The first MusicNOW concert of the 2016-17 season will feature two world premieres by Chicago-based composers: Monday or Tuesday by Kyle Vegter and where the moss glows by Katherine Young. Both works were commissioned by MusicNOW for this concert, Oct. 10 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The MusicNOW program also will be the concluding event in the Ear Taxi Festival, a six-day celebration of Chicago’s new music scene.
A composer and sound designer, Vegter is a member of Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company. Founded in 2010 by Vegter and Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman and Julia Miller, Manual Cinema uses shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music design to create “immersive visual stories for stage and screen.” It aims to “transform the experience of attending the cinema and imbue it with liveness, ingenuity, and theatricality.”
KV: I started out playing in bands in high school. I was in our middle-school orchestra playing upright bass so I didn’t have to take home ec[onomics] or shop class — and from that I started playing in bands in high school. Music wasn’t something that I took very seriously until college, where I happened upon a composition 101 course that everyone could take, and I took it and fell in love. I got very into it and switched majors. It’s just kind of been what I do ever since.
JM: And he’s tall. I feel like you have to be tall to play the bass.
KV: That’s the reason they made me play the bass, it’s true. I wanted to play cello.
JM: Well, now you play cello. So it’s fine.
EO: Julia, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to be interested in visual art?
JM: I have a theater background and I went to school for theater — I got a BFA in performance — but it wasn’t until I came to Chicago that I started doing puppetry. There’s an amazing puppetry community here. I was working with Redmoon Theater and Blair Thomas & Co., and that’s how I got into shadow puppets. That’s kind of how Manual Cinema got together eventually.
EO: So what is Manual Cinema and where did it come from? To me, what’s beautiful about it is that it’s an incredible, multi-disciplinary mingling of different art forms. You’re both coming at it from very different backgrounds.
JM: We’re both artistic directors of Manual Cinema, and there are five artistic directors total. Kyle and Ben are in the music department, and they do all of the sound design and scoring for our work. There are three of us in the visual department who are doing the puppetry and also putting together the stories and the narrative. But we also all work together creating concepts for shows, and we’ll all work together to devise parts of the stories together.
KV: We’ve been around for about six years now, and we started just as friends of friends of friends. Julia had done one shadow-puppet show with Redmoon that was a production of Swan Lake with the CSO, and she was asked to make a short piece for a small puppetry festival that was happening in town. A band that I played in at the time had just put out a record that she liked, and she asked if she could use some of the music. I said, “Sure, but do you need original music? I’d love to work on [it].”
JM: And then they scored the whole show. [Laughs]
KV: Yeah! We made this little 20-minute, one-overhead projector show called Lula Del Ray. We had a great time making it, and people loved the show, so we just kept working. We made a new show called ADA/AVA and performed that in a real theater. We’ve just been doing it ever since.
JM: Each show we make, we were learning more about the technology that we’re using because it is really limiting, but we were really excited by the idea of translating cinematic vocabulary onto overhead projectors. When we started adding overhead projectors, it was like adding cameras, so we were slowly building this vocabulary and trying new things. Our first show was one overhead projector, but now our biggest show has seven. We’re not tired of it yet as a way to work — as a medium — so we’ve been sticking with silhouettes.
KV: A central tenant of our work is that we generally don’t use dialogue, so most of the storytelling is done through visual language and also sound and music. As a composer/sound designer, that’s a really unique and exciting and terrifying opportunity. Sound design of the world and the music that you write are going to have to do a lot more lifting than they normally would in a general theater production or a film, even. Every door-opening sound, every footstep sound, has to convey story and so does the music.
EO: Could you talk about the process of putting a show together?
JM: Each process is different, depending on the content. For shows where we’re developing the story internally, usually one artistic director that has the “nugget” that’s the beginning of the story, and then we’ll come together and create a rough outline and iterate and brainstorm together. Then one of us will go away and create a storyboard that showcases each scene of the story and what kind of shot it is. Then we’ll take the storyboard and build puppets to create a demo. We’ll film a rough-and-dirty version of the show and edit it together. [Through] each phase, we are able to see what parts are working and what parts are not. Because it’s visual storytelling, we really have to see it to know if it’s telling the story we want in the way that we want. The demo also goes to sound design and music so they can start creating the sonic world. The demos are then what we use to stage, in real time, the puppetry. We come together at the very end — music and puppetry — and put both together.
