Choreographer Elizabeth Schmuhl & Composer Ariane Miyasaki
I’m very proud of this one, almost paternal: A Numéro Cinq first, an original piece of music by Ariane Miyasaki combined with an original dance choreographed and performed by Elizabeth Schmuhl, commissioned specially for Numéro Cinq. In other words, the first NC ballet. Never before in the annals of art — okay, well, maybe a bit over the top, but this is extraordinary. Ariane is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition program and Elizabeth is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. They had never met before I put them together and suggested they collaborate on a work just for us. The result was recorded on video, a grainy, fixed-camera production that is itself part of the finished product, an edgy, alienated, even terrifying orchestral composition for female voices based on a text written by Miyasaki when she was seventeen, after she had lived wild for four years on the streets of Seattle. The music is concrete, startling, acousmatic — none of the usual instruments appear, but as you listen the voices create an aesthetic space in your mind, the words become notes. The dance follows the movements of the musical composition, beginning with silence/stillness and moving into the frenzied contortions of the a girl on the run, a girl with no skin inhabited by voices and street sounds. This is just a gorgeous thing to have.
See the video below. Best watched in the full screen mode. And underneath the video we have brief essays by the collaborators on their compositional process (also choreography notes from Elizabeth). So not only do we get the art, we get insight in the making of art.
RUN FALL RUN
Now there is no Where or Where to.
There is no What or What next.
Run through the panic and the blurry vision,
Through the ringing ears and rattled bones.
Run until the spinning stops.
Two sets of feet, out of sync,
Beat the earth, scattering rocks and debris,
Kicking up yellow clouds of pine dust.
The first is all panicked, mammalian desperation.
The second merely follows, waiting for his prey to fall,
With the predatory patience of experience.
Raw throat, lungs breathing air made of salt.
Chest creaking, on fire, and full of survival.
Force clear a dazed brain and
I lifted the poem directly from my notebooks, written at the age of 17, a week after I had finally “come in” after living four years on the street, mostly in Seattle. I had run away from home in southern California in January, 1999, when I was 13; I left the street in February, 2003. I was, to say the least, a super angry person. My uncle described me as “almost feral.” Oddly enough, I never lost the certainty that I would eventually go to college. There was a Value Village where people would dump their old books; the store didn’t sell books, so the books got thrown out. I used to dumpster dive behind the store and come up with armloads of books. I ended up with a pretty good background in literature (apparently, people don’t throw out their old science and math books — I still have gaps). I didn’t edit or rewrite the text, though now I know it’s not poetry; at the time, I had no idea of the rules of form. But I thought about it and realized that if these were the words of any other 17-year-old, I wouldn’t change them. I didn’t want to tamper with what I had written, even though my aesthetic has changed; now I have what you might call a “reserved aesthetic.” I decided I would accord the past-ME the same respect I would give to someone else.
The music is acousmatic, meaning that you hear the sound through speakers, the source is unidentifiable. Compositionally, I am really interested in the way the human voice affects the sound and text and the way the sound will affect the perception of the words. Formally, the piece is written in two main sections with coda that goes back to “run;” the first section focuses on “run,” the next part focuses on “fall,” and then “run” comes back again. The texture of the sound begins to change about two and a half minutes in and then again at the five and a half minute mark. The coda is very short, only a minute, and it’s calmer, using vehicle sounds like a train. To get the voices, I basically spammed all of the women I knew on Facebook, asking them to record readings. I asked 42 people; 15 sent in recordings; of those I used only 13, 13 different women reading the text. There were places where the voices become decorrelated, they begin break up, kind of come apart, the rhythms start to change; originally, I was going to use a granular synthesizer but in the end did it the old way, I just spliced it by hand, which isn’t that difficult anymore, splicing them or stretching them out without changing the pitch. What I hadn’t expected was the vocal range, from young girls with high pitched voices to the two older women, in their sixties, who had low grainy voices; I could almost make real harmonies with the voices — they contrast nicely with the sampled sounds and presented me with a nice way of blending the voice-text in with the train in the last section.
