music

A Peek Into STORY TRAILS

Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!

You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project STORY TRAILS, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.

Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind STORY TRAILS are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:

STORY TRAILS is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.

STORY TRAILS grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA  have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with STORY TRAILS, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.

In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the STORY TRAILS app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.

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Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.

We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.

Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.

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Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download STORY TRAILS. Some questions that guided that process:

  • Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
  • What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
  • What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?

We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.

Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:

  • Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
  • Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
  • How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
  • What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
  • Is this even a “story” at all?

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!

Week 1: Liz and Nick

Liz portrait

Harpist Elizabeth Huston has dedicated much of her career to furthering audience appreciation of music by living composers through advocacy, education, and performances, and has been credited with helping to “bring the harp into the 21st century” by Harp Columneditor Kimberly Rowe. Her 2014 show 14 Sequenzas was acclaimed as the “Most daring presentation of classical music in 2015” by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Elizabeth received her master’s degree in harp performance from Temple University. Since graduation, she has maintained a rigorous performance schedule, including solo appearances in the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, the Grand Ballroom of the Philadelphia Conference Center, Dalet Art Gallery, the Maas Center for Performing arts, among others. She has performed harp composition workshops at Temple University and Western Washington University, as well as one-on-one work with composers across the US.  Elizabeth is currently serving her first term as the president of the Philadelphia Chapter Harp Society.

 

Nick portrait

 

Nick Cassway received a BFA in painting from the Tyler School of Art in 1990. He has exhibited his drawings, prints as well as site specific installations both locally and nationally. He is deeply vested in the Philadelphia arts community and was formerly the executive director of NEXUS/foundation for today’s art. Nick currently teaches computer graphics, editorial design and brand identity at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design and is a current Fellow in CFEVA’s Visual Artist Fellowship program.

 


The Logic Model

Here. Listen to this while you read. It’ll help you know what to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

(first days are funny things)

 

 

 

 

 

What do you do to warm up?
What are the mechanics of what you do?

 

 

 

 

 

What are the restrictions?

 

 

 

Can I try?

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that the average age of a classical music audience member in 1995 was 55 years old and today it’s 75 years old? The same people have been listening to classical music for the last twenty years.

 

 

What’s gonna happen when they die?

 

 

 

 

Here.
Take this survey.
It’ll tell you what to think.

 

 

Don’t worry it opens in a new tab so you don’t lose us.

 

Also keep the music playing while you do it

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry. I logged on with Facebook too.

It’s secure.

 

 

 

 

Y’know what, I lied. I didn’t actually log on with Facebook. I created a password and used my e-mail.

 

 

 

 

But I’m sure it’s still secure.

 

 

 

 

Did you feel like the survey answer was true to your personality type?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….did you even take the survey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it would be better if I drew a picture to show you what the week was like…

Here.
photo-10

A. The beginning, and questions about beginnings. An empty room promising [perhaps overwhelming] possibility. Three people sitting on the wooden studio floor, knees up, notebooks open. What if…?

 

 

 

 

 

 

B. 

 

C. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Laughing and weaving lies. Stealing from artist statements, personality quizzes, and the Chinese zodiac. What if we winked at the ways we try to tell each other what to think and how to feel? What if we gave the audiences a survey and then assigned them a “personality type” at random?

 

 

What’s next for you?

 

 


Week 1 Photo Gallery

Photos by Adachi Pimentel

Week 1: The Logic Model

Here. Listen to this while you read. It’ll help you know what to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(first days are funny things)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you do to warm up?

 

 
What are the mechanics of what you do?

 

 

 

What are the restrictions?

 

 

 

 

Can I try?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that the average age of a classical music audience member in 1995 was 55 years old and today it’s 75 years old? The same people have been listening to classical music for the last twenty years.

 

 

What’s gonna happen when they die?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here.
Take this survey.
It’ll tell you what to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t worry it opens in a new tab so you don’t lose us.

Also keep the music playing while you do it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry. I logged on with Facebook too.

It’s secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y’know what, I lied. I didn’t actually log on with Facebook. I created a password and used my e-mail.

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m sure it’s still secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you feel like the survey answer was true to your personality type?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….did you even take the survey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it would be better if I drew a picture to show you what the week was like…

Here.
photo-10

 

 

A. The beginning, and questions about beginnings. An empty room promising [perhaps overwhelming] possibility. Three people sitting on the wooden studio floor, knees up, notebooks open. What if…?

 

 

 

 

 

B. 

