Words + Music: UCSB’s Virtual Concerts Add Visuals

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 12, 2021

UCSB’s Music Department Winter Concert Series has not only gone virtual, it’s also veered toward video, with a big percentage of the ensembles choosing to incorporate visual material into their programs. Each entity took a different approach to marrying music and imagery, ranging from traditional filmed scenes of nature for choral music to wildly abstract images meant to accompany equally experimental electronic music. 

UCSB Lumina, previously known as the UCSB Women’s Chorus, presents a virtual mini-concert called “A Life of Peace,” which debuts Monday, March 15. The event is meant to counteract the unease of the past pandemic-afflicted year by offering “a moment of stillness in a world that is constantly moving, busy, and noisy.” Persevering through a harsh winter and facing troubles in the world is captured by Winters Cold by Michael John Trotta. That’s followed by Dan Forrest’s Shalom, meant to offer escape via its soothing, ponderous, peaceful sonorities. Video and shots of artwork accompanying the music aim to take the viewer on a journey of awe-inspiring moments in nature.

João Pedro Oliveira, curator of the Corwin Chair Series Concert “Synchresis – the Alchemy of Visual Music,” which debuts at 6 pm on Friday, March 12

The UCSB Cello Squad’s “Beethoven CellObration!” is slated for 6 pm Tuesday, March 16. This marks the composer’s 250th birthday by showcasing movements from his piano and cello works as performed by members of Professor Jennifer Kloetzel’s cello studio. Each of the five student cellists studied one of Beethoven’s works and each described the overall feeling or emotion induced by the chosen piece. The Squad then commissioned Los Angeles-based artist Tyler Scrivner to create background images related to the offered emotions and the cellists recorded their pieces with the designs as backdrops. 

The always imaginative UCSB Ensemble for Contemporary Music, directed by Dr. Sarah Gibson, contributes “A Journey Through the Impossible” at 6 pm on Thursday, March 18, opening with works by Julius Eastman, Dai Fujikura, and John Cage. The centerpiece of the program, however, is the premiere of six new student works written to serve as a modern soundtrack to Georges Méliès’ seminal 1904 French silent film Le Voyage à travers l’impossible, which was inspired by Jules Verne’s book. Gibson notes that “in every piece, there lies a journey, whether it is from the earth to the sun, or simply an act of self-discovery.”

But perhaps most intriguing is the Corwin Chair Series Concert titled “Synchresis – the Alchemy of Visual Music,” debuting at 6 pm on Friday, March 12; this event takes us on a tour through the wide-ranging field of the fusion of sound and moving images. João Pedro Oliveira, who assumed the Corwin Chair of Composition just two months shy of the closing of UCSB’s campus due to COVID restrictions last March, curated the concert that focuses on electronic/computer music composed to be experienced in conjunction with visual projects. The program includes “Estudio de Metal by Elsa Justel; “Piano Chimera” by Chikashi Miyama; “Solipsismes” by Francis Dhomont and Inés Wickman; “Lo Nuevo Es La Memoria Radiante Del Pasado” by Jorge Sad Levi and Pablo Magne; “Variations (in black and white)” by Dennis H. Miller; “Birdie” by Alejandro Casales; Oliveira’s own “Things I Have Seen In My Dreams;” and his predecessor’s Clarence Barlow’s “Estudio Siete.” 

One of the two non-visually accompanied concerts kicks off the series at 6 pm on Thursday, March 11, when the Chamber Players, directed by Jonathan Moerschel, and the associated Young Artists String Quartet offer works by a slew of artists: Claude Debussy; Elena Ruehr; Johann Joseph Fux; Scott Joplin; Jennifer Higdon; Roger Chapman; Beethoven; Mozart; Paul Hindemith; and Jessie Montgomery. Also choosing the traditional music-only route is the Victor Bell-directed Gospel Choir, whose “The Virtual Gospel: An infusion of gospel music, gospel music history, and gospel testimonies” debuts Wednesday, March 17, at 6 pm, and features UCSB alumni Daniel Ozan and Rhiann Joshua as special guests.

We caught up with Corwin Chair Oliveira to discuss his composition, the curation of the concert, and more over the phone earlier this week. 

Q. What led you to put together an entire one-hour concert curated this way?

A. The idea was to make this concert based on music that is composed together with images that can combine in many different ways. Sometimes that’s abstract, and other times it can be evocative or metaphorical, with a closer relation to reality. But it’s not cinema, it’s just music with visual parts. The pieces are composed simultaneously, whether it’s by a single person, as I do, or whether it’s by a composer and visual artist who work as a team. It’s a staple of composition that embeds the two arts together simply as visual music. 

Your piece is called “Things I Have Seen In My Dreams.” Should we take that literally?

A little bit. Sometimes I have very vivid dreams, often with abstract shapes. When I started composing this piece, I thought I’d work on the materials and see what came up in images and sound. And when I began experimenting, I started dreaming of images that I was experimenting with. It was like the laboratory work I was doing influenced me and I began dreaming those things. So, I thought, ‘Alright. I’m going to explore this.’ Of course, some things I really saw in my dreams and other things were kind of invented, added to make the sequence of the video (work better).  

What about the music? 

It’s all done by computer, all electronic music in this case. I use sounds of voices that I recorded. But there are no words; just whispered voices that are transformed in the computer. It becomes something that you can’t even recognize. That’s what is so exciting about electronic music because you are not limited to the sound of the instrument so we can invent them ourselves. And for the audience, when it listens to these sounds, which many times are abstract with nothing identifiable, somehow the work opens the imagination so that each listener can imagine anything. You’re not limited to the sound of the instrument. 

Is there a theme or dramatic thrust to the concert that links the other pieces you chose? 

No. Because it’s the first cause of this genre that’s been done at UCSB, I tried to make it as varied as possible to show different possibilities and perspectives. I tried to find interesting pieces so that people can enjoy and feel enthusiastic about coming to the second concert when it happens next year, probably. This kind of music did not exist academically at UCSB when I got here. So, I tried to make a selection of things that I found interesting and contrasting at the same time. 

(UCSB’s Music Department Winter Concert Series of free performances debuts March 11-18 as individual YouTube premieres via the department’s YouTube channel. Visit www.music.ucsb.edu/news for links to each event page.) 


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