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Scene from Broadway Across America's production of West Side Story.

The Digital Muse
Technology in Live Performance

by Philip Auslander

Walking up the aisle of the Fox Theatre in Atlanta during the intermission of a recent performance of Broadway Across America’s touring production of West Side Story, I paused to look at the soundboard. There, amidst the sliders and faders, perched the Apple laptop that has become ubiquitous in performances where sound is a crucial dimension. It was poignant to see how digital technology was lodged at the heart of a production that so powerfully evoked an earlier historical moment. The play itself dates back over half a century, of course, and the book betrays the dramatic and verbal conventions of 1957. Jerome Robbins’s original choreography has been recreated, as if it were impossible to imagine West Side Story with newly conceived dances. On the other hand, this production, based on the 2009 Broadway revival, incorporates a substantial amount of spoken and sung Spanish, a significant and welcome change from the original text, marking it as a product of 21st century consciousness. And there was digital sound.

The presence of the computer at West Side Story caused me to reflect on the ubiquity of digital technology in performance, particularly other shows I have seen recently in Atlanta, including two tent-based productions, Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo and the threesixtyo production of Peter Pan. In all three cases, human agency and traditional modes of theatrical performance go hand-in-hand with computer-driven technologies. The voices of the singers in West Side Story reach the audience’s ears as digitally processed sound. There are truly dazzling moments in Peter Pan in which actors suspended on wires “fly” against computer-generated images projected on the curved sides of the tent to produce seamless effects of their soaring over the rooftops of Edwardian London and the treetops of Never Never Land. It is well known that Cirque du Soleil’s productions combine traditional acrobatic and aerial circus acts with sophisticated sound, lighting, and scenic technologies.

My observations here will address only a small number of the ways digital technology has become integral to live performance in a host of forms, including theatre, circus, and music. I do not bring up these examples to suggest they are problematic: it is inevitable that performing artists will avail themselves of the newest technologies. Rather, my interest is in the ways they are used and the relationships between those uses and the historical conventions of the performing arts. 

A significant variable across these productions is the transparency of the technology, the degree to which its use is emphasized, or even acknowledged, in the performance. A recent article in AV Technology Magazine brings to light the complex technical set-ups that make Cirque du Soleil’s shows possible (though it focuses on the Cirque’s resident shows in Las Vegas rather than touring productions like Ovo). Here is a sample from a description of the audio technology used in one Cirque show:

The FOH control surface is split into two sections, with two operators handling either the music mix or the mix and triggering of the shows sound effects; many of which are tied to projections and pyro systems. The FOH system has 176 inputs, which includes 24 internal hard diskbased WildTracks playback inputs, with 184 outputs driving a wide variety of Meyer speakers, including 50 Milo line array enclosures. 

All of the elements of the production, including performers, lighting effects, sound, projections, and moving sets are coordinated by computers and managed by human operators who remain behind the scenes. The production’s effacement of its technology suggests that Cirque du Soleil wishes to be seen as promoting respect for the physical mastery of acrobats, aerialists, and clowns even as it incorporates those skills into complex, technologically-dependent spectacles.

Much the same can be said for West Side Story albeit on a more modest scale. Just as Cirque du Soleil wishes to be perceived as maintaining time-honored circus traditions, Broadway across America adheres to with the historical values of musical theatre: the actors are discretely miked and the use of technology to enhance their voices is not directly acknowledged. By contrast, 360o’s production of Peter Pan engages more knowingly with its technologies. The producers trumpet the use of sophisticated CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) intended to make the live experience competitive with the movies (though the images resemble those of video games more than those in films). The cables that support the actors when they fly or do airborne acrobatics are fully visible, and the performers are seen to attach and detach themselves from them at the appropriate moments. But the movement through space of each suspended performer is actually controlled by an unseen operator sitting at a workstation that strongly resembles a sophisticated videogame console, and the presence of these operators is not acknowledged by the production. It is as if the producers feel that they can afford to demystify the conventional theatrical technologies at work—we’ve always known that flying actors are attached to cables, after all—while keeping the full extent to which the human elements of the performance are indebted to sophisticated technology under wraps.

The question of the degree to which digital technologies used in performance should be transparent has been most heatedly debated in musical circles. For example, W. Andrew Schloss, a computer musician and percussionist, has expressed concern that audiences for concerts involving unconventional digital instruments may feel ill at ease because they don’t understand the cause-and-effect relationships between the musicians’ actions and the sounds they hear the way they do with more familiar instruments and are thus deprived of the opportunity to appreciate the musician’s efforts on their behalf. Amir Gwirtzman’s recent performance at the Apache Café in Atlanta spoke directly to this issue. Gwirtzman is an Israeli jazz saxophonist and World Music multi-instrumentalist whose current performances involve himself as the sole musician and a digital device known as a loop pedal. As he explained from the stage, the loop pedal is a bit like a portable recording studio in that it allows him to record tracks in real time then play against them. For example, he will play a bass line on baritone saxophone, loop it, and add another line on tenor sax while the baritone loop plays back repeatedly. With the tenor, he now has a repeating recording of two horns against which he can play a solo on flute. In this way, he becomes his own back-up band. 

Gwirtzman in no way obscures his use of this technology: he uses the loop pedal visibly and explains what he’s doing to the audience. His performance is as much about the process of building up musical sound in layers as it is about the final sound at which he arrives in each piece. As if to emphasize that the technology does not obviate the need for conventional musical effort, he appears to be winded at the end of some pieces. Watching Gwirtzman perform is similar to watching a musician at work in the recording studio, for the process in which he is engaged is related to that of making a multi-tracked recording. But it is also crucially different in that once he has looped something, he cannot go back and change it (though he can stop it from playing back). If a musician in the studio records an unsuccessful track, it can be removed and replaced. But when an audience sees and hears a musician play something as part of the process of building a real-time musical performance through a complex combination of live and recorded sounds, the audience expects the tracks it has witnessed the musician produce to be part of the mix.

I suggested earlier that one can think about the uses of technology in theatrical performance in relation to the kinds and traditions of performance evoked by a particular event, whether theatre or circus. The same is true for musical performances. Another musician famous for using the loop pedal in a manner similar to Gwirtzman’s, though in a very different musical context, is the Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall. In a pivotal 2004 performance on the UK television program Later . . . with Jools Holland, Tunstall performed her song “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” by herself using an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal. At the start of the performance, she can be seen clapping, strumming her guitar, rattling a tambourine, and singing two harmonized sets of “whoo hoos” to create the backing tracks against which she will sing and play during the rest of the performance.

Both Tunstall’s and Gwirtzman’s uses of the loop pedal are potentially controversial within their respective musical contexts. The singer-songwriter genre assumes an organic relationship between musician and music that the intervention of this technology might be perceived as sullying. It is therefore important that the audience sees Tunstall create the tracks and understand that they are as much the products of her live performance as the material she plays and sings without looping it. The same is true for Gwirtzman, with the addition of the jazz audience’s expectation that parts of the music are improvised. In a way, Gwirtzman’s use of the loop pedal dramatizes the distinction between the set and improvised parts of his playing since the recorded loops provide a fixed backdrop for improvisation. Gwirtzman also seemed to be making decisions about which instruments to use for a particular piece on the spot, whether or not he recorded loops with them. Again, the seeming spontaneity of these choices became all the more significant by contrast with conspicuously non-spontaneous, technologically-driven sound.


Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.

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