EMPAC to celebrate 10th birthday with 3-day festival
The Times Union — Joseph Dalton, Classical Notes
Yara Travieso is a choreographer, director and filmmaker whose work is so broad-based and all-encompassing that she's been called a "maker of worlds." Since midsummer the New York-based Travieso has made repeated and extended visits to the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, RPI's massive glass and steel building on the hill above downtown Troy, which is commonly known as EMPAC and is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The result of Travieso's residency is an elaborate new fusion of dance, film, music and theater titled "Sagittarius A." The piece will have its world premiere on Friday night at EMPAC as part of a three-day festival of performances and other special events.
"I think emotionally and intuitively, not technically," says Travieso. "Here the focus is on a pragmatic way of approaching things. It's been an interesting challenge to embrace the technology and make work that is very human."
From his earliest meetings with the architects and acousticians being considered for the massive construction project, EMPAC Director Johannes Goebel has been talking about humans – especially our eyes and our ears.
"All of our spaces are built for the human senses without technology, so that we are seeing and hearing and using the full 3-D dimensions of a venue to the highest degree of quality," says Goebel.
Next comes the task of bringing to audiences things that might be beguiling, fresh, insightful or memorable.
"Content comes first," says Goebel. "The technology is just another instrument."
Yet it is an instrument that requires informed care. Managing the arsenal of digital technology at EMPAC is a permanent team who all but guarantee production standards high enough to be worthy of an engineering school. As for deciding what is seen in the facility's four spaces (the concert hall, the theater, and two black-box spaces), that's the job of EMPAC's three curators, young artists and administrators who are plugged into the international scene and often arrange joint endeavors with other major arts center.
For audiences accustomed to more standard concerts or plays, the events at EMPAC over the years have often been perplexing and, well, different. Even for regular attendees already thoroughly initiated into new art forms, the track record of satisfying or successful EMPAC presentations is mixed at best.
None of this troubles Goebel.
"Our basic programming idea is this... We say please come, it will be high quality. But you may or may not like it," says Goebel. "That's why the tickets prices are so cheap. So you won't be disappointed for your investment."
With regular movie prices north of $10 and touring rock shows usually $100 and up, EMPAC's admission charges are, indeed, admirable. The highest ticket price this season is $18. Discounts are available for seniors, students and members of the RPI community.
If you've yet to experience the impressive building, with its vast seven-story atrium and sweeping views of the western horizon, then this festival is an ideal opportunity to check it out. The building will be open from noon to 11:30 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday with a variety of free exhibits, demonstrations and talks. There are also five ticketed events running Thursday to Saturday evenings.
Travieso's "Sagittarius A." should guarantee a grand spectacle on Friday night. Along with a solo dancer and a live ensemble of musicians, there will be new videos (shot on locations in Troy and downstate) projected onto the walls, balconies and even the ceiling of the concert hall.
"My work generally deals with finding truth through the myths and reclaiming the cultural and musical story of women," says Travieso. "I'm interested in the way that we experience women in a physical sense. As a choreographer, the politics of women's bodies is important to the characters I create."
Her distinctive title refers to the name of the point at the center of the Milky Way, thought to be the spot of the original black hole that led to the creation of the entire solar system.
"The work is intertwining or paralleling the story of how our galaxy was created," says Travieso. "It's a creation myth."
An early inspiration for the piece came from Travieso's first visit to the EMPAC facility, when she observed the curved wooden shell that surrounds the exterior of the concert hall.
"I walked into the monumental architectural space," recalls the artist, "and saw a giant sphere inside a cube. There's a sense of life, something pregnant."
As an extension of her feminist mindset, Travieso likes to mess with performance spaces, utilizing them in unexpected ways, going against expectations and breaking down hierarchies and patriarchies that get enshrined in architecture. While the EMPAC concert hall does utilize the traditional model of a stage at one end, it was conceived to handle most anything an artist can dream up.
According to Goebel, the hall was designed in such a way that no matter where musicians perform – from the stage, on a side balcony, amidst the audience, or up in the rafters – they can be heard with the same optimal acoustic quality. In addition, each of the four spaces in the building is equipped to easily showcase any genre of performance or "time based" art. "Black boxes are usually a compromises of dance, theater and music," says Goebel.
The concert hall will again be in use on Saturday night and for another elaborate undertaking. This time it's a concert of the International Contemporary Ensemble with conductor Tim Weiss performing a suite from Olga Neuwirth's opera "Lost Highway," based on the 1997 film by David Lynch. The presentation won't resemble opera though, since there will be no singers or visuals. Instead, it's billed as a 45-minute distillation of the opera's sound world.
Joining the ensemble will be a team of six instrumental soloists, plus an electronic soundtrack delivered via a specially constructed dome of 64 loud speakers. The sound system, known as Ambisonic, is an advanced form of surround sound and, it's promised, will give the effect of clouds of sound coming from either close by or from a vast universe away.
Another version of surround sound, known as wave field synthesis, will be demonstrated throughout the weekend with recordings of Mozart. One of the system's unique capabilities is to project a sound at a particular spot, so it feels as if a cellist, for example, is performing right next to you. The term for this sonic effect is "holophony," something akin to a visual "holography."
According to Goebel, the software for wave field synthesis was developed in Europe in the 1980s, but it took EMPAC to perfect the hardware. The past two summers EMPAC hosted weeklong seminars for engineers, producers and musicians to experience and learn the system.
"We had composers here, including one who had worked with wave field systems and was not satisfied with the results" recalls Goebel. "He said this is incredible, it works!"
Again looking beyond the mere creation of fancy technology, Goebel adds, "Now we are commissioning works for that system. We didn't just develop a stupid tool."
Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.