 

 

 

 

 

C. 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Laughing and weaving lies. Stealing from artist statements, personality quizzes, and the Chinese zodiac. What if we winked at the ways we try to tell each other what to think and how to feel? What if we gave the audiences a survey and then assigned them a “personality type” at random?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s next for you?

Singing

Close truthLast night I finished recording backing vocals for a second album with Johnny Showcase.

It is a funny thing, this.

Funny to think that there might be people in the world who pick up this object or pull its digital instance out of the interwebs, and might see my name and think, “Oh she’s a professional singer.”

This strikes me as so impossibly strange.

How can I explain why?

Well…

It is funny to me because this thing has always been something of a joke on the audience. I’ve always done it in a kind of air quotes way, as if to say, “If I were a singer, and I knew how to sing, and I were someone who did this, this is what I’d do.” When I sing I play act at a character who is a singer who thinks they are amazing. I pretend as if I am someone who is fierce and believes fully in her own ability. I play someone who is almost bored with this endeavor and wears the virtuosity of performance with an almost disdainful air.

I can sing in this way because it is so pointedly not me. So not me that I delight in showing it, like a magic trick, to those who have seen the “real” me and watching them meld these two disparate pieces into a messy collage. They know me as an intellectual, a thinker, a director, a serious type. The sequins, the makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, these are costumes yes, but they are also talismans of transformation. They are portals that allow me to transcend the self that I tend to walk around in and become free. And their power feels tied to the audience. Without a power that summons them forth, they have no meaning and they are not able to be filled.

In the spaces before the transformation, in rehearsals and the studio, I am a hybrid half formation. I am not onstage, I am without my armor and I am so much more clearly myself. It is here that I can grow nervous and tense. It is here that I have to take responsibility head on. It is here that I am simply a singer trying to sing a song. And it is here that I feel like a fraud and a fake who has been getting away with this for a long time. It is here, every time that I hope that I will not expose myself too much as a counterfeit.

Something that I have learned: every other person in the room knows more about this than I do.

This is not false modesty. It is simple objective truth.

If you ask me what things I can claim some level of expertise at I will say that at one point in time I knew a lot about a particular bit of chemistry. I currently know a lot about a particular brand of theater making. And as with anything, the more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to know. But in theater the confrontation of the unknown has become itself something familiar. I know that I can walk into a room and run a rehearsal. I know better how to take comfort in the early stages of a process. I don’t fear my capacity to produce a show.

On some deep level, somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission with theater. As a director, I can say that I really do believe that my “right” is just as right as another’s. And so my work flows from a place where I see that the formal structures I began with are scaffolding that eventually can fall away if I need to build in a new way.

Not so with singing.

I have pursued music with a kind of “Really? Ok… If you think I ought to” attitude from the beginning. I sang mostly because people said I had a nice voice. I sang because I was rewarded for doing so. But I don’t think I can say that I sang because I loved my voice. I didn’t sing because I needed to, I sang because it seemed like something I could use as a way to be special or impressive. All my singing was for other people’s ears.

And so my measure of musical success was also in the ears of others. My sound was “right” only in as much as it was valued externally.

My formal study of voice was plagued by constant uncertainty. I did not have a terribly developed ear, pitch matching and recall were middling at best. I had little aptitude for music theory and too little time or space to really devote to its study. What I did have was a decently developed instrument for my age and a keen facility to hide faults in my sound. So when I sang in groups, rather than really learning to read music, I often relied overly heavily on mimicry of those next to me in choir and eventually recordings of other singers for solo works. I did whatever I could to sneak by without being noticed as out of tune or worse missing the melody entirely.

What this did was develop a tendency in me to pull back when uncertain. To really sing out only when I could be totally sure of success. It meant that I never asked for help or gave myself permission to be a learner. Instead I would get quiet or drop out and then go home and furiously try to fix the problem alone where no one could see my mistakes. But there are times when this is not the most efficient way to solve problems, and it often means that the underlying ear training isn’t addressed. It meant that I could not be in my body and sound around others, it meant that I incrementally pulled my identity as a singer inside of myself. It meant that I only wanted to sing when I could be perfect and therefore meant that I never allowed myself space to learn.

What makes me a good director, I think, is not that I come into the room with all the best ideas ready and laid out. It is that I am able to watch and listen and respond and try things that fail and discuss and then try again and fail again and try some more. I think my directing skill is tied to an ability to risk and reap such risk’s rewards. I do not take negative response as a referendum on me but as useful information to help the thing I’m trying to do get closer to what I think it’s capable of.

