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Creating a Holistic Performance Experience: An Interview with Visual Artist S. Katy Tucker

Artist S. Katy Tucker has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall to create video projections for the upcoming performance of the Carmina Burana Choral Project. In this interview, she talks about her inspirations for her artwork, the thrill of live performance, and working with young performers. 

Tell us about the appeal of working in a live-performance environment, whether it is a concert or a theatrical presentation?

One of the things I find most appealing about working in a live-performance environment is that any time you do something, it’s never the same. Live performance is almost like an installation in itself—the audience becomes as much a part of the performance as the performers do. Music is never played in the exact same way, unless it’s a recording. And the audience’s involvement influences the piece’s performance on that night: The conductor and musicians feel the energy of the audience, and this impacts how they performed.

Also, my goal in art is to create a holistic experience, and one of the most important contributing aspects to this is the audience. One of the reasons I became involved in projection design was to use the visual language of today—movies, video, television, digital media—to help keep the art form of live music and performance relevant to audiences. My generation and the generation after me are so inundated by social media and computers; I think that video and projection design, when applied to live performance, uses a language that the younger generation is accustomed to taking in. This relates it to an art form that can at times feel like it’s not as respected as it once was. Together, the entire experience is more satisfying and complete for the audience, and in particular, the younger audiences.

Get a sneak peek of S. Katy Tucker's projection in this mock-up video of Ego sum abbas.  

Describe your approach to the visual language for the projections in Carmina Burana.

My background is in fine art—I was a painter and video-installation artist. Coming from this background, I’m always interested in how the environment shapes the piece. Carmina Burana is such a huge piece, so I wanted to create visuals that felt tied into its environment and the music. First and foremost, my interest is in the music and the singers; I see myself in a supportive role that emphasizes the performers’ roles. The way a conductor keeps rhythm for his musicians, I see myself doing that with the visuals by showing something that people might not have realized they pictured when they heard the music. Not that it’s possible to know what every audience member sees when he or she hears the songs, but I think that Kandinsky’s theory of synesthesia—the notion that colors have sounds, and sounds have colors—is the closest you can get. In addition to exploring the visual language, I’m also creating a three-dimensional projection design that draws attention to Carnegie Hall’s beautiful architecture. My team and I are mapping the video to the filigree and architecture of the Hall with the goal of maintaining the focus on the students and blending the video with the provided backdrop. I hope to elevate the space and connect it with the music.

What do you hope your projections will bring to a musical performance?

I hope my projections will help create a complete experience that allows the focus to remain on the students while providing the audience with an extra visual element that will enhance their overall experience. I want them to feel like the images are what they might have been picturing themselves.

What artists are you researching as you prepare this piece? How is your research shaping your work?

I’ve done a ton of research to prepare for this. I have always wanted to explore Wassily Kandinsky’s theory of synesthesia, but have never had the opportunity. So I’ve read and reread Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and also looked at Paul Klee. I’ve since departed from Klee, as he really painted the subject matter of songs and I had become more interested in depicting the emotional side of the songs. Content is interesting, but nothing really pulls me like the emotional connection to the music.

I’ve looked at William Blake’s illustrations and Salvador Dalí’s paintings on The Divine Comedy, as well as a lot of abstract expressionists. When Jackson Pollock painted, he’d listen to a jazz album and get lost in the music. The result was a gorgeous layering of gestured lines and colors that came about through free association. When I started this process, I took a similar approach. I set up a piece of clear acrylic with translucent paper on it and elevated this above my video camera. I’d then start one of the songs from Carmina Burana and videotape my paint strokes in real time, capturing my reaction to the music. The real challenge was taking that response to the music and manipulating it on the computer.

Watch as Carnegie Hall is transformed by S. Katy Tucker's imagery in this mock-up video of Omni sol temperat.  

This Creative Learning Project is about raising the quality of student performance to a professional level. How do you think your projections contribute to this goal?

There are two major ways that my projections help contribute to raising the quality. First, it’s important for the students to witness what goes into putting together a show. It’s always our goal for the production to look effortless to the audience, though in reality, it’s a very difficult process. With this project, we only have one day to put the piece together, and it’s interesting for students to learn a bit about the technological process. With my team—Michael Kohler, my programmer and technical genius; TJ Donoghue, my project manager from Scharff Weisberg; and Dennis Alfonso, my amazing projectionist—and the amazing Carnegie stage hands, we will work quickly to set up all of the equipment in the space. Because we are doing a version of three-dimensional projection, we have to work quickly to manipulate the images so they fit properly. It’s important for the students to observe, if even from a distance, how much work goes into supporting their performance. By singing in front of a backdrop like this, we’re hoping this helps the students feel like part of something larger.

Related Content:
The Carmina Burana Choral Project: February 5, 2012
Creative Learning Projects
A Young Composer in Profile: Gabe Smallwood
An Introduction to the Carmina Burana Choral Project: Anthony Constantino 
From student composer Thomas Reeves
From student composer Gabe Smallwood  

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