PROTOTYPE 2021: Diffusive and Exploratory Music-Theater

PROTOTYPE Festival has become known for nurturing intense, anguished music-theater pieces that go on to win Pulitzer Prizes (Angel’s Bone, p r i s m). Since Beth Morrison Projects and HERE Arts Center co-founded the Festival in 2013, PROTOTYPE has created both a destination and a home for work that strains against formal convention. A typical slate of presentations, arriving each January in New York City, showcase music-theater’s latest advances, ranging from cabaret works-in-progress to fully-staged international premieres. 

PROTOTYPE’s reliable potency stems from its consistent thematic palette and intimate venues. The festival tends toward weighty, often political topics situated in immersive spaces that augment angst and unflinching timbres. Due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, PROTOTYPE 2021 moved almost entirely online (I did not attend Ocean Body, the one brief film installation shown in-person). The topics were intense per usual–climate change, human rights violations, neo-nazism, and the pandemic’s economic catastrophe were just some of the themes explored–but one of the festival’s standout pieces, the digital U.S. premiere of The Planet – A Lament, reframed how anguish can be expressed and transformed. Lament, as director Garin Nugroho and composer and researcher Septina Rosalina Layan explained, has an important character in the life of a civilization. 

The Planet – A Lament premiered at Arts Centre Melbourne in February 2020 and was co-commissioned by Asia TOPA, Arts Centre Melbourne, Theater der Welt, and Holland Festival. In constant movement and ringing harmonies of ancient Eastern Indonesian lament traditions, the Mazmur Chorale embodies a fictitious community visited by divine creatures to witness both human suffering and culpability related to climate change. (The musical energy easily transcended the mediocre video recording.) The creative team, including Australian dramaturg Michael Kantor and designer Anna Tregloan, coordinated a massive trove of global multimedia styles into a radiant and beguiling production. Modern film elements enhance the oceanic setting and welcome outsiders into Indonesia’s ancient visual traditions; Septina Rosalina Layan’s Papuan-style solos narrate the mythic plot and command the stage during periods of dramatic silent staging. 

The Planet - A Lament at PROTOTYPE 2021--Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

The Planet – A Lament at PROTOTYPE 2021–Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Scored entirely for choir and body percussion, the work alternates between unified laments and supportive murmurs for a lone chorister. This is no sullen and depressing affair: the Mazmur Chorale propels the piece with boundless energy in barefoot stage-slapping percussion, rhythmic chanting, and harmonies that slide between traditional Indonesian singing techniques and three-part choral harmonies. The Planet – A Lament models ritual expression of profound suffering, but it is also a cry for spiritual renewal and the recovery of joy.  

Where are we, and how did we get here? In another musical meditation on land, the interactive sound installation Times3 (Times x Times x Times) reconstructed time “through impressions of a space.” Although PROTOTYPE primarily exists in theater venues, in recent years they have launched “Out of Bounds,” a mobile outdoor platform for site-specific vocal performances that transform New York City public spaces. The aptly named platform is a necessary expansion of PROTOTYPE’s brief festival life that is suited to the city’s dynamic pedestrian character and contributes to expanding the role of sound art in public health. Through this sonic experience, Pamela Z and Geoff Sobelle introduce the listener to art as a form of anchoring, exploring the land’s origin history and using present sound to awaken future imagination. (PROTOTYPE acknowledges throughout its printed materials that it exists on the Lenape island of Mannahatta and, via digital collaboration, on many Native lands.) 

Times Square as experienced through Times3 at PROTOTYPE 2021--Photo by Lana Norris

Times Square as experienced through Times3 at PROTOTYPE 2021–Photo by Lana Norris

Geoff Sobelle, a theatre artist, recorded an array of scholars and neighborhood experts on the history and future of Times Square. Pamela Z, known for combining her operatic bel canto voice with found sound samples and dense vocal manipulations, layered interview fragments with gentle electronics, nature recordings, and her own voice to create a shifting sonic landscape. What emerged is not merely a story of colonization, but of nature’s indomitable character. There may be modern concrete above Mannahatta’s ancient marshland and subway tunnels below it, but water still pools at 46th Street. Nature still demands our attention. So who best stewards this land? How is human flourishing and societal peace tied to natural resources? Times3 is relevant anywhere: Pamela Z’s narration gestures beyond New York City mythology toward a sharpened perception of place and a broad future of choices. The piece is available to stream for free through February 28th, 2021.

