Frances Morgan ponders communication, movement and technology as Mark Fell presents Recursive Frame Analysis
Inside EMPAC's theatre space, a slightly heated conversation about dry ice and air conditioning is taking place. The Curtis R Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Centre is a huge, streamlined building whose vast glass wall, through which you can glimpse the ship-like contours of its main concert hall, lends a fluid, somewhat dreamy quality to a building that could otherwise feel monolithic. Part of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the US's oldest technical university, the Centre was completed in 2008 and is set high on a hill above the New York town of Troy, just outside Albany. Its futuristic aspect is even more pronounced set against the university's 19th century buildings and the stone stairways that run between them.
As well as the concert hall and theatre, the building houses recording and performance studios and high end facilities for producing and screening moving image work. These spaces, which I explore with music curator Argeo Ascani, are visually impressive whatever your knowledge of architecture or acoustic design. Specially designed diffusion panels line the walls, and a giant panoramic screen dominates one studio. The most innovative aspects, though, are the things you can't see, but can – or rather, can't – hear: EMPAC has been designed so that genuine separation exists between its many spaces, and there's no chance of audible interference from other systems like heating or lighting. There’s a base note of silence throughout the building – a rare quality for any large institution. The place feels like an ecosystem in which ideas can translate to practice with the minimum of glitches.
However, even the most technologically controlled environments are subject to analogue disruption, and tonight the simple fact of the theatre being a little too cold is causing a fog that's drifting from a smoke machine to swirl and sink into a spooky Hammer Horror graveyard mist rather than hover in a dense cloud, which is a key visual element of Mark Fell's Recursive Frame Analysis. Unusually for Fell, the piece is dependent on more than one physically volatile factor: it's his first composition for dance, developed in collaboration with New York based dancers and choreographers Brittany Bailey and Burr Johnson. The two dancers are performing extracts of the piece for video documentation ahead of tonight's performance. As technicians try and solve the fog issue I talk to Bailey, who collaborates frequently with producer Bryce Hackford, about dancing with the unusual textures of electronic music. In fact, this is a tradition with a fascinating if short history: early electronic and computer music has often been created for dance, with Emmanuel Ghent, Laurie Spiegel, Erkki Kurenniemi and Maggi Payne, among others, all composing for or designing technology to be used by dancers. Ghent’s Phosphones, from 1970, is an early multimedia work in which Ghent designed the computer controls for intricate rhythmic lighting as well as sound, while Payne composed and performed music for video artist Ed Tannenbaum’s Technological Feets project in the early 1980s, in which he experimented with live video processing of dancers’ movement. The human body is a natural subject for demonstrating systems of digital art and music, and dancers likewise often seek new ways of inhabiting or embodying sound, rather than just dancing ‘to’ it.
Fell’s interest in behavioural and neural systems and psychology – articulated in his Sensate Focus project and a recent album with Gábor Lázár, The Neurobiology Of Moral Decision-Making – adds another set of patterns that can be traced by dance. Recursive frame analysis, despite sounding like an obscure video editing function, is a tool used to analyse conversations in therapy settings. The idea is to understand the linguistic frameworks in which we hear a conversation, and the context into which we then put it; a kind of systematic listening back to detect patterns, movements and differences. It has an obvious connection with music, as well as with computer languages: its originator Bradford Keeney, also a composer and musician, has referred to it as a way of “scoring” conversations. It’s not hard to see parallels with choreography, too.
Recursive Frame Analysis was developed as part of a residency, several of which run at a time at EMPAC. On the day that I visit, Daniel Lopatin has just arrived and is preparing a live set in one of the studios. In the concert hall, Canadian composer France Jobin, almost at the end of her stay, is testing a new acousmatic work for performance the following week. Like the building as a whole, this space is both abstract and inviting, shaped in smooth wooden ovoid curves with a wide, low stage. Jobin demonstrates how her new piece uses the numerous speakers set up around the hall. There are even some placed beneath the floor which are audible through floor-level air conditioning vents – when Jobin plays some soft white noise through these, it’s as if the whole room is breathing. Rather than showy spatialisation in which sound pings around the room to show off the set-up, her use of the multi-speaker system is enveloping and subtly disconcerting. A family of sounds sourced from the Serge modular system at EMS Stockholm during a recent visit materialises around the auditorium, its properties bringing the stark tones into warm life.
The theatre is a very different space: reminiscent of a film or TV studio, it is a square room with an even lower stage and more steeply raked seats. As we wait for the performance to begin it strikes me how, in this hypermodern environment in which the technology is frequently made invisible or smoothly integrated into a space or a performance, Fell’s production demands a consciously utilitarian set-up where everything is out in the open, or at least appears to be. The lighting for the piece, which is as crucial a part of Recursive Frame Analysis as its sound and choreography, is on the stage rather than above it, with four large vertical light fixtures and some smaller ones on ground level. Two speaker stacks are on the stage, along with a MacBook that’s placed with a deliberate casualness on the floor, as if someone’s forgotten to collect it after a rehearsal. As with much of Fell’s work, there’s no attempt to mystify or conceal the process, or to elevate the ‘human’ over the technical. As the performance starts, the dancers double up as stage crew, wheeling the lights around the stage; they’ll do so again throughout the piece’s seven discrete movements, creating a kind of prosaic disruption that feels consciously anti-immersive.
