Chance Happening

Posted April 13, 2009, at 6:02 p.m.

Pick a number out of a hat. Set your iPod to shuffle. Take a cookie out of the jar. All those things are left up to chance — seemingly random events that, in actuality, are the product of a complex series of conditions and events, be it the way in which you tossed around the numbers in the hat, or the algorithm used to select songs from a music library.

Chance is the guiding force behind a collaborative multimedia work, “MCRCSM,” to be presented by graduate students in the Intermedia MFA program this Saturday evening at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre at the University of Maine. MCRCSM, which is short for both microcosm and macrocosm, uses audio and visual elements to create a four-hour multimedia installation unlike anything seen in this area in many years, if ever.

Inspired by the work of 20th century experimental composer John Cage — who was best known for his works based on chance, or “indeterminacy,” as he called it — MCRCSM is the culmination of a year spent working with professor Nate Aldrich in a class focusing on creative collaboration. Aldrich chose Cage’s large-scale 1969 installation piece “HPSCHD,” itself a collaboration with fellow composer Lejaren Hiller, as the jumping-off point for what his students would create over the two semesters.

Cage was at the forefront of using chance as a method of artistic creation, famously using the ancient Chinese text the “I Ching,” also known as the “Book of Changes,” to create musical compositions.

“It’s not that it’s random. It’s indeterminate. It’s not just things happening for no reason whatsoever. It’s chance,” said William Giordano, one of the four MFA students working on the project. “That’s what Cage was all about. Out of chaos, a pattern emerges. It almost always does.”

MFA students Giordano, Bethany Engstrom, Alexander Gross and Abigail Stiers created MCRCSM, with undergraduate new media major Ryan Page coming onboard later on to work with Giordano, thanks to his abundant audio engineering skills.

Giordano, a musician and visual artist, credits his exposure to the works of Cage as a defining influence in his life as an artist.

“Since I began getting into [Cage], I’ve hardly picked up a guitar. It’s completely changed my mind-set about so many things, especially regarding music,” said Giordano, who worked on the audio elements with Page.

The original HPSCHD (a reference to the harpsichord used during the piece) used sheets of plastic, 52 tracks of audiotape, live performers and 80 slide projectors, each projecting different images supplied by NASA. MSRCSM takes a slightly smaller scale, using sheets of cheesecloth and eight audio and visual inputs. Instead of NASA images, it uses images and sounds captured directly from those present at the installation.

“At the time, those images from space were things that people had never seen before,” said Stiers, who worked on the visual aspect of the project. “We needed to find something that might have a similar effect. So, instead of focusing on the telescopic, as those images were, we focused on the microscopic and on images taken di-rectly from the event itself. We can zoom in very tight on different things, and we can manipulate those images right on the spot.”

The concepts and mechanics behind the installation are complex, but the end result is something that is incredibly engaging, both visually and audibly. Participants are encouraged to wear bright colors, in order to affect what images end up on the screens, and to bring instruments and noisemakers to affect what ends up coming through the speakers.

“I don’t think you necessarily have to know much about Cage, or about the specific mechanics of it, to appreciate it,” said Stiers. “It’s about the experience.”

The powerful camera mounted at the top of the theater captures the movement in the crowd. The video captured is then split into eight frames, which are then each filtered into an algorithmic computer program, designed by Stiers, Gross and Engstrom, that manipulates them.

The images captured appear on the screen as rounded shapes of different colors, moving at different speeds, creating layers of color similar to a fractal. Sometimes a normal image will filter in, and you might see a face or a more definable shape. Additionally, Engstrom has created a sculptural object, utilizing a chance-based pro-cess to create a cylinder out of reflective lenses, which will contribute to the visual aspect.

“We wanted to create a system that’s not one-to-one. When you see it, you don’t automatically say, ‘Oh, when I move over here, this happens. If I say this, this sound occurs.’ It’s not immediately apparent what happens when you move or say something, you just know that something is happening. It all emerges as a coherent whole,” said Stiers.

At the same time, eight microphones record the audio within the room. Those eight audio inputs are linked up with the eight video captures, so the two inputs respond to one another. The sound that emanates from the speakers might be sped up or slowed down, shortened or lengthened, while the colors on the screen go from red and blue to green and purple.

In essence, the success of the installation is dependent upon the contributions from those who attend.

“It values the presence of the people that come to it. That’s what makes it work,” said Giordano. “And it’s not that it’s random. It’s indeterminate. It’s not just things happening for no reason whatsoever. It’s just chance. That’s what Cage was all about. Out of chaos, a pattern emerges. It almost always does.”

MCRCSM will be presented from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre on the University of Maine campus in Orono. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.intermediamfa.org.

eburnham@bangordailynews.net

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