So when I look back at that fledgling singer who was so afraid of disappointing it seems clear that her need to do it right got in the way of her ability to genuinely grow. When a flaw was exposed it was like a raw nerve. It was the part of me that I had worked so very hard to keep secret. And so it meant that such vulnerability was often debilitating to the point of paralysis. I cried in solo lessons, the one place that I truly couldn’t hide, almost as a matter of course. I learned bad habits of tensing my body, my jaw, my mind, in an effort to force out the right thing. My senses were focused only on the listener, gauging their interest and assessment rather than actually figuring out how I felt when I made these sounds. I did not trust myself, ever.

But I comforted myself by saying this was not something I “really” did. Singing was a hobby, a side project, one that I loved but knew that I didn’t work hard enough at. I wasn’t a “real” singer but I took solace that if I ever actually had the time I could have tried “for real.” If I’d actually buckled down and focused on it, I would have done better. I would have done it right.

I made my way through music in this fashion though middle and high school, through auditions and jazz choirs, through madrigal ensembles and state competitions, through musicals and recitals, through college scholarships and choral solos, through diction coaching and operatic arias, through Brahms and Mozart and Puccini and Stravinsky and Wagner and Bach.

The first three things that occur to me when I think about my four years studying voice in college are this:

  • Not being allowed into the chamber choir because my vibrato was too big
  • Being called a “wall of sound” in a vocal jury
  • Not having enough time to learn the Russian for the Rachmaninov set in my senior recital

So it seems the height of irony, if to no one else than myself, that I am known in my community as an expert in voice. That I have carved out a tiny niche of experience in a technique whose central tenet is exploring the edges of vocal sound, the pieces that we normally exclude and cover up and refine out. That I have the excuse that it’s supposed to sound ‘bad’ has been the out that I have given myself.

I remember when I first learned that Roy Hart’s early work was driven by a deep desire to be a classical musician, that he had a facility in this regard, that so much of his exploration was in part motivated by a wish to be validated by the classical community. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Ah. Yes. We are the same in this regard.” And it is such a funny thing that I spend so much time as a teacher trying to instill the very thing I still struggle to find for myself. A belief that one’s voice is worth hearing. A trust that the sounds that come naturally are not broken. That the failure is the most useful part of the journey because it begins a conversation about where we can grow.

I have this exercise I often do with students where I ask them to take everything we’ve done and forget it. I ask them to improvise song or speech or sound with no other goal than to simply voice something that pleases them. It is often the most difficult thing. It is this exercise that most often makes people cry or laugh or shake without knowing why. This is the most radical thing it seems – to express a sound for no one but ourselves.

So much of my experience with classical training is one of need and fear. A desire to do right, to be right, to sound right, to know the right notes and almost mechanically find myself able to become a vehicle for them. What is the sense to make of all that formal training? Is it just necessity that we fight and fight and fight with ourselves to internalize these rules only to find ourselves desperately needing to throw them away later?

I think of the experience of what it feels like to have to drill as scale again and again and again. To run the same sequence in a recitatif ad nauseum in a lesson until it becomes unconscious, until it is in me and of my body. Until it is simply a pattern than has become carved deep into my being. I can see that in the best moments, in the ones when I could just give myself permission to be deeply “wrong,” I could finally open enough to try until I finally got to something new and that felt like an opening. That felt like deepening. And it was these kind of times when I felt like maybe I wasn’t such a fake, that I was just a learner trying to master something currently bigger than myself.

The sections of those long ago songs that came easy, the bits that I could get on the first or second try, these musical sequences have faded in the ten years since I stopped singing classically. But those asshole passages with tiny twists and bits that ensnared me so deeply and so thoroughly, the ones that made me cry, these are the same ones that I can remember perfectly now. These are the ones I will know in my bones until I am nothing but.

Last night I found myself at the end of the evening having to make up a harmony with no prep time, on the spot, with people much more skilled at this than I. It was clear that it was harder for me to find my spot that the others. And normally this is a very hard place for me. I often lock up and resign myself to taking the work home and trying to drill it in alone with no one to hear. In the first album’s recording session I stayed in a state of abject terror over whether I was the problematic sound. But over these past few days, I have told myself to just try, earnestly without judgment, as best as I am able.

With the laser specificity that is a recording session I have come to see that I am not the only one who sometimes strays out of tune or misses a note when really trying to get it perfect. I have realized that in the years at this I am actually getting better. I am not perfect, but I am also not the total fraud I fear.

I am exactly where I am, with some degree of facility and a lifetime of learning more in front of me.

And this is sort of what I wanted to explain, I think. That we must give ourselves the gift of failure. That we must come to believe we need it or the need to deny it will take us over completely.

– A