Category Archives: Thoughts

ANIMA Program Notes

Pasted below are the program notes I wrote for this last weekend’s ECCE:ANIMA concert. Audience was packed in with standing-room only for both nights. Everybody involved did an outstanding job.

Colleges and universities are typically designed to educate using the approach of specialty. As a result diversity is sometimes shortchanged, and communication between disciplines and departments on campus is either infrequent or non-existent. As students studying the arts at these institutions, we are living in a culture and era saturated with multimedia, collaboration, and interdisciplinary creation fed to us through an enormous variety of mediums. It is becoming more important than ever to be informed and educated by the insight and perspective of our peers in the arts in order to maintain a sufficiently educated and relevant aesthetic sensibility.

In order to facilitate communication between departments on campus at the University of Oregon, and to create a conduit through which the students of the School of Music AND Dance are not only able to create with each other, but to also learn from each other, the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (ECCE) here presents its latest production: ANIMA.

Anima refers to the energy, or vital force behind our body’s life and breath. It moves, invigorates, and animates us. Through this collaborative production we, as students and artists, have connected and forged creative relationships that have and will continue to infuse and imbue us each with renewed insight, energy, and ultimately a vital force that will inform our own development as creators within our own disciplines.

As the director of ECCE I am proud of the work of everyone involved, including choreographers, composers, dancers, and musicians. We thank the administration and faculty of the School of Music and Dance for allowing us to use these wonderful facilities, and for inspiring us to educate ourselves, and to collaborate with one another in the process.

Sam L. Richards
Director of the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble

Creative Crop Rotation

clouds

This concept occurred to me because I recently burned out (well, . . . almost); I had reached the point where I faced my work and said, . . . “I’m all dried up.” It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas; I just didn’t have the will to work. Pervasive boredom. Enthusiasm was lost. Wilted and parched.

I’ve been putting in a lot of hours lately working on music and concert production. I came home late one evening, sat down, and didn’t want to get up. The next day I didn’t want to go to class. Then the tell-tale sign that I am not emotionally and artistically healthy: alternating between obsessively checking my e-mail and obsessively checking CNN.Com for any little update.

Because I’ve spent the last 10 years becoming familiar with myself, I immediately recognized that there was a problem. I made the decision to leave. I saw where I was, what I was doing, didn’t like it, and decided to go do something else. I leapt into the car and drove into the mountains. It was apparent that I had embarked down unpaved roads that hadn’t been driven on for quite some time. Overgrown trees, thickets, grass and moss. I got out and was somewhere different than I was before. Doing something different. Seeing something different. It felt good.

I brought my digital camera, shot hundreds of photos, and made some short films. When I got home I eagerly loaded them onto my computer and began to toy with them. Stayed up late working. It was wonderfully relaxing and quite restful, despite the fact that I didn’t get to bed until nearly 2am.

This all boils down to what I am calling “creative crop rotation.” The principle is simple: when your soil is depleted, plant something else. Don’t overwork it with the same old crop (or task, or genre, or theme, or motif, or gimmick, etc. . .) or you’ll end up with a dry basin that gets blown away when the harsh winds come hurtling through your valley.

There is strength in diversity, and if you have a difficult time being inspired by a wide variety of disciplines then you have likely trained yourself to see only differences and to overlook the similarities.

Do something else. Go somewhere different. Plant a different crop — even if it is just for a day. You’ll end up thriving. And instead of producing a bowl of parched and depleted dust, you’ll ripen verdant green, and — when the time comes — you’ll actually have something to harvest.

Creative Crop Rotation. Give something a catchy name, and you are much more likely to put the principle into practice that much more often.

Tall movies (and other dimensions too!)

I think most of us have experienced the frustration of shooting a film, and then, considering our familiarity with still cameras, try to turn the video camera on its side to change the orientation to a “portrait.” Alas. As we all know, that never works, and if we don’t catch ourselves before we get too much footage we end up slapping our foreheads while looking at a bunch of unusable video that is rotated by 90 degrees.

