SLC's Chamber Music Improv Ensemble plays unique show at Hudson River Museum Planetarium

illustration by Camille Pejcha '17

illustration by Camille Pejcha '17

On Friday, February 28, the Sarah Lawrence Chamber Music Improvisational Ensemble played an unusual show. The Ensemble quite literally performed with the stars at the Hudson River Museum Planetarium. In an unprecedented move for both the group and the planetarium, the ensemble improvised against the backdrop of live-generated graphics.

The event was free for students and a shuttle was provided for transport to and from the museum. No more than ten minutes from campus, the museum is nestled along the Hudson. In addition to the planetarium shows, the museum is also featuring an interactive exhibit on the art of video games right now. Student tickets are available for purchase for three dollars.

As far as planetariums go, the room itself was pretty standard. At the center of a round, dome-topped room packed with rows of skyward-facing chairs sat a circular stage-like structure with an oblong machine placed on top. Prior to the show, the otherwise white dome was lit a bluish hue, and (as per the unwritten rules of planetariums) soft, space-y, ambient music filled the room.

At the head of the room sat the ensemble: Dom Boyle ’14, on 5-string violin; Maddie Besser ’16, on flute; Chase Hawley ’15, on guitar; Kyle Martin ’14, on analog synth; and Riley Smith ’15, on mandolin.

Sitting behind a control board, Mark Taylor, the manager of planetarium and science programs (or starmaker, as he sometimes refers to himself), introduced the basic conceit of the show: “to create something unique…that has never been done before or will ever be done again.”

The lights went down. The audio-visual journey was underway. The music slowly built, at first led by the flute. The others were not long to follow, all treading carefully. A clearer sky than has been visible anywhere in the greater New York area for somewhere in the ballpark of hundreds of years covered the dome. Not just stars, but clouds of space dust, planets, and, in the unoccupied space, deep, empty blacks filled the ceiling.

Taylor explored the space with his lights, allowing the musicians to take the lead. He zoomed the view in and out at varying speeds, focusing on different planes of sight. The music had an expository quality to it, as if to say there was plenty more to come.

Soon enough, more percussive beats from the guitar and mandolin took over. The synth added eeriness to the sound. The pace quickened. Constellations appeared, superimposed over the bare stars—a technique oft employed throughout the course of the show. The figures faded, replaced by outlines. As the view shifted, the starkly contrasted white lines began to fade into black, still burned into eyes of the audience despite the darkness.

About midway through the performance, the silhouette of Earth came into view. As it moved closer, the flute swelled. Colors began to fill-in the silhouette of our planet: deep blues, lush greens, and dry browns. The rest of the musicians followed the flute. The music became score-like, as if lifted from an outtake of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Goosebumps ensued.

Later, an empty blackness was quickly broken by a blinding light. The sun took over the screen. The music crescendoed. Our home star moved farther and farther from the foreground, its complete round shape more visible.

Throughout, a bevy of distinct galaxies, grids, and astrological signs came in and out. At times led by the musicians, at others led by the visuals. Toward the end, all the celestial objects began to move farther and farther away. The music died down, each note becoming more and more infrequent until silence was paired with near impenetrable blackness.

The lights rose. Applause, at first tepid but soon resounding, filled the auditorium. The musicians bowed from their seats. People remain seated, readjusting to the world around them, and slowly came to from what seemed to be a deep, dream-like trance. All told, the performance lasted somewhere around 40 minutes, though you could have convinced me it lasted all of 15.

John Yanelli, the director of the ensemble, stood and thanked everyone for coming out. The audience remained seated. They turned to one another discussing the show, as if in an attempt to reestablish a connection with reality; trying to break the one they felt with the stars and the music. 

“I thought it was beautiful…I felt like I was losing myself to the visuals but at the same time being guided by the music itself” said Travis Kaupp ’14. The show was a treat for both the eyes and ears. A blend that, as promised, was quite immersive and unique.

The Chamber Music Improvisational Ensemble doesn’t normally perform for an audience, let alone in this fashion. “That was the first time we’ve ever done [a show] like that” said Hawley. The show was also longer than the ensemble is accustomed to playing. “We usually do 20-30 minute sets,” he continued. Though their practices usually last a couple of hours, Yanelli will often interrupt the performers to analyze what happened in the last sequence, good or bad.

However, while this show may have been unexplored territory, performing alongside visual aids is not completely foreign to the group. Once a week, in addition to their weekly practice sessions, the collective meets with the improvisational dance group on campus.

Though the circular nature of the room was ideal for the audience, the acoustics weren’t ideal for the performers, as can sometimes be the case with such an intimate venue. “It was difficult to hear ourselves…and I didn’t think we were as connected as we usually are” said Besser. Regardless, my untrained ear was none the wiser.

“I would go again…it’s always interesting to see what a group of musicians can do together, especially with improve” said Juna Drougas ’16. However, she did levy some criticism dealing with the pairing of the music and the visuals. “[At one point], the graphics got really strange and 90s. I don’t think the show should have been that long if that was all the material [Taylor] had…I was bored by the end”.

Be it their lack of experience playing for a crowd or the less-than-optimal acoustics of the venue, most members of the group, though generally pleased with their performance, feel that their best is yet to come. Good thing considering the ensemble is in the process of scheduling another performance at the planetarium.

by Jeff Bernstein '15

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.