Todd Reynolds and Luke DuBois Bring Hybrid, Real-Time Art to Santa Barbara
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
When Todd Reynolds performs Still Life with Mic, boundaries between art forms collapse. Spoken word, movement, video, musical composition, and improvisation melt together in a shifting array of visual and auditory input. It’s no coincidence, then, that Still Life will be performed next week not in a traditional theater or concert hall, but in an art gallery.
Reynolds began his training as a classical musician but was soon drawn to genre-bending experimentation. In 1990, he began playing with pioneering minimalist Steve Reich and then joined the experimental New York collective Bang on a Can. When I caught up with Reynolds last week, we talked about his path, his influences, and the effect of his current work.
You started out as a classical violinist. How did you move into experimental electronic music? I grew up in L.A., where I studied violin with Heifetz — the most famous violinist around at the time. Then I came east to study. I ended up being someone who’s really impacted by culture today and really interested in performing the music of people who are alive. I’ve spent most of my life since age 20 playing contemporary music — jazz, computerized and digital — especially inside the world of live, interactive performance.
I also grew up in a fundamentalist religious background. That is a type and quality of programming that is so strong that it takes years to work yourself back into who you are. At 15 or 16, I was preaching the gospel, but one day something really original came into my head that had nothing to do with anything biblical. It was the thought that everything is related, and everything is really the same thing. It was my first original thought, and it really blew me away.
At what point did you get involved with Steve Reich and Bang on a Can? At SUNY Stony Brook, I began to get super-interested in improvisation. I put on a big digital delay and a digital reverb, and began to improvise and compose. I had played all the difficult, uptown scene stuff, but I hadn’t played Steve Reich, though I knew all his early works. Somehow, I wound up in his band. [John] Cage and Reich remain my two biggest influences in classical music. They taught me that everything is music. It would be a sin to me to say of anything, “That’s not music!” Even somebody snoring can be music.
In Still Life with Mic, you use sound painting to direct the improvisation. What can you tell us about that technique and how it has influenced your work? When I was at Stony Brook, I started to go into the city to listen to music. I noticed Walter Thompson’s band, and eventually he asked me to join them. He directed actors, dancers, and musicians, all at the same time. No one else had really done that yet — he was really crafting language. We had a monthlong seminar on learning how to conduct sound painting, and I placed myself in the position of associate to him. I loved doing it.
How would you characterize the sound or the experience of Still Life with Mic? You could call it avant-garde music; you could call it jazz. Most people hear a lot of sound coming at them, and they see a lot. They see a dynamic performer and a video screen. In the solo version I’ll be performing in Santa Barbara, Luke DuBois will be creating the video projections live on three screens. Things will appear on the screens, like a sphere that stretches or changes color and texture, as Luke makes subtle adjustments in response to the things I’m playing. There’s no fourth wall; I talk to the audience, like in a variety show. In a version where I’m using other musicians and actors, I’ll sound paint the performers in order to get music and events going, but then I can put whatever they create on my violin and computer and make a completely improvised performance piece that also has a form that’s already designed — and it’s very fresh and alive every time.
I really want to present work where people can create their own path through an event — you can pick your own way of navigating the territory because there’s plenty of material to delve into, and that material was made especially for you. I hate to sound all warm and fuzzy, but really it’s all about love — because life is a shared experience.
That’s quite a leap from original sin! That’s right. I started in original sin. That’s not where I am now. It’s a totally different life — a different way of seeing the world.