The festival presented another interactive world premiere: MODULATION. Commissioned by PROTOTYPE and co-presented with Carolina Performing Arts, LA Opera, and Omaha Opera, the viewer entered a non-linear website experience of thirteen musical reflections loosely grouped by themes Isolation, Identity, or Fear. The adventure could be intuitively guided by MODULATION’s site design or mapped using the festival event page’s contemporary music idiom graph:

MODULATION idiom graph--Photo courtesy

MODULATION idiom graph–Photo courtesy

MODULATION is wild and ambitious terrain. Perhaps this is why the site design features rough rock formations next to sleek glowing doors. In ISOLATION, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and pianist Kirill Kuzmin performed classic art song (Jimmy López Bellido, Where Once We Sang). Bora Yoon’s two-part The Life of the World to Come used Henry Purcell, shamanic drumming by Sandra Ingerman, and news clips to collage rage and resolve against climate change. Raven Chacon’s guitar ballad La Indita Cautiva was especially elegant, featuring Chacon on guitar, actor Paloma Gallup Rodriguez, and lyrics, vocals, and acting by Nacha MendezMinna Choi’s soaring pop lyrics over arpeggiated piano and Sarah Bolander’s dance and choreography were a poignant reminder of love’s bittersweet demands (Daniel Bernard Roumain, I Have Nothing to do Except Love). Sahba Aminikia and Mina Momeni (Ayene [Mirror]) provided one of the most interesting textures with Momeni’s sung Persian circling over faint piano, bird sounds, and David Coulter on musical saw and jaw harp.

The FEAR group featured Molly Joyce (Out of a Thought) presenting slow wavering electronics, an increasingly processed panicked voice, and exceptional subtitles that made her music accessible to a D/deaf audience. Rhianna Cockrell, Deborah Stephens, and Andréa Walker sang Joel Thompson’s modern acapella madrigal (Clairvoyance). Thick animated lines seemed to grow out of Joy Guidry’s agitated bassoon that alternated with soprano Malesha Jessie Taylor and simple piano (Yvette Janine Jackson, Fear Is Their Alibi).

In IDENTITY, Angélica Negrón’s elegant pop (Otra Cosa) allowed Lido Pimienta’s voice to soar. Paul Pinto (Whiteness: Blanc) wrote and performed fast, funny, biting narration cut with layered hums, barbershop breakouts, and snaps. JOJO ABOT feat. Esperanza Spalding (The Divine I Am) mixed chopped vocal sirens, whoops, and blurbs with light harp and percussion to accompany a neon religious desert ritual. Juhi Bansal set a duet overlapping Kathryn Shuman’s classical soprano and Ranjana Ghatak’s Bengali vocals with Laura Kramer’s water sound design, Timothy Loo’s cello, and glittering drone footage of surfing (Waves of Change).

The Divine I Am at PROTOTYPE 2021--Photo by JOJO ABOT

The Divine I Am at PROTOTYPE 2021–Photo by JOJO ABOT

That gorgeous ocean footage, and MODULATION as a whole, is an excellent example of the pandemic era’s opportunities and challenges. The festival’s regular employment of projections evolved into visual art with a new swath of filmmakers, sound editors, and graphic artists in the 100+ group. Fresh theatrical pairings and thematic angles abounded. However, the project’s aggregate sonic expression risked being overrun by terrific visuals, and the lyricists and performers were easily lost in the swarm of contributors. MODULATION was presented as a contemporary composer showcase: the website navigation listed only composers, and even the extensive event page and digital program lacked some performance identifiers.

The Murder of Halit Yozgat, a digital U.S. premiere and the festival’s highlight presentation, was a shining example of collaborative art. The pandemic shut down rehearsals of Ben Frost, Petter Ekman, and Daniela Danz’s opera, but Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten brought the cast together in May 2020 to be filmed without an audience. A beautiful blend of surreal documentary, opera film, and sound art, The Murder of Halit Yozgat alternates between the agonizing reconstruction of a racially-motivated assassination and Covid’s omnipresent control of the live music industry. 

The opera-within-the-film is based on the counter investigation 77sqm_9:26min by Forensic Architecture, a group that uses architectural analysis and digital modelling techniques to unravel human rights violations in urban settings. The libretto proceeds through seven exact reconstructions of the crime, with seven singers rotating through all seven musical and movement tracks. It’s unclear just how much the production evolved to fit its new format, but the result is stunning. The staging and story works inseparably with the camera, seven expert singer performances, and a sleek white set atop a rotating platform that is slowly dismantled until only the murder victim and a large loudspeaker–sound–remains.

The Murder of Halit Yozgat at PROTOTYPE 2021--Photo by Richard Mosse

The Murder of Halit Yozgat at PROTOTYPE 2021–Photo by Richard Mosse

Many of PROTOTYPE’s festival presentations have utilized surrealism, altered consciousness, or dramatic mystery, including this year’s presentation Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists that drifted through an hour of dreamlike staged song sequences with wild aesthetics. But The Murder of Halit Yozgat offers no escape from reality. Its music arcs from almost unbearably ferocious strings and percussion to a lone winter wind; there are ample multisensory reminders of militarism and terror. The cast alternates between a violently sterile murder investigation and masked, Covid-regulated breaks. That aesthetic dissonance is not unlike the experience of PROTOTYPE 2021, which flipped between music-theater immersion and banal living room distractions. This year’s festival felt weirder, slimmer, but also more buoyant. Without compromising its commitment to thematic density, PROTOTYPE 2021 widened borders, increased accessibility, and welcomed a slew of new collaborators and disciplines into its ranks–it developed art that serves a participatory and embodied audience and positioned itself for continued expansion.


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