5 Questions to Erika Boysen about Moving Sound (mobile app)

Interdisciplinary performers working in new music are constantly turning to new and evolving forms of technology as pragmatic tools for documenting their work. The intrinsic benefits and consequences of the medium they choose also comes with its own complexity and, in turn, asserts its influence on the musical works themselves. Erika Boysen, along with with Wayne Reich and Ben Singer, brings audiences one such exploration with her new app for iOS and Android called “Moving Sound,” which will be available for download on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. The app features three newly commissioned works for the singing, speaking, and moving flutist by David Biedenbender, Mark Engebretson, and Jane Rigler. Showcasing Boysen’s evocative work as a flutist, actor/mover, and singer, the app offers listeners elegant performance videos, a “score follower” for each piece, interviews with composers, behind-the-scenes footage, and more. Boysen recognizes the power of mobile apps to depict the creative act in a memorable form. Perhaps we’re witnessing a contemporary expansion of what Lawrence Alloway termed “channel art” in 1970. Unlike Alloway and his contemporaries, we now choose the pro-aesthetic version that makes the ephemeral digital and shareable with the tap of a screen.

How did you decide on a mobile app as the form for this work, and what are its pros and cons, in your opinion?

I came to the decision that if I was to make an album, it would be a project that included new works for the flute and also a modern way of releasing video and audio. This was prompted by the realization that in my home, I didn’t even have a player or drive for the CDs my friends gave me. Artists resorting to uploading their CD tracks to YouTube while still having scores of CDs in cardboard boxes at home didn’t make sense to me. I believed there had to be a better way of sharing one’s aural and visual work.

We are learning the pros and cons as we go! The most obvious draw to using an app is the combination of immediate access and a presentation with a tactile, interactive interface. In the past decade, consumers have come to expect their musical media in an electronic streaming form; something that is literally at their fingertips. But without the program notes of an LP or CD in hand, the context of composer, performer, and music is pushed to the background. New Music, and specifically the three works on this app, require both electronic immediacy and contextual references in order to understand and appreciate the work, both from the composer’s and performer’s perspective.

Cons? It took four years to complete the project! The conversation of creating an app began at the Green Bean in downtown Greensboro September 2016. At the time, it was exhilarating to brainstorm all the elements that could be included, but we didn’t have a model to follow. Ben Singer had to create a mobile app from scratch. The works’ video and audio components were so intertwined that we had to get creative as to how we would record with a moving performer in a space that was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (true story). We took some wrong turns, we figured things out as we went along, and sometimes, we weren’t sure how we would finish it. Additionally, no one really knew what to expect when we shared that we were making an app. Is it an album? Why are there only three pieces? Is there a CD I can purchase? 

Will you tell us more about your experience commissioning David, Jane, and Mark for works that feature singing, moving, and acting in addition to playing the flute? 

When I approached Dave, Jane and Mark about this project, I asked for a solo work around 5 minutes that incorporated aspects of singing, moving, and acting into the musical score. Each work was inspired by a conversation between myself and the composer. I met with Dave in his Lansing home in the summer of 2016, and while sitting on his living room sofa enjoying watching his boys play, our conversation drifted to the challenges of social media in our lives. Do we keep it? Do we ditch it? Why do I feel so lousy after scrolling through my news feed? It was this exchange that planted the seed for Together Alone.

In December 2015, I had a phone conversation with Jane. She was in Colorado and I was in Iowa. I hadn’t yet met Jane in person but was so taken with her music and its incorporation of the voice and movement. She mentioned that she was currently exploring the power of sleeping dreams, and specifically, ancestors who visit us in our sleep. “Do you have a family song that your parents or grandparents sang to you as a child?” “Yes”, I replied. “Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum from his song cycle.” Dreaming in its Shadows is a product of that conversation.

Mark and I work together at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. During my first year at UNCG, he and I talked about collaborating on a work. He wanted to use my singing and speaking voice in addition to my flute voice, but what words would we use? We exchanged our favorite poems and poets. I suggested Rumi’s “The Guest House,” and he introduced me to a good friend and fellow Greensboro-ian, Brian Lampkin. Once I read “Desire,” it was an obvious choice. I remember reading the short poem allowed again, and again. Every time I read it, the more angles of desire I recognized within myself.

Additionally, I wanted each composer to imagine a place for their music, in effect, extending the composition to include its documentation. Each piece in Moving Sound was recorded live in the environment you witness in the app. Jane mentioned, “I like abandoned buildings, old, unused train tracks, parks, under bridges…or the resonant stairwells of buildings. Think of abandoned, neglected spaces. It doesn’t have to be resonant. It doesn’t have to be the expected. Think of spaces as textures: if that brick wall had a sound, what would it sound like?”

Dave suggested, “Movement 1–clocks are certainly on my mind. so are screens (iPads, iPhones, computers, etc.). Distractions. Time. Perhaps many people? Things move quickly, suddenly. Flashes of images in time, quick cuts. Movement 2–an empty resonant space. Mirrors? Maybe broken mirrors? An old warehouse…dripping water. Puddles. Kind of dark with light coming in in weird ways.” 

Given the three voices that are highlighted in Mark’s piece (singing, speaking and flute), we wanted to capture my delivery of the words and of the musical content in the space that ultimately brought us together, UNCG.  You will see a favorite hall in our School of Music Building, Organ Hall.

Why is the aesthetic of the app important to you in promoting these works? 

What I find compelling about New Music are the untold stories; the personhood of the composer/performer, the impetus behind the creation, and the creative means for musical notation. The app allows us to bring these elements to life. You will find video interviews of the composers, and quotes taken from their own program notes and our personal exchanges. You get to see the musical notation scroll in conjunction with the recording, providing a variety of visuals to accompany the aural experience. There is a “Bonus Section” that offers insight from Brian Lampkin, images from the recording process, and a funny blooper (spoiler–it involves Beyonce. #Queen). These pieces are a product of conversations, a network of collaborations, and many hours of trial and error. This app brings the process of creation to the fore.

A glimpse into the Moving Sound app

A glimpse into the Moving Sound app

Do you believe that the distribution of apps follows different channels and could help you introduce the work to diverse audiences?

Though this was not a driving strategy for us, it certainly would be a welcomed outcome. The primary goal of developing an app for these three works was creating a greater opportunity for interaction. We wanted consumers to get to know the people, the music, the spaces, the conversations that produced the work. 

Why is this model a convincing way of presenting New Music, and would you recommend it to other interdisciplinary performers in the field?

I have always been interested in creating multiple entry points for the audience. Whether it is the music, background context, visual aid in the form of the musical score, imagery and movement; I believe in providing the listener with information to advocate for the music I choose to perform and present. Our app combines all these into one. I recommend other interdisciplinary performers to think beyond our traditional modes of distributing creative material; maybe some will adopt an app, or maybe someone will build upon the work that Ben, Wayne and I created with this project.