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Architecture and Urban Planning

U-M students reimagine space, sound, reality in 'Sonic Scenographies' collaboration

by Jessica Jimenez

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.
How do you prepare artists for a future with deserted performance venues, reduced audiences and budget cuts? This summer, student teams and faculty members from the University of Michigan have been exploring the possibilities of learning, design and performance in the digital space. “Performing arts have all but shut down in a traditional sense,” said Mark Clague, associate dean at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “Venues that anticipated audiences of several thousand people are now suddenly in a situation where they can’t have more than 10 people in a room.  “Do we just give up and say art is impossible? Art and creativity is what makes us human. Do we stop being human because of COVID? We set out to explore the implications of a parallel artistic environment.” Sonic Scenographies is a multidisciplinary research program that challenges students to discover those implications. With the support of faculty mentors, student teams have spent the summer speculating on ways performance is influenced by digital space.  The novel program debuted in May and will culminate in a virtual event at 6-7:45 p.m. Sept. 10. The event, hosted on Twitch, will take place in two parts: an hour-long formal ceremony where teams will present their work in a short video format and an informal 30-minute conversation between four invited guests—all experts in the fields of theater, music and/or performance.

Architecture without walls, performances without venues

As part of the project, musicians and other performing arts students teamed up with an unlikely ally: architecture students. Together, they have been exploring what the future of improvisation might be without live audiences, and how sound and space are affected by virtual settings.  The brainchild of Clague and Anya Sirota, an associate dean and associate professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Sonic Scenographies is a sizeable collaboration between the Taubman College, SMTD and ArtsEngine, an organization that fosters multidisciplinary teaching and learning at U-M.  “Studio-based learning and performance practices are more connected than we think,”  Sirota said. “Design, architecture, theater, music and dance are synergistic and collaborative from the get-go, concerned with how bodies move through physical space.”

Scenic Scenographies is the brainchild of Mark Clague, associate dean at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and Anya Sirota, associate professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Eight student teams, selected as finalists in early June, were awarded $2,000 stipends to research how sound and space have been affected by—and continue to evolve in—virtual settings. Architecture students have focused on studying and manipulating elements of the performance venue. What does it mean to design a virtual stage? For these students, controlling acoustics and other structural elements to determine audience flow becomes less restricted when the possibilities are only limited by code and an internet connection. “It’s really the magic of what Michigan is all about,” said Debra Mexicotte, managing director of ArtsEngine. “We may never be in this situation again, and yet we’re adapting quickly. We have this incredible range of people and faculty, and the students have put forward ideas that are both impressive and have a real sense of completeness to them.” And the silver lining of Sonic Scenographies? Participating in the project has been a way for these students to develop their skills in the wake of canceled architectural internships and professional performance opportunities.  

Finding a happy (virtual) place

One such project from the “Listening as Procedural Design Strategy” team is rethinking the role of sound in architecture, developing ways that musicians can take part in designing the spaces in which they’ll eventually perform.  Architecture student Yangtian Yan says the goal will be for the team to facilitate a unique form of communication during the design process through “call-and-response” interactions. In these interactions between architects and musicians, each individual communicates through an “established lexicon of visual and sonic cues.” “If the architects want to create a happy space, they will use an image representing happiness or another positive emotion. The musicians understand the message through the image and can then provide ‘feedback’ by sending a response that is represented by a sound,” Yan said. “In other words, with a shared library of visual elements and sonic patterns, musicians and architects can communicate in their own comfort zone and design a digital space together.” 
  • Members of “Staging Place” develop technologies and mobile units that would connect a performance site with a live-streamed audience projection site.
  • Members of “Staging Place” develop technologies and mobile units that would connect a performance site with a live-streamed audience projection site.
  • For team “Listening as Procedural Design Strategy”, architects and musicians will design performance spaces together, communicating through a shared library of visual and sonic cues.
  • Student teams participate in Sonic Scenographies to research the relationships between space and sound in virtual settings.
Many of the teams attempt to address connections between audiences and performances, rethinking ideas of inclusivity and sound perception.  Another team, "Staging Place," aims to protect "the placeness of live performance," using a digital platform to widen engagement and accessibility. Audiences will watch live performances remotely, opening the possibilities of who and how many can attend.  "Conventional performance spaces have the impression of being formal and rigid," said Akari Komura, SMTD graduate student and Japanese composer-vocalist. "We challenge this idea by creating the potential for mobile stages in uncommon outdoor spaces like alleyways and parks."  Though student teams are focused on performance and collaboration, their research brings new insights into learning in a digital environment. Forming teams requires being able to assess each other's strengths and interests—something that doesn't always come across easily through a screen.  Mixers, virtual reality ice cream socials and Zoom panels have been a way for students across degree programs to meet each other. During the ideation stages, project ideas were posted to forums so students could contact each other. On July 1, teams shared their progress in a livestreamed YouTube event. "The irony is, everything we do is deliberate, and yet we're trying to design tools and platforms where students can be serendipitous and design online," Sirota said. 