KV: I would say we start collaboratively. The five of us really hammer out the story that we want to tell in writers’ room sessions where all of us are contributing ideas. Like Julia said, we first make a screenplay written out as what is going to happen in the story, and from that, we make the storyboard. Then the demo video, and we go from there. We start really collaboratively, we then separate into visual world and sound world — visuals makes a demo of the whole piece, gives it to us, and we work on sound and music — so we’re together and then go into our separate worlds. Then once both sides are done — once we have a score and sound design and once the puppets are built — we come together in this Sitzprobe-style rehearsal where nobody really knows what’s going on, and we have to work through every beat of the show and figure out who’s leading this part. “Are we waiting for this puppetry cue?” or “Are you listening for this music cue?” We come together at the end, and it becomes really collaborative again.
JM: Monday or Tuesday is actually a little different than our normal process because Kyle created a piece of music based on an existing story written by Virginia Woolf, and then we’re taking the piece of music and also the story and then creating the visuals, which is really exciting. Sometimes we do mix it up; we did a show that was an adaptation of a bunch of Lorca poetry, so with that we also started with the poetry, then there was music created based on that, and then we took the poetry and the music and started to create the visual world. Different projects have different processes, depending on the content we’re dealing with.
KV: There are a couple of shows of ours that have started with sound and music first. A lot of them are related to literature. We did this piece based on García Lorca’s work that started with a bunch of music. We took his poems and I basically wrote a bunch of music that I thought fit the poems, and then we put together visuals around that and a narrative around that. We did the same thing with a book of poems by Zachary Schomberg, a poet from Portland, in a show called Fjords. In that one, I took 14 poems and wrote a piece of music for string quartet and electronics for each of those poems and then handed that all off to the puppetry team. We put together a narrative around that. Monday or Tuesday is the newest iteration of that. I started with a [poem] by Virginia Woolf and wrote a piece of music to that, and then handed both the poem and the piece of music off to the puppetry team.
EO: Could you talk a little bit about Monday or Tuesday? How did you approach composing with this poem in mind?
KV: Another artistic director, Drew Dir, wanted to make a video project based on a different Virginia Woolf story called “Haunted House.” We did the score and we’re still actually making a video for that piece. Doing that piece got me interested in this book of short stories that Virginia Woolf published — it’s actually her only book of short stories — and some of them are “short stories,” I’d say, but a lot of them are more poetry than prose. Through research, I found that it’s a largely overlooked set of works next to her giant, successful novels. She writes in her journals about how writing this little book of short stories really helped her develop her stream-of-consciousness prose style. That’s how I knew I was interested in working with another one of these in writing this piece. Monday or Tuesday, in particular, just jumped off the page for me in terms of its style and its colors. In the poem she’s sort of comparing the natural world — as this serene, beautiful place — and the world of humans — the city — as this raucous, dangerous, all-over-the-place scene.
JM: It’s high contrast, so there’s a lot to play with because she’s jumping back and forth between these calm, naturalistic images of a heron and also the tumult of an urban environment, and their interwoven-ness. It’s a kind of chaotic poem, but it also has this really beautiful space in it, too, that I feel lends itself well to the type of storytelling that we do.
KV: Her descriptions of human life and living in a city as being this crazy, all-over-the-place experience really spoke to me in terms of what’s happening now … with how crazy the world is right now. It seemed really relevant and spoke to me personally.
EO: Many of these projects actually stem from words, but in the end there’s this sense of silence. Or perhaps not silence, but vocal silence — the absence of words — that makes the ideas behind the words jump out even more. They become more pronounced in a way. I think that’s a really extraordinary outcome of this particular medium that you’re working to develop.
KV: It’s interesting that you would say that, because I’ve noticed that, too. I think all of us were literature buffs to begin with. I was an English major and thought I wanted to be a writer until I was in that composition course, so I think literature and words have been really important to a lot of us. I think I secretly still want to be a writer and a poet instead of a composer. I think that’s where we start with a lot of our work, but I think that what we do is translate it into a more emotional, unspoken realm, and I think a lot of the power of our work lies in that.
JM: When you’re trying to translate a text or an idea into something that’s visual, it makes you distill the concept. “What is the visual representation of this idea?” It makes us access it in a more universal way. We’re always working in these visual metaphors, so we have to simplify and get to the center of what something is because we have to tell it without words.
KV: There’s also something that I’ve noticed in our work that audiences have described to us that has to do with the absence of words and presence of shadows: the audience can project themselves into the piece. There’s a character that is only portrayed in shadow; you never hear them speak but you hear a really detailed sound world and music world around them. I think it invites an audience member to put themselves in the world of the piece and really connect with it emotionally, and I think that’s something we think about, too, when we’re making our work.