— Ariane Miyasaki
When making a dance, I usually begin with an idea or situation I want to explore through movement. Shortly after, I find music to help give structure to the dance I’m creating. The music serves as a skeleton, often shaping the narrative (if there is one, and for me, there usually is). Collaborating with Ariane Miyasaki was so refreshing to me as an artist, as my process was altered: I directly responded to the song “Run Fall Run’ that Ariane gave me, instead of searching for music that complimented my initial idea for a dance. In order to make a dance, I first listen to the music and then break apart into segments I hear. I use this as the basis for different sections of the dance. Usually I do several recordings of myself improvising to the music and watch the videos over and over again until I can see what type of movement phrases I’m repeating, as they tell me something about what I’m feeling. Once I have several movement phrases, I begin to make floor pattern drawings, and write my movement phrases with counts (especially phrases that are difficult for me to execute).
I staged this in a rectangular space, in the city of Benton Harbor. I had a deadline nearing and there was snow on the ground; the temperature was hovering above 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I decided to dance anyway, with boots on, no less. The cold gave me a new energy that I never experienced during my studio rehearsals of the piece. The weather was bewitching, and I was able to get into character quite well. It’s also important to note the importance of the sky, and how it created a feeling of limitlessness while I was dancing. Not only did it create this for me inside, in my interior, I believe it is expressed in my focus throughout the dance. If and when the piece is performed indoors, the dancer must make a huge effort to dance beyond the walls, something that is possible, but never quite the same as dancing underneath the sky.
For me, the feeling invoked in my body when listening to the music was one of claustrophobia. I envisioned a girl who is in turmoil, desperately trying to get herself through a difficult situation. She experiences reprieves, moments of rest, but ultimately, whatever situation or life-phase she is in is affecting her deeply. In the beginning of the piece, the threat of falling is present. The girl acknowledges the possibility of falling and ties a string around her middle, to keep herself up (see 3:59). It doesn’t completely work, because she still experiences moments of great sadness, when her body feels almost not her own. However, throughout the piece, there is a force running through her; this force is what I believe to be the human spirit, which gives her the ability to get up and persevere, despite her situation.
— Elizabeth Schmuhl
Elizabeth Schmuhl is a modern dance instructor, performer, choreographer and writer. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied dance and earned a BA in Creative Writing and Literature. Currently, she is an MFA in Writing candidate at VCFA. She has won an Avery Hopwood Award and recently published a story in Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, put out by Wayne State University Press.
Ariane Miyasaki is a composer based in Schenectady, New York. She is chiefly interested in electroacoustic and acousmatic work, though enjoys writing acoustic music as well. Her piece “she said” for hand bells and stereo fixed media was premiered in 2013 by Cassandra McClellan as part of the 2013 I/O Festival in Williams, Massachusetts. Miyasaki is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also holds a Bachelor of Music from State University of New York at Potsdam, where she studied music theory and history, an Associate of Science and an Associate of Arts from Schenectady County Community College, where she majored flute performance and humanities and social science. While attending classes at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, she studied electronic composition with Paul Steinberg. She is currently studying electroacoustic and acousmatic composition at VCFA. Miyasaki remains active as a flutist. She regularly plays with the SCCC Wind Ensemble and Capital Region Wind Ensemble, and frequently can be heard in other area ensembles and in the pit orchestras of local musical productions. Miyasaki studied flute with Kristin Bacchiocchi-Stewart, Norman Thibodeau, and Kenneth Andrews.
Deeply moving, graceful, powerful! What a wonderful partnership this was. I am great fan of Ariane’s artistry with words and sound. Both the audio and the dance together carried me as in a dream. The sound, so urgent — and the dance — so fluid and slow — and the breath on the air — all combined to make a wonderful work of art and humanity.
Very beautiful and powerful! i had the great pleasure of working with both of these fine artists at our recent VCFA MFA Music Composition residency in February. Ariane’s music and concepts are always thought provoking and will reach way deep into your soul. In this piece, I love that she fostered collaboration with her woman friends on FB, it reminds me of the work of Ai WeiWei. Involving one’s community at large in a work of art is such a powerful process, and Ariane has proven that with this piece. Elizabeth’s dance is equally as powerful, giving us a visual representation and depth to Ariane’s words. Kudos to you Douglas for commissioning this!
Thank you, Diane. It’s a great pleasure, yes, to help bring something like this together. I very much appreciate your comment. The two artists did a wonderful job.