Don’t let his baby face fool you. With an oeuvre rivaling even the most prolific of veteran creatives, David Bithell has performed his nearly fifty experimental theatre works, instrumental compositions, and structured music improvisations at ninety-five events around the globe. That includes venues in Belgium, Lithuania, France, and South Korea as well as stateside in New York City, Brooklyn, Boston, Princeton, Providence, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Miami, Austin, Dallas, San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Diego. Exhausted yet? Bithell isn’t. He’s just begun making his synaesthetic mark on the emerging genre of digital art, music, technology, and theatre he’s helping to define.
When we say “define,” we mean that literally—as in writing the definitions for “Experimental Music Theater” and “Intermedia Performance Art” in Oxford University Press’s forthcoming second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music. For Bithell, wedding these traditionally segregated disciplines through theatrical performance art is simply one more way to tell a story, evoking emotion by unfolding a meaningful narrative across a span of time.
He is obviously striking a chord that resonates, having been commissioned to produce works by nine different organizations and artists, ranging from WaterTower Theatre to Yarn/Wire music ensemble to violinist Mark Menzies to carillonneur Scott Paulson. Bithell has been funded by grants from the American Composers Forum, Centre National de Creation Musicale, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, and the Hispanic and Global Studies Initiatives Fund.
Encapsulating excerpt (by David Bithell)
His repertoire includes Whistle from Above,the eye (unblinking), The Liminal Surface, The President Has His Photograph Taken, Encapsulating, and Situations [plural/fixed>. Whistle from Above features percussionists, musical robotics, lighting, and computer sound, while the eye (unblinking) involves six musicians and computer-controlled lighting. Comprising trumpet/actor, video, and interactive electronics, The President Has His Photograph Taken premiered at the IS ARTI Festival in Lithuania. Encapsulating is an interactive audio/video work composed to accompany choreography by Ellie Leonhardt. It premiered at the Dallas Museum of Art and was later performed at the DUMBO Dance Festival in Brooklyn. With Bithell on trumpet, Situations [plural/fixed> adds trombones, slide projection, and live electronic sound to create an enveloping sensory experience. It premiered at the 24th Annual Festival International des Musiques d’Aujourd’Hui MANCA in France.
With a PhD and MA in music composition from UC Berkeley and a BA in music with honors in composition from UCSD, Bithell brings extensive musical training to his vanguard works. He studied ethnomusicology, music composition, new technology, contemporary trumpet technique, conducting, improvisation, and contemporary performance studies with more than a dozen notable mentors, including Ed Harkins and Philip Larson.
Recipient of the UC Berkeley Eisner Prize for Excellence in the Creative Arts, Bithell has received numerous awards, including the Meet the Composer “Creative Connections” Award and Nichola De Lorenzo Prize for Music Composition. At UCSD, he was named the John Muir College Most Outstanding Senior. He also received the Department of Music’s Peter Farrell Award for Most Outstanding Senior and the Thomas Nee Award for Outstanding Contribution to the La Jolla Symphony.
The Townsend Center for the Humanities postdoctoral fellow is the founding coordinator of the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA) and the founding principal investigator for an interdisciplinary research cluster at the University of North Texas. Bithell oversaw the development of MOEBIUS, a new academic journal focused on arts, technology, and critical theory. He co-organized the iARTA:LEAP Leadership Perspectives on Technology and Art Research symposium as well as co-producing the ART-TEC Dialogue Series.
Demonstration of The Liminal Surface (by David Bithell)
Bithell was artist-in-residence at Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology and a featured artist at the Dallas Museum of Art. He has presented seminars, workshops, and lectures across the US and at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea, and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Ghent) in Belgium.
The founding co-director and conductor of sfSound, Bithell served as guest conductor with the Nova Ensemble during the artist residencies for Mario Davidovsky, Augusta Read Thomas, and Boknam Lee. He was the orchestra manager for the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus and conductor/music director for the John Muir Musical Ensemble at UCSD.
