ICElab Confidential: Reality as Sensory Illusion at Roulette

Impressions from Row G

by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)

[Ed: ICEfans Arlene and Larry Dunn are following composer Daniel Dehaan through his ICElab experience and reporting on the process as it unfolds.]


“Fortunately we live on the basis of vital illusion, on the basis of an absence, an unreality, a non-immediacy of things.” With that thought from Jean Baudrillard’s The Perfect Crime in mind, ICE gave the world concert premiere of Dan Dehaan’s Trompe l’Corps at an OpenICE event at Roulette in Brooklyn on December 17, 2013. Dan’s work was paired in this concert with the equally impressive ICElab compositions of Felipe Lara.

Playing off the term trompe l’oeil or “optical illusion” from the visual arts, the title Trompe l’Corps is best understood as a more expansive “sensory illusion,” encompassing all human perceptive powers. The music is an adventurous investigation of our human perceptions of the fundamental forces of the universe. Seeking to build something substantial from limited materials, Dan employs a simple four-note motif as his building block. The music was presented in eight Moments, constructed by four forces: Dan’s electronic soundscape, built from threads captured in rehearsals, plus live processing;  Nathan Davis’ percussion, modeling astrophysical phenomena; an instrumental trio of Rebekah Heller on bassoon, Kyle Armbrust on viola, and Kivie Cahn-Lipman on cello, providing the textural fabric, and soprano Tony Arnold manifesting the awe with which we humans perceive the energy forces of the universe as they whiz by. Added to these musical elements were a spatializing eight-channel sound matrix designed by Levy Lorenzo and lighting effects by Nicholas Houfek, resulting in a thrilling intergalactic joyride of sounds from barely audible whispering to physically startling explosions, at times ravishingly beautiful, and then disturbingly harsh.

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Moment I, an electronics-only prelude, had already begun as the patrons arrived and took their seats in a circular array surrounding the players in the center of the floor. Overpowering suspense gripped the crowd as the soft buzzing hum gained weight and volume. The house lights went down and were replaced by slowly strobing orbs suspended behind screens around the room. As the energy forces coalesced, the steady hum percolated with increasingly frequent bursts of energy, the rumbling thunder of celestial bodies colliding. Suddenly, Nathan struck a sonic boom on a huge bass drum, accompanied by dramatic string plucking gestures from Kyle and Kivie. Tony’s whispering and breathy exclamations began Moment II.

As the music unfolded, the chief protagonists were Tony and Nathan. Tony embodied the central human spirit of the piece, effortlessly shifting between richly rhapsodic singing and expressive whispering and recitation. She is unparalleled in her ability to animate even the most confounding text, articulating music and meaning. Nathan’s percussion was essential, both in his intermittent sonic bombardments and his delicate touch on vibes.

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Moment VI brought forth the most rapturous beauty as Tony’s lyrical singing was awash in lush lines. Nathan led the melodic line in the vibes, with Rebekah’s bassoon adding a deep warm texture while Kyle and Kivie traded a figure tinged with melancholy. Dan’s live processing propagated selected sounds throughout the room, as the instantaneous “is” escaped our perceptual grasp and became the “was” perpetually expanding out into limitless ether.

For Moment VIII the instrumentalists left the nucleus and moved to positions surrounding the audience on stage and in the balcony. Nathan led the way, striking and rimming a selection of prayer bowls. Tony began with a whisper that morphed into ecstatic singing of a long rambling text. The surrounding players all began striking gongs quite softly, slowly increasing the force and volume, until the composite sound was overwhelming. After that explosion, the sounds subsided as every musician slowly stuck a triangle and chanted “Fortunately” over and over, ever more softly until they faded into silence.

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Trompe l’Corps is yet to have its full realization. It is designed as an immersive sound installation, plus performance, for a mobile audience in a multi-room environment with further spatialization of the sounds and more elaborate lighting effects. That is scheduled to happen in Chicago, sometime in June. We can hardly wait.

Note: All photos courtesy of Susan Griggs (Dan’s mother)