EO: It’s like you create this void through which people can insert their own experiences.
JM: It’s like a weird portal that I think puppetry is also a big part of because you are animating these inanimate objects, and you’re creating this world by hand. There’s something really visceral about that. It’s amazing to have so many feelings about something that is just a small piece of paper. We share with the audience how we’re creating the imagery — we don’t try to hide it — so we’re sharing the chaos of creating the images as well as the final movie version. It’s really interesting the way that people can be transported.
KV: I feel like we do a lot of inviting to the audience. We’re inviting the audience into this emotional world with characters and story and sound and music, and we also invite them to see exactly how we’re doing all of it in real time, live. I think we promote a feeling that you’re there with us, making this. You’re seeing the tiny puppet that they’re manipulating, and we’re all in this together.
JM: It’s asking the audience to be pretty engaged as well because we’re showing you a lot of stuff, and we’re giving you agency to look either at how we’re making it or the final image. It’s a less passive experience in that way. In a movie theater, it’s nice to relax and sit and watch the movie. You don’t think about anything except that big screen. But with theater, it’s really exciting because you can see it all happening live, and what we’re doing is trying to create a combination of both of those experiences. We’re also asking you in that way to engage with how we’re creating it.
EO: So this piece is part of the Ear Taxi Festival, a celebration of all the amazing new music going on in Chicago. I assume because Manual Cinema is here that the city of Chicago in and of itself has greatly impacted your work and the direction of your work. Could talk about that?
KV: Totally. I think we couldn’t exist in a city other than Chicago. I think it had to happen here. We have this giant space that we’re in that we can afford to have. There’s an amazing group of artists that is really excited to collaborate, which is something that we don’t take for granted and that you don’t find in a lot of other cities. Just the way that our company began, too: a bunch of friends who just wanted to collaborate and kept collaborating and making art and having fun. I feel like that’s a lot harder to do in other cities that are maybe less open to experimentation.
JM: There are companies trying to structure themselves in new ways. I feel a lot of more interdisciplinary work happening. There are a lot of non-profits, but there are also lots of people trying to figure out another structure to operate in as far as making art full-time in the city.
KV: I really feel that there is a collaborative spirit in Chicago that I haven’t found in other cities. We travel a ton, we perform in lots of different cities in the world, and I really haven’t found a place so inviting and so open to working together and having ideas with lots of different people. [To Julia] What else about Chicago?
JM: The winters make it really easy to hunker down and do work. [Laughs]
KV: I also think the new music scene in Chicago is incredible, and one of the most fun and inviting [environments]. You’ve got groups like Spektral Quartet that don’t take themselves super seriously and are down to earth, and I just love the way they present themselves. And then Parlour Tapes+, which I think is trying to bring some sense of whimsy and fun — like “we’re all just in this together trying to make cool art” — sense to the new music scene.
EO: What’s next? What are you working on?
JM: We’re working on an immersive theater production of Peter Pan that’s going up in China — in Beijing — in December. We are part of the pretty large and awesome design team. We’re creating shadow puppetry sequences that happen all over the world, and Ben and Kyle are also scoring and sound designing the whole thing. The idea is that you arrive as an audience member in Neverland, and it’s actually a place –
KV: A 250,000 square-foot, three-story Neverland that you can explore —
JM: We’re also working on a show that’s premiering this winter for Chicago Children’s Theatre. It’s an adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s Magic City, and it’s going to be part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. We’re also working on a short piece for the Art Institute that will be inspired by the life and work of artist László Moholy-Nagy.
KV: That exhibition is coming from the Guggenheim in New York. It’ll be at the Art Institute and then it’s going to LACMA, so we are creating the show as a part of that exhibit. It’ll use aspects of his work and scenes from his life. That’ll be in December.
JM: We’re also collaborating with Lookingglass Theatre on a production called “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth” about a couple who travel through space and time to tell stories. It’s a show that involves a lot of different shadow projection that we’re creating for them.
KV: We’re also working on a show for the Poetry Foundation here in Chicago based on the life and work of Gwendolyn Brooks, an American poet who lived in Chicago. 2016 is her centennial, so there are a bunch of celebrations of her life and work going on around Chicago. This piece will premiere in late 2017 with the Poetry Foundation.
TOP: The artistic directors of Manual Cinema: Kyle Vegter (from left), Julia Miller, Ben Kauffman, Sarah Fornace and Drew Dir.