Bithell has performed as a trumpet player with a dozen world-class ensembles and artists at nearly an equal number of venues. A former member of the traditional Javanese ensemble Gamelan Sari Raras, he played trumpet with the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus for four years.
Lest you think all of Bithell’s talents fall into the humanities sector, his technological credentials also impress. The head programmer for UC Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory Sonification Project, Bithell received a CalSpace Summer Fellowship to develop solar sonification software. He designed and implemented a multichannel video matrix environment for live performance and developed a lab for Multimedia Physical Computing. Bithell is currently setting up a laboratory for emerging media and digital art at Southern Oregon University.
His articles have been published in Computer Music Journal and San Francisco Classical Voice as well as appearing in proceedings for the Biennial Symposium on Art and Technology and American Geophysical Union meeting. Bithell’s work has been featured in the following media: Computer Music Journal, Futurelab/VISION Magazine, KERA Public Radio’s Art&Seek Blog, KQED Radio Online, KQED Public Television, San Francisco Classical Voice, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Oklahoman, American Music, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Transbay Creative Music Calendar, and New Instruments for Musical Expression conference proceedings.
Bithell brings this arsenal of accomplishments, connections, and creative talent to bear on his enthusiastic teaching. He’s developed and taught courses such as Intermediate Performance Art; Intro to Electro-Acoustic Music; Art as Research: Experimental Music Theater and Multimedia Composition; Transcription, Quotation, and the Art of Musical Re-Use; and Physical Computing for Experimental Music and Intermedia. At SOU, Bithell is teaching Interactive Art, Robotic/Kinetic Art, Live Cinema, Interdisciplinary Collaboration, and Digital Performance. He is already laying the groundwork for future collaborations with Southern Oregon University creatives of all disciplines.
Conversation with David Bithell
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in October 2011
Art speak with colleague Melissa Geppert (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: You have a PhD and MA in music composition from UC Berkeley as well as a BA in music from UCSD. How does someone with a background in music end up teaching digital art?
DB: Well … there are two answers to that. The more general answer is that I find all of the arts to be very close cousins. Sometimes the separation of disciplines into music, art, theatre, dance, etcetera hides a great deal of commonality in terms of ideas, methods, and modes of inquiry.
More specifically, I studied music composition and music technology but have always been interested in interdisciplinary practices. My background adds significantly to my current artistic voice—I create work in the fields of art, dance, and experimental theatre that are shaped by an intimate knowledge of how placing events in time and space can create meaning, emotion, and narrative. So this interest has led to more and more of my output being harder to define as simply “music” and more appropriately categorized as interdisciplinary practice. I’m very excited to be working in a department that values these things and that views the field of art as a truly evolving and expanding project.
MM: Beginning with your childhood and “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” (as Holden Caulfield would say), what is the narrative that led you to pursue music, art, and technology? What are some of the pivotal, life-changing moments in that story?
DB: The most pivotal moment in this area (after abandoning an early interest in astrophysics one summer hiking in the Cascades!) was the extended interaction with my undergraduate trumpet professor at UCSD, Ed Harkins. While studying contemporary compositional practice and tools for incorporating music technology (largely from other faculty), Ed served as a remarkable model of someone who had developed a trans-disciplinary identity. His performance art duo [THE> with singer Philip Larson combined the virtuosity of contemporary musical practice with the absurdity of mid- to late century theatrical sensibility. This idea of applying the structure and technique of one discipline to the content of another has been continually rewarding in my own work.
Interdisciplinary dialogue with colleagues Robert Clift, Melissa Geppert, and Jackie Apodaca (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: You are the founding coordinator of the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA). As you’ve already mentioned, you have a passion for bringing traditionally segregated disciplines together to create new forms that defy classification. Can you give some examples of cross-disciplinary projects you’ve been inspired by—as well as ones you’ve undertaken yourself?
