Vancouver New Music's Resonances festival fuses soundscapes and pictograms

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      Moments before we were due to connect by telephone, Sammy Chien sent me an email that puzzled me deeply—but, once explained, blew my mind. The first message was a set of 10 Chinese characters; interesting, but indecipherable to someone who reads only English and a bit of French. In a follow-up email, though, Chien explained that the ideograms showed the evolution of the Chinese word for “dance”, and then it all made perfect sense.

      The first was a simple, runic depiction of a human figure. Halfway through the sequence, the glyphs took on more complexity and less humanity, looking more like an architectural plan than a choreographer’s note. And then, closer to us in time, the form had morphed again—into something that looked like an abstract portrait of a body in motion.

      Together, the 10 images offered a provocative picture of how language evolves—and how a pictographic language can describe nuances of meaning in a kind of visual shorthand. But what do they have to do with multimedia artist Chien’s upcoming performance at Vancouver New Music’s Resonances festival?

      It turns out that in W(e)aves 0.6, Chien—known for his Chimerik company’s extraordinary work in set and lighting design for theatre and dance—will be using his own dancing body to generate 21st-century pictograms as well as a darkly complex soundscape. He’ll accomplish this by using state-of-the-art motion-tracking technology to drive animated visuals and a computerized score that will “comment” on—or perhaps clash with—his movement.

      “One of the first researches that I started, through the body, was to see if this new technology, interactive motion-tracking, works,” says Chien. “And this was pretty groundbreaking three or four years ago when higher-resolution 3-D tracking came out—the type of motion-tracking that has access to more information of the relationship of body in space as well as gestures. It’s a kind of skeleton analysis. And then I’m using this skeleton-tracking information to create the visuals in real time, and also the sound.

      “I’m thinking ‘How can I use my body as an interface to express and create sounds and visuals in real time while telling stories through the body and text?’ ” he adds.

      The technology, as of yet, is not perfect, but the Taiwan-born Chien has learned to love its glitches, in part because they illuminate one of W(e)aves’ braided narratives—the one examining what it means to be a member of the Asian-Canadian diaspora living in Vancouver’s postcolonial, multicultural world. Yes, glitches happen, but they can also offer opportunities for understanding.

      “We’re all coming from different cultures, and the whole intercultural, transcultural work is about finding ways to integrate—and finding the new, right?” he says. “Like, what kind of society do we have right now? It’s a complex world we’re living in, and that whole purism and monoculture, it’s really done. So how do we fit into this multitude of different cultures? It’s a different way of looking at the world. And that’s why I think this piece is interesting, because in some ways it’s talking about Chinese culture, and in some ways it’s talking about universal culture.

      “My work really talks about sociopolitical issues,” he continues, “but then it also really addresses the idea that there is something universal within our body. Energy doesn’t discriminate; it’s a force that we all have.”

      Sammy Chien presents W(e)aves 0.6 at the Orpheum Annex next Saturday (October 19), as part of Vancouver New Music’s Resonances festival.