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Sirens singing, sirens blaring: Leah Stein’s Urban ECHO

Posted August 29th, 2008

Leah Stein’s latest Live Arts work, Urban ECHO: Circle Told, will feature eight of Stein’s dancers and 100 members of the historic Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. This enormous cast will move together through one of the city’s true architectural wonders, a former Christian Science church at 40th and Walnut that is now known as the Rotunda.

<%image(20080829-Urban ECHO_cropped sm.jpg|250|307|Photo: Digger Vermont)%>After visiting a very busy rehearsal last week, I got a chance to talk with Leah about her process for the piece.

Before I called her up, I went to the website of Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Institute. Pauline is the commissioned composer for Urban ECHO, and her technique of Deep Listening in integral to piece. Here is what I found:

Deep Listening® is a philosophy and practice developed by Pauline Oliveros that distinguishes the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary selective nature of listening. The result of the practice cultivates appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, expanding the potential for connection and interaction with one’s environment, technology and performance with others in music and related arts. [read more at: http://www.deeplistening.org/site/]

I called Leah and we talked about Deep Listening, Urban ECHO, and sirens.

The experience of “urban echo,” Leah explained, is the act of changing the way that a person reacts to a sound by analyzing their associations and the memories that they tie to that sound. Leah and her collaborators, Mendelssohn Club music director Alan Harler, and composer Pauline Oliveros, introduced the 100-plus cast members to the idea of urban echo by asking them to consider the sound of a siren (the type of siren that you find on a police car or ambulance). Each performer shared a personal memory, story, or association that they tied to the sound of a siren. The range of stories that performers told was an important source of inspiration for the piece—they touched on everything from the ambient noise of daily urban life, to the experience of an autistic child hearing a siren for the first time. Three of Stein’s performers, who are blind, brought their perspectives on urban sounds, sirens included, which illuminated a much broader and more detailed network of specific sounds and responses.

Urban ECHO will reference these individual stories through abstract gesture, creating a fabric of experience through individual sounds converging on each other. Stein and her collaborators will also seek to juxtapose the urban siren with the singing female siren of Greek and Roman mythology. The Rotunda seems like a critical element of the piece—Stein reminded me how there are certain “hot spots” that you find by walking through the space where the echo is remarkably stronger and clearer than in other parts of the room. Leah told me that the cast has discussed the idea that every space and every object in the world is said to have its own pitch.

The cast members of Urban ECHO: Circle Told suspect that the Rotunda is a C sharp, but they’re not positive.

Click here for dates, times, and ticket information for Urban ECHO: Circle Told.