It occurs to me that the only reason there is a standard aspect ratio for film and video is because there used to be a standard means of distribution. In order to distribute media to televisions, it had to be in a 4:3 format, otherwise the content creators could be sure that their media would not be presented in the way that they desired. We are still living in an era when video is distributed for particular devices (theaters, televisions, widescreen format) etc. Because content providers generally have the intention of their media being portable between a wide variety of devices, they generally stick to the standards: 4:3, 16:9, 720p, etc.

The vast majority of online video distribution sites (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) are locked into these aspect ratios, and they are locked into these ratios for no good reason, other than the fact that their users are relatively locked into those formats by two things: habit, and the dearth of features in hardware and software to support non-standard video sizes. If a computer is used as the medium for video distribution then there are no good reasons to stay locked into these standard formats and aspect ratios. What about portrait oriented videos? Vertical videos that are thin slices like the banner ads we get pummeled with on a daily basis on virtually every site we visit (including this one :))? What about big wide thin videos?

We might think that these “strange” dimensions for videos are rather unpractical, as they don’t lend themselves very well to presentation and storytelling. Hogwash. I see paintings in strange dimensions all the time that tell better stories than the latest garbage from Hollywood. I’m not suggesting that Steven Spielberg adopt a strange format for his next feature-length film, but I am suggesting that video and media artists who have no intention of having their content viewed or presented anywhere else other than a computer screen or specialized installation, ought to at least consider different dimensions. In many cases, it is already a form of painting anyway: video painting.

All of this talk, of course, is assuming that film and video are in some incarnation of a rectangular size. What about circular movies? What about arches? Crescent moons? Lattices? The possibilities are endless, and once you begin to think about it you realize how limited and boring the visual “box” is that we cram all of our media into.

I’ve made a simple example below. 3:4 portrait format video. Tweaking my software to make a vertical video took some time (sucks to these standards!), and I couldn’t find any software that would support a crescent shaped video 🙂

Update: Some readers reported problems viewing the previously posted video due to some complications I encountered during the encoding process. It has been fixed, and should work now.

vertical

The allegory of the swimsuit and the underwear

paul-bunyan

After a lengthy and somewhat baffling discussion in my ethnomusicology class about Albanian wedding music, I found myself dumbfounded, and seeking answers to my own questions. The dilemma I was facing was how to cope with the limiting perspective and extraordinarily useless insight that we are provided with by examining seemingly objective, quantifiable data. Sound confusing? By way of sorting out this problem for myself I cooked up this allegory, and here present it to you as The Allegory of the Swimsuit and the Underwear:

A martian anthropologist (let’s call her Marsha), en route to the planet earth, enters her transmogrifying shape-shifter device to take on human form. Her plan is to land somewhere on the western coast of the United States to study the local culture. Upon landing, Marsha finds an apartment, and is soon able to change out of her Martian space-travel clothes and dress herself in some of the local garb.

After becoming settled she walks out to the local beach to observe some social interaction. “How odd . . .” she thinks, as she looks out across the scattered crowds, “people wear their undergarments to the beach.”

After further observation she notices that there are subtle differences between what she previously thought were undergarments, and what people were actually wearing on the beach. First of all, the locals called them “swimsuits,” not underwear, despite their similarity of appearance. Secondly, women’s swimsuits didn’t usually have the clasps and fasteners on their backs that their underwear has (although some did, which she found particularly baffling). Thirdly, most of the swimsuits were generally made out of synthetic materials, as opposed to the cotton that she had found in normal underwear (although, like the fasteners, she also found exceptions — “How odd. . . ” she thought.). Fourth, she found that swimsuits were often made in bright colors (although, like her other observations, she found exceptions among different types of underwear).

