Percussionist Ross Karre is the Co-Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble and one of the lead designers, producers of the upcoming Nubian Word for Flowers. This opera has taken a unique shape and Ross’s role as both a designer of video and audio elements and as a producer working with Ione to help shape the second act of the opera which was incomplete at the time of Pauline’s passing in 2016. EiO Co-Founder Jason Cady sat down with Ross to discuss the project from his point of view.

JASON CADY:  First, could you tell us about your background and your role in the project?

ROSS KARRE:  I’m the percussionist and co-artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. I was invited by Pauline and Ione to collaborate as a video projection designer on The Nubian Word for Flowers back in November of 2015.

We spent about a year working on a visual design scheme, and did some tests at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with Monica Duncan, who’s the other video designer on the project.

CADY: Could you tell me some more about your background in video. I’m trying to wrap my head around it because I think of you as a percussionist.

KARRE: While I was getting a bachelor’s in percussion performance at Oberlin, I accidentally picked up a minor in cinema studies, which had a lot of hands-on video art production classes, starting with a woman named Rian Brown, who got me excited about experimental video.

Then when I went to University of California in San Diego, working a lot with Miller Puckette and other electronic musicians, I was the collaborator who could do stuff with video. So I started to hone that craft a little more.

When I finished my percussion doctorate at UCSD I decided to stay and get an MFA in film and video art. Since then, I’ve done a handful of video projection design projects per year. Sometimes it’s with percussion, but most of the time I don’t play percussion at all when I’m also designing video.

CADY: How did you realize the video design from the libretto for Nubian Word for Flowers?

KARRE: We worked with Pauline one-on-one for months to come up with the translation process between the libretto and the video design. Along the way, Pauline was adding notated score elements to the libretto.

She got about half to three quarters of the way through, and then she passed away in November of 2016. So that year between when she invited Monica and I to start working on the images, until she passed away, was spent collecting imagery, deciding on projection design options, staging, blocking, and talking through details.

Monica is responsible for the video images themselves. I’m just helping design the video systems. She has a background as a printmaker. So in making these cards and artifacts, they’re really beautifully rendered images that look authentic.

CADY: I saw the libretto had a kind of color coding scheme, what did it mean?

KARRE:  Ione and Pauline had a shared document they both typed into. When Monica and I looked at that, we both confessed it was a little difficult to understand. So we started to make time and space charts, which would essentially read like a score: descriptions and image thumbnails, blocking, character maps, things like that.

Their way of giving us information was through that color coding system. The color coding was something like green for images, and purple for cast, and orange for sound design. They would highlight text that pertained to Senem Pirler on sound design, or for Monica and me for images.

Gradually this one libretto document became the working method for communication between all the parties. It’s a comprehensive document that has lines of text delivered by singers or actors, then long bits of text about the staging, blocking, design elements.

CADY: I’ve actually taken to writing my librettos with screenwriting software, because the format is so clear. It forces me to always be conscious of not just what’s being sung but—

KARRE: Where it’s being sung.

CADY: Yeah, and what the action is, et cetera.

KARRE: Our process has been one of translation. How do we get that comprehensive intermediate experience at Roulette?

CADY: I remember reading in the libretto that something was happening on the higher back portion of the stage. And I thought, “Oh, Roulette.”

KARRE: Back in February we decided to switch from talking generally to talking about Roulette. We have this stencil which is a black and white line drawing, that has all the stages. It’s a proscenium view as opposed to a section or plan view. We call it the Roulette stencil. It’s really simple, but it helped Ione and the video designers think about the space and how it translates. It gives you the idea of what it’s like to put a person there.

CADY: Will you also play percussion in the piece?

KARRE: No. Nathan Davis, the other percussionist in ICE, will play percussion. It’s possible that Levy Lorenzo will also play percussion. But he has a sound design role as well. It’s a bit confusing, because a lot of people wear multiple hats.

But the primary design team is Ione as the director and librettist, and she’s also playing the role of The Interviewer. She has a table in front of her with an overhead camera aimed bird’s eye view onto the table. So she can place different cards that are artifacts relating to the history of this piece. Then those images get manipulated by Monica. She’s operating that live.

The sound design is handled by Senem Pirler. She worked directly with Pauline on selection of sounds, both Foley sounds, artifact sounds, historical sounds, and the performance of Pauline’s analog oscillators.

