An Uncanny Approach to Presence: An Interview With Megan Bridge and Peter Price
Sp3 is shorthand for “space, pulse, pattern, and presence,” four abstract concepts from which storied Philadelphia multimedia dance theater company <fidget>‘s latest show grew from. Developed over the last two years, this interdisciplinary work, utilizing music and movement, obliquely grapples with the increasingly post-human nature of modern living, where technology is wedged between us all, disrupting our interpersonal relationships as well as our relationships to time and our environment. The show seeks to disrupt this interference, positioning the notion of presence as something radical.
Recently we spoke with <fidget> co-founders and co-artistic directors Megan Bridge and Peter Price to learn more about the concepts behind Sp3 and the development of its music and movement.
FringeArts: What was the first idea behind Sp3?
Peter Price: Sp3 is shorthand for space, pulse, pattern, presence. So the initial kernel of the work came out of discussions around those somewhat abstract concepts. We knew we wanted to make a work in a way we have not in some time—mostly set choreography to composed music.
Our last large piece was to preexisting music by the late great composer Robert Ashley, and much of our collaborative practice involves improvisation of both music and dance. So it had been some time since I wrote a piece of scored music of significant scope and Megan choreographed to it. We began by thinking about the different ways these concepts map to sound and to the body. What does pulse mean and how is it articulated musically or by a dancer? What does playing with pattern do compositionally or choreographically?
Megan Bridge: Peter and I were having brunch (sans kids . . . rare!) on the day after Dust closed at FringeArts, and we were discussing our next projects. We knew that Peter was going to be the lead artist on our next collaboration, and after making Dust I was really excited again about music coming first and letting the body be moved by sound, treating sonic material as a physical phenomenon in the space, and figuring out what it does to the other material that occupies that same space.
In terms of the evolution of the work, I’d say we started very abstract, just playing with material, but as stuff started to stick we realized it had this dark, uncanny vibe. The mood of the piece started to feel very related to our perception of the world around us right now—tension-filled, edgy. So for me the biggest evolution is witnessing that mood and subtle narrativity weave its way into the work.
Peter Price: Part of the original conception of the piece for me was that the music was going to be continuously pulsed over for about an hour. So the historical models would be the classics of “pulse-pattern minimalism” like Terry Riley’s In C or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. As we developed the piece that conception evolved and much of the first half of the piece is now concerned musically with non-pulsed dark atmospheres. The second half of the score remains continuously pulsed and unfolds in six main sections. Each of these sections, though sharing tempo and meter, has their own characteristic sound world and compositional approach to rhythmic pattern. A major concern compositionally is exploring the balance between novelty and redundancy so that the perception of the passing of time changes from section to section even if the clock time of the pulse does not.
FringeArts: What makes you nervous about creating/doing this work?
Peter Price: Sp3 will be the longest continuous score I have written for <fidget>—sixty minutes is a lot of music. Megan and I have had many conversations over the years about what we would like to see in the interactions of music and dance, or more broadly sound and the moving body. So, I want to not only produce a score I’m happy with aesthetically but one that maps out an aesthetic position that answers the questions we’ve had about what music can do for dance and vice versa.
Megan Bridge: This is the first work EVER that I have made where I am really transmitting my own movement aesthetic, generated from my own dancing—mostly improvising—body, on to a group of dancers. In the past, I either had my dancers generate the phrase material with me collaboratively, or I had them improvise their own movement sequences which I would shape. So, this is different.
I auditioned this cast and selected the five other dancers besides me who I felt most embodied my own movement aesthetic, who could sort of “do” me in a way. And then we started improvising, and talking, and moving, and talking, and dancing, and talking, for several intensive workshop or rehearsal periods over the last two years starting in fall of 2015. As the work developed I became more able to describe the kind of movement approaches I was looking for—sequencing spine, for example, and articulated joints—and we kept building up piles of qualities and characteristics, movement portfolios you could call them.
It’s an extremely personal movement aesthetic that I have built over years of improvising to Peter’s music, and it is super exciting, and new, and a little strange for me to see that translated onto other bodies. I think it’s done that way in a lot of modern dance, but because my background is more post-modern, we tend to avoid those kinds of hierarchies—in the same way that we tend to avoid the “music first” hierarchy. So, for me, it feels daring to circle back to those approaches.
FringeArts: How does your personal and artistic attraction to technology play into Sp3?
Peter Price: As a composer I have always been first and foremost an electronic musician. So technology has been integral to my artistic process. One of the great opportunities a work of this scope affords me is the exploration of new technological approaches to my compositional vision. The score for Sp3, while unified by an overall compositional approach, is quite diverse in technological detail. Much of the sound world of the piece is colored by the rich sounds of analog synthesizers and I’m thinking in terms of oscillators, filters, control voltage step sequencers, but simultaneously I’m working with digital synthesis and computer based manipulation of sound, or even algorithmic generation of material. In the generation of materials I also found myself borrowing from the techniques of DJs I admire as much as from more traditional composers.
Megan Bridge: Conceptually, there is a definite technological thread running through this work. From the very beginning when Peter and I started improvising together for this piece, the movement coming out of my body had a cyborg-feeling to it. There is an uncanny approach to presence, and to how we are using the face and gesture. Not robotic, but somehow post-human. We had a body of movement that we called “creatures,” but the creatures were never quite animalistic—there is something more there. It’s not denying the organic or biologic, but there’s something more there, something layered on top. Tweaked. Like what might happen to humans at the “point of bionic contact,” as philosopher Paul Virillio says, when technology and the body come together.
FringeArts: What have you been working on most in fine-tuning?
Peter Price: The balance between novelty and redundancy is a prime concern. We are also very concerned with the balance between abstract explorations of space, pattern, et cetera, and affective qualities of mood, atmosphere, and even hints of narrativity.
Megan Bridge: We set out to make a very abstract, non-narrative, structuralist kind of piece, but over time our human anxieties over the quickly changing social and political landscape began to make itself felt more and more. So we talk a lot about what we call the “sharpening of affect” that we see both in the media and social interactions, and especially at the intersection of these two: social media. We ask ourselves how abstract conceptual properties like space, pulse, pattern, and presence modulate affective relationships and contribute to the “sharpening.”
Space Pulse Pattern Presence (Sp3)
140 N. Columbus Boulevard
Interview by Josh McIlvain, December 2017.
Photos by Bill Hebert.