, interconnected and approachable by different deconstruction procedures. Walking beyond the boundaries of major, established disciplines is one of the significant features of Azguime's poetics. He is the author of the verses; he recites them and also performs the music composed of rhythmical proliferation of sounds, words and gestures. Azguime's various artistic activities finally come together in an institution which could be called theoretical performance. It looks like theatre, but it is not. Author or just the signifier of the author shows the consciousness both of performativity of theory and theatricality of performance. His theoretical approach is structured as poetry:

"To unveil the mystery of the author's absence
To shed some light over the question
A question lies asleep without an answer
The author does not sleep but he is absent
His presence is absent
Therefore the question remains
Whilst his absence lasts
The presence questions itself In the silence of the presence of the absent author
The solution enquires itself regarding this question
The question is without words
The question silences sound
The sound licenses the question It is a question of silence minus the author" [3]

Although the meaning of the text reveals theoretical occupation with problems of authorship, the performativity of text shows Azguime asking him/us one simple question: Where the boundaries of music are? While doing so, the Barthes-like theoretical story on music becomes the music itself, and that is the most fascinating symbolic effect of the whole piece. Post-Cageian sets of enjoyment and frustration gather over the statement Everything I do is Music , reappearing in their post-technological form. Every time this hyper-textual piece for speaking percussionist and live electronics is performed, the author has been reconstituted live, together with the whole institution of music.

Text Operates the Form of the Inner Sound became part of the multimedia opera Itinerario do Sal by the same author. Digital technology is extensively used both in visual and audio layers of the opera. Digital means primarily multiply the layers of projected texts on stage. Similarly with the sound - Azguime's voice, and the text he performs on stage became multi-semantic, and multi-sonoric due to the electronic processing of the performed sound.

One the other hand, opera One is based on digital principles of structuring [4] promoting 'prostheticism' as the main structural effect of the piece. Michel van der Aa strongly problematizes prosthetic relations in his pieces Here (In Circles) (2002) and opera One (2003). Singer Barbara Hannigan is the one and only diva of this opera/performance relation. Van der Aa is a triple auhor of the piece - he composed the music, directed the video and wrote the libretto. [5]

The opera starts in complete darkness. There are two white sheets on the stage. Behind one of them is Barbara Hannigan, rhythmically repeating one tone. First she sings 'alone', and when the electronics starts, it takes exactly the same tone from the soloist and continues to reproduce it with its superior technical durability. This is the author's first reference on the notions of one, only, and unique. In today's world of explosion of information which is cloning and replicating its own realities, the notion of one, only, and unique is out of fashion.

A composition by the same author Here (In the Circles) could be considered as a study for the examined opera. Moved by the rhythm of living in a media and information society, the composer finds the dramaturgy of the piece in the constant aceleration of the music flow. There is a playing with the fast forward and rewinding sounds, and also counterpointing of the live performance to fragments recorded earlier in the very same concert and broadcast during live playing.

With all above mentioned 'techniques' van der Aa also plays with thecontext of the opera. One becomes Multiple in many ways: Barbara Hannigan meets her own reproduced video image on the stage. They are both dressed in the same way, they are both of the same size, and they both have the same voice - which is the most important thing for the whole opera. Multiplying her own representation required great virtuosity from Hannigan, both visually and auditively.

This opera ends with meeting of real Barbara Hannigan and her representation - who is now simulated to be around fifty years older. Two flows of time end up together. Skiled usage of technology in this work, and also mechanical, almost hysterical, virtuosity are deeply integrated in the opera tissue. That 'natural' integration is the strongest aspect of the piece.

Comparing the poetics and structure of Azguime's and van der Aa's operas shows different procedures, and a different utilization of multimedia and digitality. These two pieces stand on opposite sides of what could be called 'digital opera'. While Azguime explores the virtuosic boundaries of multiplication of layers of the piece, richly extended by the digital technologies, van der Aa shows how it is possible to simulate a digital way of thinking in the operatic world. Symptomatically distant, those two pieces show the extended field of possibilities for considering the digitality of the opera today.

Jelena Novak


[1] Christiane Paul, Digital Art , London , Thames and Hudson , 2003, p. 7.
[2] For this occasion I used the fragments of my text Percussive Silence of Words that was written for the Portuguese Music Information Center . See:
[3] Quotation from: Miguel Azguime, Prologue: the Oracle or the Passage, in: The Air of the Text Operates the Form of the Inner Sound .
[4] Basic principle of the analogous presentation of data is continuity, and digital presentation of data is consisted of the values measured in discrete intervals.
[5] In this text I use fragments of my text Prosthetic Music, Michel van der Aa's Case. See:

REPRINTED FROM e-volucija, No. 13 (Creative Commons)

Saturday 28 February

3:30pm Talk Free event
Theatre 2, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth

Miso Music - Introduction to the Technology used in the opera 'Salt Itinery'

The opera Salt Itinerary breaks new ground in electronic music and questions the boundaries between music, theatre, and opera. This pre-concert talk will discuss the technical and musical elements of the opera.

4:00pm Opera Free event
Jill Craigie Cinema, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth

Miso Ensemble - Salt Itinery

Reflecting on Art and Madness, Salt Itinerary revolves around language - words as meaning and sound. Live electronic audio and video processing with diffusion of voice, poetry, gesture, music and the drawings creates a sensory polyphony. This opera is a powerful and engaging combination of music and drama, performed in 4 languages.

MySpace page Link and Festival Blog

**Click here for 2008 Festival Highlights and Clips**