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HABITAT: A Music and Technology Performance

By Jamie McCrary

William Brent

Audio Technology Program Director William Brent

AU professor and Audio Technology Program director William Brent believes integrating technology into live performances creates vibrant environments for artistic communication. “I’m looking for new expressive spaces,” says Brent. “Generating images and sounds and processing them in real time adds dynamic expressive layers to a performance. It places a focus on relationships between sounds and images that wasn’t there before.” 

Brent is looking forward to exploring this expressive space with composer Steve Antosca and percussionist Ross Karre in their upcoming performance of HABITAT. A performance of HABITAT at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center on February 21 at 8 p.m., melds percussion, video, and computer-altered audio into a concert-length composition that challenges audiences to reformulate their perception of a musical performance. “HABITAT takes the idea of solo acoustic instrument performance and expands it into a larger space with more performative capabilities through technology,” Brent says.  

HABITAT is organized into six sections, each of which will be performed at designated stations throughout the three floors of the gallery. Audio from each station is captured, transformed, mixed with extra electronic sounds, and spatialized over 10 speakers surrounding the audience on the first floor. Stations feature different groups of percussion instruments including vibraphone, gongs, cow bells, and bowls. Some stations contain cameras that track and translate the performer’s movements into synthesized sounds.  

The AU Museum offers an ideal space for HABITAT, providing a non-traditional venue that works with both the audio and the visual elements of the performance. “Steve Antosca, HABITAT’s composer, is interested in working outside of the traditional concert hall in galleries, atriums, and large buildings. By performing in these kinds of spaces, we’re able to create an environment of both sound and visual art, which is perfect in a museum because many percussion set ups end up looking like sculptures,” says Brent. “I think this is where the idea of HABITAT comes from—that the performer is learning to exist in this environment.”  

Though HABITAT is a composed piece with specific directions for the performer, some elements of the piece are indeterminate and partially random, creating a different presentation each time the piece is performed. Percussionist Ross Karre has practiced the written music for each of the six stations, but because many of the synthesized sounds and visuals depend on his gestures and movements, the piece is constantly re-organizing and shifting. “Karre is put in a place where he has to adapt,” Brent says. “This is what HABITAT is really about—watching the percussionist come to grips with these elements in the space and master them in his own way.”

Brent believes this interaction with technology pushes the boundaries of the performing arts experience, encouraging the performer to approach his craft from a different angle. “I don’t think all art should be at the cutting edge of technology, but I think it’s important some art is,” Brent says. “By taking the most recent tools available to artists and finding new ways of using them in real, viable performance works, it helps artists think of their own works in different ways. They see new possibilities when they’re exposed to what technology is out there.” While there have been many fulfilling aspects working to create and perform HABITAT, for Brent, the most rewarding part has been the creative freedom the process encourages. “Steve and Ross are both people I have long working relationships with, which really facilitates an openness to explore new techniques and ideas,” Brent says. “For instance, I know how Ross plays, so I can write interactive programs around his style, allowing me to get specific reactions from the computer part that will align with what we’re interested in exploring.”  

Though Brent is excited to be a part of HABITAT and continue working to produce similar works, he realizes that not all audiences embrace the combination of live performance and technology. He hopes that HABITAT will be a catalyst for understanding and curiosity in audiences, demonstrating that technology is just another tool artists can use to express themselves. “Sometimes technology and live performance are approached as opposing disciplines, almost with the attitude that the goal of technology is to replace the human element in music and performing arts,” Brent says. “I hope that HABITAT reinforces the idea that technology has always been used by artists, and that it’s not something that will replace the human element but give new expressive capabilities to live performers.”