DB: iARTA was set up as a vehicle to get faculty in arts and technology working together. It turns out that if you put a bunch of interesting people together in the same space, they often find fascinating ways of collaborating. This, of course, has happened many times before (I’m thinking of things like the Experiments in Art and Technology, which, in the 1960s, connected multidisciplinary artists with researchers from Bell Labs), and it is certainly happening at SOU through the Center for Emerging Media and Digital Art (eMDA).
This interdisciplinarity can work in a couple of ways: 1) by connecting technological practices with individual arts practices (e.g., sculptures that sense and respond to the presence of a viewer), and 2) by combining multiple artistic disciplines in new ways. In terms of the latter, the works that seem to inspire me the most lately come from theatre and dance. I’m continually excited by the interdisciplinary theatrical works of directors like Robert Lepage and Robert Wilson, the circus-influenced work of James Thiérée (grandson of Charlie Chaplin), and the Japanese dance-theatre troupe Dumb Type.
Personally, in addition to most of my creative work (which combines disciplines), I’ve had fun working on research projects connecting arts and technology ranging from the sonification of solar winds with UC Berkeley and NASA to designing interfaces for human computer interaction in my Liminal Surface project.
With The Liminal Surface (by Rory N. Finney); a performance utilizing The Liminal Surface at the 12th Biennial Symposium on Arts and Technology at Connecticut College (by David Bithell)
MM: Tell me about The Liminal Surface. What is it, exactly, and what kind of international attention has it attracted?
DB: The Liminal Surface is an ongoing project in collaboration with interactive media artist Ali Momeni. We studied music composition together at UC Berkeley and have both ended up teaching in art departments (Ali now teaches at Carnegie Mellon). The surface is an interface we designed to allow for a manner of tabletop theatre that combines contemporary music and theatre, performative sculpture, robotic musical instruments, and interactive software-enhanced performance. The tables are designed to accommodate a wide range of sensors that provide our specialized real-time audiovisual software with information about our physical gestures. At the same time, we can control motors, lights, and percussive strikers with musically precise timing.
We’ve had a lot of fun with the project so far and had some preliminary showings at the Ghent International Film Festival and the Ammerman Center for Art and Technology. It is a project that is constantly evolving, both in terms of writing pieces for the surfaces and the technology we’re using. We’re working through a new way of connecting components to the surface—once that is done, I envision turning most of our energy to a more active performance schedule.
MM: Art/music projects such as Whistle from Above and the eye (unblinking) involve not only musicians but also computer “collaborators.” How has technology influenced contemporary art, and what role does it play in your creative process?
DB: Technology is, by definition, a tool. The pencil is, for example, a type of technology. It allows for certain things to happen more efficiently (e.g., pressing graphite onto a surface in a rather precise way) but isn’t good for everything (e.g., eating breakfast cereal!). The same is true with emerging technologies—including computers. Computers are now highly flexible, but they still have limitations. As such, the role of the artist is to be in an active dialogue with the tools they use in their practice, finding what computers do best and what they fail at.
Whistle from Above excerpt (by David Bithell)
For Whistle from Above and the eye (unblinking), I utilize computers for different purposes. In Whistle, the computer creates an electronic sound environment upon which the live performers play, and it synchronizes theatrical lighting and robotic musical instruments at the same time. The eye (unblinking) uses the computer as a novel type of musical score. Performance commands are sent individually to each of the six performers, prescribing the type and timing of their musical and theatrical actions. Since a majority of the performance happens in the dark, the technology allows for a type of coordination not possible with traditional sheet music.
So, for me, the role of technology changes from work to work. Usually, I begin with an overall artistic conception of the piece and then find technological solutions to certain aspects of the project. Occasionally, I stumble on a technological opportunity that suggests a work. The origin of the work can come either way. Once a work is started, though, a necessary and rewarding dialogue is played out between the vision of the work and the technologies used.
MM: You’ve developed and taught courses such as Intermediate Performance Art and Intro to Electro-Acoustic Music. What role does music play in your own performance art?