Fell has written about his interest in Peter Gidal’s structuralist films, which aim to be “non-illusionist”, and you can feel this influence in the setting and structure of Recursive Frame Analysis; however, it is almost impossible not to be drawn into the work through the physical impact of its basic elements: powerful, often visceral audio, intense colour, and the physical fact of the two dancers’ bodies. None of the distancing devices of the staging can stop it being sometimes overpoweringly sensorial, particularly when Fell repeats sonic phrases that are rhythmic but feel almost stunning, pinning you to your seat.
Fell’s music often feels spatial in design rather than temporal, with a sense of being static and in motion at once: it moves through time, of course, but the intention feels more akin to someone populating a landscape or a frame with constantly shifting details, rather than the linear progression of the house and techno music that was Fell’s preoccupation earlier in his life and whose sounds and textures still form a large part of his vocabulary. That’s why his music, especially with snd, tends to be so enticing and yet so difficult to dance to. For us casual dancers, anyway – it’s not hard to see why virtuosos like Bailey have been drawn to it. Her practice is equally about confounding notions of space and time. She employs a language of what she calls shapes, which are just that: intensely held postures that, even if they sometimes resemble yoga asanas, more often render her thoroughly alien, simultaneously ancient and cyborg-like. She contracts her body into impossibly small, curved poses, rolling inward instinctively like a beetle, or holds an expansive posture with steely strength. She is a tiny, tough figure compared with the tall, graceful Johnson, who adopts the same shapes as his partner as if he is learning her language in real time, yet with perfect fluency. When an unexpected interlude of delicate synthesizer melody occurs in the latter half of the piece he breaks from the shapes to performs a lyrical sequence while Bailey, perched on one of the speaker stacks, creates prismatic patterns on the back wall by interrupting one of the light beams. It is a rare moment of clearly signposted emotion in a work that otherwise works hard to contain or even counter it.
Before the performance I talk to Fell about the inspirations for Recursive Frame Analysis and he cites Gidal’s films as well as the Luigi Pirandello play Six Characters In Search Of An Author. More surprisingly, he talks at length about the gender dynamic of the dance, which seems to have preoccupied him: how, most of all, to get away from the romantic connotations of what is essentially a pas de deux? It turned out to be almost impossible. “I kept saying, we can’t make a love story, we can’t have that,” he says. “It was like we couldn’t escape that reading of it. We tried to resist falling into romantic cliches, with the placement of the bodies and the proximity of the movements. But then it is present as well.”
In fact the emotional push and pull of Recursive Frame Analysis works to its advantage, and surely evokes the tension between analysis and empathy that’s present in the term’s clinical use. More problematic for Fell were ideas around gender and sexual power relations that he felt could be too easily misinterpreted, however abstract the shape-based dance language was intended to be. He tells me about a recent project with Luke Fowler, To The Editor Of Amateur Photographer, in which the two artists worked with the archives of Pavilion, a Leeds based women’s photographic project. A year spent around feminist activists, some of whom questioned his and Fowler’s involvement in the project, reinforced Fell’s conviction that his work should not “perpetuate, sustain this gender division”. This involved “deliberately choreographing bits where Burr would do some small, understated stuff but Brittany would be really big, or the division of who moves the lights and when. It’s about men and women, how their body language occupies a space, and how do I not reinforce that in the piece?”
Fell’s sensitivity to the performative sexuality that might be perceived in abstract dance modes makes for an uneasy, critical piece that feels as if it’s being thought through as it happens: not because it feels unfinished or improvisatory but because it is about thought processes and decision-making and questions: what happens if you hold this pose or sustain this tone? And for how long? And what does it mean? No one is abandoning him or herself to anything, and so the audience likewise slips in and out of abandonment to the work, sometimes transported, sometimes puzzling, trying to parse the conversation between sound and movement. There is, though, some good old fashioned stage magic when the fog appears. Now that the temperature is right, you can see why its fluctuation caused so much concern in rehearsal. Bailey and Johnson appear silhouetted in the dense cloud, one behind the other, alternately blocked out and highlighted by different coloured lights as if captured by a camera’s shutter. The stage becomes an uncanny, life-sized slide show, as the dancers hold intricate poses close to the floor for what seem like impossible durations. The hiss of the smoke machine, audible through Fell’s engulfing bass frequencies, reminds us of where we are, even as we almost disappear into the illusion.
All photography by Mark Fell