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Music, Theatre, Visual Art Review

New Music from an Old Source: Schubert Reinterpreted in Die Winterreise

Event  Information

Chapel Hill -- ( Wed., Nov. 29, 2017 - Fri., Dec. 1, 2017 )

UNC Chapel Hill Department of Music: "Winterreise: A Digital Reinvention"
Free -- Swain Hall , (919) 962-1039 , http://music.unc.edu/event/winterreise-digital-reinvention/

November 29, 2017 - Chapel Hill, NC:

At the University of North Carolina, as part of The Process Series, bass/baritone and UNC Assistant Professor of Music Marc Callahan performs selections from Franz Schubert's Die Winterreise (Winter Travels). But if you come as a Schubert fan, you'll be surprised. For this particular project, Callahan is accompanied not by piano or chamber ensemble, but by electronic digital "re-orchestration," as provided by fellow Associate Professor Lee Weisert. The program, seven selections from Schubert's 24-song cycle, is an experiment in the combination of old and new, resulting in new and different musical styles. What we were given here was a concert of classical vocal performance accompanied by electronic orchestration, which also provided to the viewer a chance to see the electronic media interpret the emotions of the singer, provided illustrative background graphics to accompany him, and provided a completely new interpretation of an old and familiar classic.

The program consisted of two parts: the Performance, which ran about 30 minutes, and the Discussion, lasting about another 30 minutes, during which the viewer was asked to provide a written evaluation of what he had seen. Meanwhile, the cast and crew, led by The Process Series host and Artistic Director Joseph Megel, asked us what our immediate impressions of the work might be. An audience of about 30 people participated in the discussion, including several people who are themselves performers, and a modicum of fellow Music Department faculty.

For his performance, Callahan gave Weisert seven selections to re-orchestrate. Usually, Die Winterreise is performed in its entirety of 24 songs in the original German, but re-orchestrating the entire work would be too time-consuming and perhaps a touch overkill. Besides which, the entire work runs approximately 90 minutes, and would refocus the viewer on the work, when it's the process we are looking at here.

Also accompanying Callahan were two projection screens, one of which was tied to a tiny camera on Callahan's music easel, and the other of which provided us with graphic and/or electronic visual accompaniment. This visual was designed to aid the viewer in "seeing" the journey on which the performer travels, and consisted of multiple forms that related to the work, from "the Elk," an image in the original Muller poetry, to an avatar walking through snow, accompanied by three slowly-flying birds, evoking Song No. 6, "Die Krahe" (The Crow). These images were provided live by Animation Programmer Sabine Gruffat.

So, the performance we saw is actually a trio of performers providing the complete experience: as Callahan sings, he is accompanied by Weisert and Gruffat. The aforementioned camera on Callahan's easel is aimed at his face; the computer to which it is linked is reading Mr. Callahan's facial features in order to interpret his emotional responses to his singing. These responses are then projected onto the screen stage right, indicating not only his emotions, but also his (constantly changing) ethnic origin (!) which changes often; and although Callahan is obviously Caucasian, his interpretation of the music is read by the computer as a changing algorithm. The emotions he is feeling, as interpreted by the computer, range from the expected emotions of love, grief, and sorrow, to the highly unexpected, like elation, disgust, and anger. Also supplied by this software is an overall "Emoji," which changes as Callahan's facial characteristics change. The software, originally developed by MIT, attempts, as did we all, to read the facial expressions of the singer to see what he might be feeling, but being a machine, it reads far more into what it sees, with sometimes comical results.

Callahan's interpretation of these German lieder, according to one faculty member, was "completely familiar and at the same time completely new." The sometimes familiar and sometimes foreign accompaniment gave a new interpretation of an old and classic work, often contributing to or influencing Callahan's performance. How, and to what extent, it did so was the very crux of this performance, the process of re-interpretation.

Weisert's orchestration uses a number of different characteristics of electronic music and combines them with standard instruments, such as the piano played by Mimi Solomon in "Der Lindenbaum" and "Die Lebensonnen." He then combines these regular accompaniments with such sounds as the moaning wind, or an "echo" of the singer's voice. It was clear to us as audience members that the accompaniment did indeed affect the way Callahan sang, as evidenced in the way he listened to the music for his cues. This new reworking of the original, combined with the unusual, made for a fascinating soundtrack.