DB: Experimental music is the structural underpinning for much of my work. My favorite aspect of music is its ability to structure time. This is something that translates very effectively to other media. So, in addition to using music as one of many elements, my performance art uses time—and the unfolding of events across a span of time—in very musical ways.
MM: Are you familiar with Sonoluminescence, a hybrid group of musicians and artists who create experiential performance pieces? SOU music professors Terry Longshore and Todd Barton are both members, as are artist Bruce Bayard, dancer Suzee Grilley, and video projector Michael Maag. Like you, they’re seeking to merge various creative media into a collective performance art. I’d be curious to hear what you think of their work if you’ve had an opportunity to experience it.
DB: I’m good friends with Terry (we were both at UCSD at the same time), and it’s great to have him as a colleague now. I haven’t had a chance to see this group yet, though I’ve heard a lot about them. Their type of cross-disciplinary performance is right up my alley, though. It’s wonderful to have so much like this already happening in town!
Encapsulating still (by David Bithell)
MM: You’ve described pieces like The President Has His Photograph Taken and Encapsulating as interactive projects. How does the interactive component technically function for each of these pieces, and what has been the response of audiences to these artworks?
DB: Both of these works, though very different in attitude, have provoked very positive responses from our audiences.
The first plays with technology like a magician plays with cards. You’re meant to never quite know who or what is in control—and there is always something up my sleeve.
Encapsulating, however, uses interactivity as a tool to generate a visual environment for dance. Composed in collaboration with my wife, choreographer and dancer Ellie Leonhardt, the technology presents live video that is parsed into a series of slowly moving columns. These columns freeze her live image as they pass, “encapsulating” her movement into still frames. We’re actually going to be performing this in SOU’s Music Recital Hall as a part of a new music concert organized by Terry Longshore and Tessa Brinckman.
Getting inspired with Melissa Geppert, Jackie Apodaca, and Robert Clift (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: There is a definite movement in art and theatre to create increasingly interactive pieces that engage the audience in concrete ways. Do you think that is a response to the widespread apathy toward art prevalent in younger generations of viewers, who themselves have become accustomed to interactivity through video games? Or is it simply the next evolutionary step as media transitions from static to dynamic formats?
DB: I think the interest in interactivity is more driven by artists’ interest in these forms rather than an attempt to woo new generations to art. Younger artists themselves have a wide range of experience with interactive media and are, as a result, more inclined to utilize them in their works. It is like the generation of composers (now in their fifties) who grew up playing rock and roll in their basements, went on to study classical music, then—surprise!—found ways of incorporating popular music into their own works (e.g., composers like David Lang and the whole Bang on a Can scene in New York). We are influenced by the things we encounter.
I would pause before saying interactive works are an “evolutionary” step. Traditional media are still very much alive and remain critically engaged with contemporary issues. Maybe it is just an “expansionary” step as the range of materials with which artists create meaning continues to grow.
At the podium in the Center for the Visual Arts (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What are some of the courses you’re teaching at SOU, and what kinds of activities do you hope to engage your students in?
DB: As I work on setting up a laboratory for emerging media and digital art (one that I expect students to be a major part of!), I’ll be teaching a number of courses to get students making more art/theatre/music with new technologies. This fall, I’m offering an introduction to programming for artists aimed at creating interactive video works (Art 399 – Interactive Art) and supervising individual projects in digital art (Art 450 / EMDA 350 – Special Projects). In coming terms, I’ll be team-teaching a number of eMDA introductory courses in digital media as well as teaching topical courses on Robotic/Kinetic Art (Winter 2012 – Art 399), Live Cinema (Spring 2012 – Art 399), Interdisciplinary Collaboration, and Digital Performance.
MM: Sounds like fun! What are you most looking forward to experiencing during your first year at Southern Oregon University?
DB: I am already excited by the energy of our students and their engagement in class and out of class. Having just moved from Texas, I’m also looking forward to seeing snow. And mountains. And mountains in the snow …