By artists, for artists

The program's legacy will continue beyond summer, inspiring new topics for teaching and further research. Faculty members involved in Sonic Scenographies have begun conversations on how to continue the interdisciplinary studies in the form of cocurricular classes. How the student teams have collaborated and designed their final products may inform future teaching practices.  For projects like Staging Place, this summer marks only the early research for continued collaborations. Team members hope their work will serve as a prototype for future development of sustainable live and digital performance systems. They hope to see other iterations of their project develop beyond the Ann Arbor area and involve other types of performance.

In “Staging Place”, students utilize live-feed, pop-up performances, using the digital sphere to visualize space and build connections between artists and audiences.

Sirota believes rethinking the relationships between art, design and digital technologies will have a lasting impact on the future of new platforms.  "Sometimes we inherit technological tools based on our needs," she said. "In this pivot towards the digital realm, it's fascinating that perhaps we as artists and designers can inform the need, nuance the production and contribute to the design of new  tools."  The teams presenting on September 10 include: 
  • Dynamic Soundscapes: An inclusive virtual performance experience that investigates how the dissolution of the audience/performer barrier and disembodiment can transcend "spectatorship" and introduce new audiences to classical music. Team members include Mytreyi Chandrasekhar Metta, Liyah George, Shraddha Jain and Sophia Janevic.
  • Yes, and Improv: A website that hosts livestreamed structured-improvisation performances influenced by a virtual audience to promote engagement between space and sound, audience and performer. Team members include Megan Finley, Alex Vernon and Sydney Gembka.
  • A two-dimensional platform for live performance and collaboration that recognizes the unique capabilities of online interaction and the versatile acoustic constraints of virtual space in order to create performance experience that rivals, but doesn't attempt to replicate, a live performance experience. Team members include Jamie Johnson, Kaya Ramirez, Catherine Kenzie and Nick Warren.
  • Listening as Procedural Design Strategy: A real-time digital environment for architects and musicians to coproduce space and sound through call-and-response experiments. Team members include Yangtian Yan, Gabriel Guerra, Joseph Mutone and Senhao Wang.
  • Patch/Work: An open-source resource for (non)performers seeking to repurpose quotidian environments into microperformance spaces for sonic production. Team members include Zoë Faylor, Rosa Manzo, Austin Ehrhardt and Logan Gare.
  • Mourning, Ritual, and Digital Ground: A new ritual performance that pairs the mystical dimensions of the virtual realm with the carillon on shared grounds. Team members include Elyssa Bakker, Celia Olsen and Jenna Moon.
  • Staging Place: A live feed performance projection system between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor that aims to protect the placeness of live performance while using a digital platform to amplify the analog, to widen engagement and accessibility, and create new connections between neighbors. Team members include Christine Darragh, Akari Komura, Hannah Kirkpatrick, Waylon Richmond, Karina Tirado, Sheena Hui, Hannah Marcus and Aislinn Bailie. 
  • Virtual Venues: Virtual Venues aims to restore the relationship between performer and audience by repurposing the acoustic and visual information from real-life, genre-specific music venues to create spatial accompaniments for digital performances. Team members include Ryan Cox, Francesca Romano, Colin Cusimano, Haley Mayes and Jacob Ward.

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