“There is no re-entry. It’s a 70-minute performance.” These words are what I was greeted with when arriving at Francisco Lopez’s latest project at EMPAC in Troy. The experience is to be taken as a whole. When I walked to the second door in the inner shell of EMPAC I was handed a blindfold.
Lopez’s performance piece “Hyper-Rainforest” is a form of digital shamanism. Lopez creates the setting and controls the 80-channel mix from his station at the sound board.
You walk into EMPAC’s concert hall and instead of the seats being filled to the brim, there is a round platform in the middle of the floor that has four concentric circles of cushioned black folding chairs facing a gap in the middle.
We (the audience) were sitting there staring at each other. It seemed like an odd mix between group therapy and a séance. The conversation and vibe seemed to rise and fall as the group occasionally grew loud, and then fell silent in anticipation.
Sitting in your chair, you look up and see two trusses supporting rings of speakers. There is also a ring of speakers at head height, positioned a good 10 feet back from the platform. Another set of speakers has been hidden beneath the platform, so that the listeners are all truly encapsulated. This custom speaker set-up is meant not just as a means of entertainment, but as a method of launching participants into a state of hyper-reality.
The space is precisely coordinated to perform Lopez’s piece. The piece is not meant to be a mere reproduction of particular natural spaces. In some ways it is a reduction, and in others it is a conglomeration.
Seventy minutes seems like a decent chunk of time to spend sitting in your seats taking in an immersive sonic experience like the one Lopez has designed. But then consider the amount of time this 70-minute work represents: Lopez has spent 20 years in rainforest environments all across the world collecting sounds.
The piece itself was a kind of collage of scenes and spaces that seemed to slowly suck you in until the background was brimming with intensity and you didn’t even realize how deep you’d come. At times the floor would shake, and it would feel as if you were in the epicenter of a jungle thunderstorm. The intensity would continue to build until it felt like you couldn’t take anymore, and then instantly it was gone, and your heart rate would slow back down as you realized that you made it safely to the other side.
As far as the blindfolds were concerned, Lopez suggested that they were “highly recommended” – voluntarily losing one sense in order to strengthen others. Without vision, we rely heavily on our aural sense to provide us information about our surroundings. The spatial sense seemed to be undiminished, and the layout of the room, and this handicap still allowed you to feel a sense of distance in the field of sound. A swarm of insects might buzz by, and you will hear them move from left to right, back to front. The intensity and volume may swell which causes you to feel as if there is a swarm right in front of you.
You can’t see what is going on, and so you may even forget you are sitting in the middle of EMPAC, and feel more like you are trudging through a steamy swamp, or sitting beside a crashing waterfall.
Lopez mentioned that one of the wonders of the rainforest is that so many of the sounds you hear are produced by things that you can’t see – insects in the breeze, birds in the trees, snakes in the grass. He likened this to the experience of the blindfolded listener who cannot see what is producing the sounds.
When the performance was over I had a chance to talk to Lopez in between sets (the 8pm show sold out, and EMPAC added another performance at 9:30pm at the last minute that also sold out). He seemed very happy to be working in the space, gesturing with his arms and hands that it was ultimately pleasing to have access to such great technological resources.
People asked Lopez if he had CDs available for what they listened to, and he explained that no he did not, and that this piece was designed especially for this space. The entire design layout – right down to the model, size and positioning of speakers – would be used to project various sounds.
This is Lopez’s second time working at RPI. He came to the school last year as part of a student-designed installation called “Blindfield.” Instead of his signature setup with the concentric rings of audience members, “Blindfield” explored spatial elements as audience members movement through a darkened black box theater was crucial to the experience.
During the “Blindfield” days, I mentioned the idea of musical shamanism, which he was keen to accept. But when I asked him if he had any experience with the Amazonian brew Ayahuasca, he said no, “sound is my drug.”
Review by Jeff Nania