Tucked away in a Northwest Portland apartment is a tiny doppelgänger of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Made of foam core and photographic prints, the model faithfully captures every facet of the theater’s rococo stage. The owner of this mini-Schnitz is Portland artist Rose Bond, who had the model built in order to rehearse her new work, a live-projected, multi-channel animation created to be shown with the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Luciano Berio’s 1968 composition for orchestra and eight amplified voices, titled Sinfonia. The performances will be March 14, 15, and 16.
The event is part of the SoundSights series, which pairs visual artists with orchestral performances. Past performances in the series have featured artists like Michael Curry and Dale Chihuly, as well as Bond herself, who returns to the series four years after creating visuals for Olivier Messiaen’s romantic Turangalîla. For Sinfonia, Bond has worked for over a year to produce a series of hand-drawn passages that mine the visual history of the 1960s in a dreamlike interpretation of Berio’s avant garde masterpiece. The performance will also feature the renowned vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw performing the vocal portion of the composition. The collaboration promises to be intensely immersive, and Bond hopes that it will allow both new and returning audiences to connect with the music at a visceral level. I visited her studio to discuss her work on Sinfonia and how the now fifty year-old composition fits with her decidedly contemporary visual art practice.
Bond has been developing her distinctive visual language since the early 1980s when she began using a technique called direct animation, in which individual frames are hand-drawn onto film strips. The result is organic-looking motion that trembles and pulsates as the reel unspools. “I think I fall somewhere between art and film,” she explained, neither fully narrative like a movie nor as abstract as some video art. Some of Bond’s early works explored various folk traditions viewed through a feminist lens. Bond’s The Celtic Trilogy reimagined traditional Irish mythology from the perspective of the witches and goddesses. This interest in the overlaps between collective culture and political consciousness has expanded as her work has evolved.
In 2002, Bond produced her first site-specific animation installation, Illumination #1, which highlighted the historical inhabitants of Portland’s Old Town neighborhood with a series of silhouetted figures projected in the second-floor windows of the historic Seamen’s Bethel Building. The project was received with glowing reviews (and was even re-installed in 2014 as part of the Old Town History Project), and since then, Bond has made large-scale and site-specific works across the globe that bring local histories to life and shine a light on stories not often told. Although she now uses contemporary video and animation technologies and works with a professional studio assistant, her works are still grounded in her hand-drawn animation methods which lends an intimate quality even at a monumental scale.
Monumental is an apt descriptor for both the symphony and the location of this multimedia event — the three-part orchestral composition will be performed by the Oregon Symphony in one of Portland’s most elegant venues, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The warmth and directness of Bond’s simple line drawings of people and architecture provide a satisfying counterpoint to any potential grandiosity. Her open-minded curiosity is especially evident in conversation: “I didn’t know anything about symphonies but I’ve learned a whole lot (through this process).” Bond explained her research process in detail: she has taken a year-long sabbatical from teaching at PNCA and now has an entire filing cabinet stuffed with notes on the composition, historical references, and vast quantities of storyboard drafts and sketches.
In 1968, the year Berio composed Sinfonia, social upheaval and civil unrest were erupting all over the world. The assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 of that year inspired the second movement of the symphony, titled O King. Berio built the first and third movements around this a deeply moving centerpiece. Excerpts of writing by Claude Levi-Strauss, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and others, along with phrases from graffiti and slogans used during the contemporaneous protests in France, are scattered throughout the piece, each syllable dragged out into abstraction by the eight singers in Roomful of Teeth. The third movement appropriates portions of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and also includes snippets from works by well known composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky.
Berio referred to his compositional strategy as “quotations,” and Bond sees them as analogous to sampling in contemporary music. It was a radical creative approach at the time of Sinfonia’s creation, but was entirely in keeping with Berio’s experimental tastes, which later led him to work in the newly emerging category of electronic music. Bond calls Berio “one of the first pre-post-modernists,” in reference to this blending of text and music quotations.
Bond’s animations share this patchwork approach, as she collages together images derived from archival sources like newspaper photographs and television footage. “I chose to respect the quotation form… by sampling well known pictures,” she explained. The title Sinfonia alludes to the literal meaning of the word symphony, “sounding together,” both in the sense of the many instruments and voices playing in harmony, and in the sense of bringing together disparate fragments to form a unified picture. Bond’s visuals act as another set of fragments contributing to the whole experience.
Bond’s suite of three movements will be projected onto the multi-planar proscenium arch of the Schnitzer live during each performance. The cueing of her piece will occur simultaneously with that of the musicians and vocalists, hence the scale model of the theater — Bond and her technicians will need to have their timing just right in order to match the music. But this is not a literal illustration of the words being sung or the notes being played. Instead, Bond says, “the visuals are sort of like a dancer who sometimes takes the lead and sometimes backs off,” in other words, a collaborative performance. “The music has an unpredictability, and likewise, the visuals hold the potential for surprise.”
Bond let me sit at her studio monitor to preview a digital mockup of the work as it will look in the theater. The animations are projected onto darkened walls as opposed to the typical bright white screen. This has the effect of collapsing visual depth, while creating unexpected illusions of ambiguous three-dimensional space that contradict Bond’s assertively two-dimensional drawing style in a transfixing manner. Certain passages commandeer the theater’s architecture for their own purposes. During the second movement, the arched space above the stage transforms into the trusses of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the infamous Bloody Sunday attack by police against Civil Rights protesters. At other times, the entire space becomes an endless void, brightened by ethereal apparitions dancing on either side of the orchestra pit.
Although the visuals unfolding before me were on a screen a fraction of the size of their destined venue, they somehow managed to feel immersive, sometimes almost overwhelming, in their emotional intensity. Even the most ubiquitous images of the era felt new as they moved through Bond’s dream-like world of delicate lines and muted colors, in time with the haunting sounds of Berio’s composition. I understood what Bond meant when she said that at times during the piece “it feels like the whole room is spinning.”
Bond hopes that her work with the Oregon Symphony will entice new audiences to take an interest in such performances. She acknowledges that, like the opera and the ballet, the symphony is an older institution that is in some ways defined by tradition, and whose challenge now is to make itself relevant to younger people who are constantly immersed in the present moment through streaming platforms and social networks.
Sinfonia may have been on the cutting edge of culture when it debuted in 1968, but to some, Berio’s work might seem as old as orchestral music itself. Through her ingenious use of popular imagery and her deft fusion of digital and analog media, Bond’s visuals revivify the qualities that made Sinfonia famous and offer both an entry point for newcomers and a fresh take for connoisseurs. Furthermore, she has made the work’s political nature more accessible to concert-goers through her rigorous research and smart visual references. The resulting experience of intermingling pictures, words, and music promises to be a powerful tribute to the ability and the responsibility that art has to reflect upon the culture of its time — both in Berio’s time and in our own.
There will be three performances of this multimedia concert event at the Arlene Schnitzer Concern Hall: 7:30 PM on Saturday, March 14th; 2:00 PM on Sunday, March 15th; and 7:30 PM on Monday, March 16th. Tickets start at $24 and are available here.
*** Due to the restriction of all public gatherings over 250 people as part of COVID-19 containment efforts, these performances have been cancelled.