The oddest part of all was that Marsha knew full well how inappropriate, base, and offensive the locals considered people who were odd enough to wear their underwear in public, and usually those who did were intoxicated and soon picked up by the local law enforcement. Even if one’s underwear were to become visible by accident, for example, a women wearing a skirt on a bus, if anyone who were to catch a glimpse of it they would be at risk of being physically assaulted, especially if the one who saw it was a young male. Yet, here, on the beach, in a public place with enormous crowds, similarly revealing raiment seemed to be considered a perfectly legitimate way to dress oneself.

As Marsha concluded her studies, she wrote up her report, blasted off to another planet to perform similar research, and transmogrified back into her original form. The portion of her report devoted to swimsuits and underwear read as follows:

Humans in this part of planet earth wear clothes that are remarkably similar to their undergarments in order to recreate at the beach. While it is considered absolutely unacceptable, and in fact illegal, to wear underwear in public places, what these people call swimsuits are perfectly appropriate. The only difference between these two articles of clothing are the name, the clasps (though the difference is hardly noticeable), the fabric, and the colors. Because these are the only physically observable and objective differences between swimsuits and underwear, it is safe to conclude that the difference in human responses to wearing these different types of clothing in public must be due to one, some, or a combination of all these physical attributes: name, clasps, fabric, and color. These humans must be remarkably sensitive to these extremely subtle attributes. In summary it must be this sensitivity to name, clasps, fabric, and color that is what leads these humans to feel so differently about swimsuits than they do about underwear.

And with that, Marsha felt satisfied with her objective and crystal clear understanding of how and why humans on that part of the planet felt so differently about the propriety swimsuits as they did about the propriety of underwear. Other planets were to be subjected to her same superior and objective scrutiny.

UPDATE: Be sure to take a look at one of my possible interpretations for this allegory here.

Moments of Intensity

I’ve been having and reflecting upon moments of intensity lately. These are moments where everything seems more vivid than usual, sounds are louder and crisper, colors are more vivid, and your sense of touch and emotional being is heightened. I frequently feel like this when I go walking after a long day of working in front of a computer screen. The light is white and yellow, the grass is verdant green, and the chirping birds seem more alive than ever. You feel present in a way that you rarely do, and world is present too. These are what I call moments of intensity.

I think that these moments of intensity are a type of experience when, for what may be a variety of reasons, we become attuned to either differences or similarities. After reflecting upon an experience like this (and I hope you have had them yourself) you will likely find yourself filled with a general awe and appreciation of the sheer variety present in the world around you. When variety is understood at a conscious level, we become deeply aware of details. Specialists experience this on a regular basis, studying mathematics, language, music, or art. When variety is understood at a conscious level, we become deeply aware of details. Moments of difference.

dancer-blurThese moments of intensity need not be related to any sort of outdoor or naturalistic experience (although they frequently are associated with them). These moments can happen in your living room, your front lawn, in your car, or while you are walking to work. They rarely occur, however, when you are busy doing something else. When your body is present, but your mind is not, you forfeit your opportunity to perceive.

The common characteristic of these types of experiences is the realization of just how different everything is from everything else. This perspective functions as the opposite of the realization of just how similar things are, an experience which, oddly enough, can be just as eye-opening and intellectually astounding. Consider the moment when looking at a gorilla through the glass at the zoo — when your eyes meet, and he scratches behind his ear in a way that reminds you of your grandfather, . . . and yourself. This is a moment of awe generated by perceived similarity — a perceived relationship. A moment of similarity.

I consider moments of difference and moments of similarity to be of equal value. When each perspective is wielded with ignorance or guile, you can be sure that you will find injustice—injustice that affects others, or injustice that effects the individual. An emphasis on differences generates unnecessary social rifts: ethnocentricity, racism, bigotry, merciless self-centered, decisions, and ultimately war. An emphasis on similarities leads to philosophical and ethical relativism, a misuse of generalizations, and finally, on a personal level, boredom.

Both perspectives are valuable. Either way, I look forward to more moments when I will feel things more deeply, and sense greater and broader relationships between otherwise disparate things. I look forward to more moments of intensity.