Feb. 8, 2018

'Conduct' represents a milestone production for the School of Creative and Performing Arts

Music, dance and drama join forces for an intimate, immersive performance on the life of composer Henry Cowell

An immersive, interactive theatre performance running this week at the University of Calgary’s Reeve Theatre on the innovative work and controversial life of avant-garde composer Henry Cowell marks a milestone achievement for the School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA). 

As a collaboration featuring the three SCPA divisions of dance, drama and music, with over 60 students and 10 faculty members taking part, the production is the school’s fullest realization yet of the interdisciplinary vision that was set out when the SCPA was formed in 2013.

“There’s no question that this is the biggest production that the school has ever done,” says SPCA director Bruce Barton, who directed and conceived Conduct, inspired by the extensive research of music professor Jeremy Brown, who also plays saxophone in the production. “It’s a thoroughly interdisciplinary collaboration, with dance, drama and music working together on this huge project. It’s a major accomplishment for the school, one that I think we can be quite proud of.”

An immersive and interactive production, Conduct will have the audience move through multiple spaces, says Barton, “with the performance taking place all around them, it’s a pretty powerful sensory experience.”

The performance will include blindfolds (briefly), walking and standing in small spaces with irregular floor services, and a special “performance soundscape” that audience members will be asked to download as an app to their phones. The soundscape was created by associate professor of music Laurie Radford and doctoral student Melike Ceylan.

Conduct offers a huge spectrum of experience,” says Barton, “ranging from the small, subtle, and intimate to full-out spectacle.”  

Despite the interactive, immersive nature of the performance, where in many ways the audience becomes a part of the story, Barton stresses that patrons need not feel anxious or intimidated. “Ours is a gentle invitation, deep into a dream world based on the life and work of Henry Cowell,” he says.

Regarded as one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the 20th century, Cowell is perhaps best known for his musical experimentation. His ground-breaking work included such techniques as “tone clusters,” wherein the piano is played with open hand and forearms. He also pioneered a method called “string piano,” which involves playing the piano from inside its body, by plucking and sweeping the strings. (Barton notes that Juno Award winning composer and music professor Allan Bell will be one of several faculty members performing in Conduct, and he will be utilizing that very technique).

Music professor Allan Bell plays a piano from inside its body in a scene from Conduct, running Feb. 9-17 at the Reeve Theatre.

Music professor Allan Bell plays a piano from inside its body in a scene from Conduct.

Wojciech Mochniej

Further, Cowell was an early innovator of electronic instruments, working with Leon Theremin (inventor of the theremin) to create an instrument called the Rhythmicon, which could produce up to 17 different rhythmic patterns simultaneously.

“Cowell spoke of the pursuit of the ‘sound that doesn’t exist,’” says Barton. “He was a proponent of electronic instruments because he felt people couldn’t play what he could hear in his head. There wasn’t sufficient complexity in human performance to capture what he was after.”

Conduct also examines the great controversy of Cowell’s life when he was incarcerated in San Quentin Prison for alleged sexual contact with underage boys.  

“Not surprisingly, Cowell’s arrest and time in prison were central, defining aspects of his life and career,” says Barton. “So we don’t shy away from these or other controversial topics in his personal history. But Conduct  also doesn’t follow a conventional narrative structure, so many of these aspects are approached more abstractly, through a direct immersion into our imagined history. We’re seeking point of resonance and connection with our own historical moment, socially and culturally, and trying to avoid any sort of didactic position in relation to Cowell and his world.”

While a fully interdisciplinary initiative, Conduct is a division of drama production. Its ambitious set and costume designs are the work of MFA drama student Bianca Manual, one of several drama student designers on the project. Multiple drama faculty members have provided vital dramaturgical support and drama’s technical production team has worked tirelessly to realize Conduct’s complex vision.

“The immersive nature of Conduct has taken the student actors into new performance territory and they have approached the challenge with enthusiasm and commitment,” says Barton.

Similarly, the SCPA chair of dance, Melissa Monteros, has worked with students from across the dance program to integrate original choreography with the musical and dramatic elements.