Chicago-based choreographer Erica Mott and composer Ryan Ingebritsen have led an army of collaborators in a three-year process to develop 3 Singers, a multi-media meditation on the global exploitation of women by the garment industry. 3 Singers had its world premiere in Poland in November, 2014, and is about to debut in Chicago.
3 Singers seems to amalgamate so many art forms into one integrated whole. Can you encapsulate what the audience will experience?
Ryan: 3 Singers is a fully integrated and interactive technopera where the audience will be immersed in the environment of the modern industrial factory for an evening length work featuring three singers, three sewing machines, and a three-dimensional interactive audio visual environment, telling and re-telling the story of workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in New York and tracking that story around the globe as it relates to the current model of global commodity and trade in the textile industry. The audience will be situated within the performance space as spectators, from the inside, of all aspects of a day in the life of the factory workers engaging in their personal and collective struggles.
There seems to be a deep socio-political inquiry at work here. How do those themes inform the piece?
Erica: We entered the project examining the role of female voice, collectivity and production in garment work: how it has changed over time and how it has remained very much the same. Objects always feature in our work, often mundane objects made extraordinary or musical through mediated sonic devices and choreographed movement.
We have created three song spirals, each rooted in a specific time period—pre-industrial agricultural, industrial revolution and contemporary manufacturing—and we have found thematic threads which connected all three. These thematic threads are language (bird song, protest slogan and tweet), migration (migratory patterns of birds, migration of laborers to factories, migration of multinational corporations to the cheapest labor) and scale of catastrophe (single cotton field lynchings, hundreds burned in turn-of-the-century factory fires, thousands crushed in recent industrial catastrophes in Bangledesh) as they relate to female labor in the garment industry. These connective threads have led us to deeper questions about how women organize around equitable labor rights and how technology impacts this.
There are so many artists involved in this creation. What was your model for collaboration?
Ryan: In a word, our process is interdependent. That means that there are moments where the sonic elements and movement elements actually depend on one another, sometimes through human-machine interaction, sometimes thorough sonic objects and at other times, due to the affect movement has on the sound of the human voice when singing and movement are attempted simultaneously. As Fides Krucker (our Vocal Creator) would develop techniques with the singers, these exercises would often become sonic materials that would then drive a part of the composition. Similarly, when certain movement gestures were applied to the performers, it affected the musical materials in interesting ways, invoking further creative dialogue between Erica, Fides, and me. Almost every mode of interaction required this kind of cyclical back and forth, like a 3-D game of Tetris resulting in striking juxtapositions of our various sensibilities. We are really pleased with the outcome.
How are you employing technology in development and performance?
Ryan and Erica: When we refer to 3 Singers as a technopera, we mean a technologically driven opera where devices from different time periods interact and meld into one in relationship to the live body. Turn-of-the-century style sewing machines that the characters use are harnessed with 21st-century technology in the form of infra-red sensors. These sensors track the machine’s motion and harness that data to manipulate the voice, trigger sound, and determine the trajectory of sonic reactions, all in real time. We were deeply interested in how, through contemporary technology, the voice and the body travel. At the turn of the century, how did women source their personal strength and speak to their fellow workers above the roar of the machines? In contemporary culture, how do women source their political voice through mediated social platforms and organize through networked communities across borders and distances? In 3 Singers, the sewing machine becomes an object both to ground them in the present task and a vocal prosthesis to challenge, expand, and extend their voices through time and space.
How did you approach the business and financing complexities of undertaking this massive production?
Erica: We have learned a great deal from undertaking a project the scale and duration of 3 Singers. Our work required a period of almost exhaustive research and experimentation which means we had to patch together many resources and modes of exchange. We had to craft meaningful relationships with community and organizational stakeholders interested in the themes we are addressing. For instance, we entered into a partnership with the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Chicago (who will host the US premiere). They were interested in the intersection between technology and the live body in our piece and we were interested in sharing research from the perspective of artists with scientists and technologists. This afforded us the opportunity to develop our work in residency at the museum where we have had spurring and thought-provoking conversations. We were able to take the time (without the pressure that comes when paying studio rental) to luxuriate in our experiments, composition and editing processes. Other partnerships came through university programs, such as the Northwestern University Engineering and Design Institute where students worked closely with us on designing and creating an effective and consistent mechanism to capture data from our sewing machines that could be converted into music. Finally, our work has often benefited from many works-in-progress and open-studio showings. This way, we have benefited from the insightful reactions of outsiders to our work, which sometimes becomes too intimate for us to accurately judge on our own. And this has allowed us to intersect with potential new communities of support for our work.
3 Singers, featuring performers Jenna Lyle, Katie Mazzini, and Hope Littwin, will have its US premiere on Thursday, January 22, 2015 at 7:30 PM at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Chicago, with seven more performances through February 1. Get tickets.