Last on the design team is Nick DeMaison, who is a conductor and composer. He is the hero responsible for taking all the fragments and sketches that Pauline had completed for the opera, and compiling them into one document, and re-engraving them in Sibelius.

Then there’s the cast of six, an orchestra of eight, and a chorus of three, who use their voice in different ways and play auxiliary instruments.

CADY: How were the unfinished parts of the opera filled out?

KARRE: The first act is almost 100 percent notated, and the second act uses almost 100 percent text anthology scores. Specifically, it starts with the piece “Heart of Tones” for solo wind instrument and accompanying wind instruments and sine tones.

It’s followed by a piece called “Out of the Dark,” which uses the same tuning, droning method, and then finishes with a piece called “Earth Ears” which evolves out of the drones of “Out of the Dark” into a more active place.

Meanwhile, the libretto developed following the same rules as those scores. In the second act, the goal dramatically is to create a really long slow-building arc. Several of Pauline’s pieces from her anthology of text scores lend themselves to that slow build. We’ve recorded nearly everything we’ve done with Pauline, from little concerts at Jack in Brooklyn to the shows at Lincoln Center. So we have a library of pieces and we just swapped in recordings of ICE playing these pieces, to get a feel of what they might sound like.

After a bunch of trials we landed on these three pieces in sequence, to represent the three wars. And it works. It’s stunning how these text pieces so perfectly suited this piece.

CADY: Are you using Pauline’s vintage analog oscillators?

KARRE: Yeah. There’s two or three analog oscillators from the ‘60s that Pauline used for a lot of her pieces. They provide sub-sonic tones, but also audible frequencies into the patch. We’re also using, for brief moments, Pauline’s Expanded Instrument System—EIS—to process some of the acoustic instruments.

CADY: Could you describe the Expanded Instrument System? I saw Claire Chase perform one of Pauline’s pieces and she didn’t play flute at all. She spoke, and her voice was manipulated in real time.

KARRE: That piece is called Intensity 20.15 — A Tribute to Grace Chase. It’s a play on the Varèse flute piece. The subtitle is A Tribute to Grace Chase, which is Claire’s grandmother’s name. It uses the EIS system on Claire’s spoken voice, and some flutelike instruments: an ocarina, a harmonica, stuff like that.

Levy Lorenzo operates the EIS in that piece. Pauline had the opportunity to teach Levy how the parameters can be controlled on a system that’s decades old. It used to be analog systems, then early digital systems, and side chained effects that are controlled in a unique way, and ended up being in MaxMSP. It took on a life of its own, and it’s a really interesting artificial intelligent improvising partner.

We’re lucky that Levy’s on the project, because he’s one of the few people that Pauline taught how to use the software.

CADY: So Levy will manipulate some of the live sounds in an improvisatory way. But is the MaxMSP patch also improvising in Nubian Word for Flowers?

KARRE: Yeah, there are stochastic procedures and algorithms built into the Expanded Instrument System patch. They create a really complex sound world, where it’s hard to tell the origin of the sound samples and how it’s being manipulated.

The way Ione has described it, it’s Pauline’s own presence in the piece. Both her analog oscillators and the Expanded Instrument System bring Pauline’s designs into the piece in a way that really feels like her presence is there.

CADY: Will the audience feel a big shift going into act two, or will it feel more seamless?

KARRE: They will notice a huge shift. It’s not just the result of the fact that Pauline didn’t have the chance to write a lot of the music for act two. The shift is actually a dramatic shift. The first act is about the history of Lord Kitchener and the imperial goals of Great Britain. We learn about his affectionate relationship with the Nubian people. We meet a Nubian boatman. We meet his friend and potential lover Colonel O.

Then in the second act he’s on trial in a kind of purgatory because he died in a boat explosion on the HMS Hampshire. And the process is trying to help him understand or atone for his unethical behavior. He’s asked by interrogation with Ione, as The Interviewer to speak to these moments in his life where he has been a war criminal.

Ione levels these anecdotal criticisms at him from each battle: Battle of Khartoum, the Great War, etc. Supporting Ione are these testimonies from a chorus in the loft at Roulette and their sound will be processed, drone-based, aggressive, dissonant beat frequencies.

It’s really spooky, whereas the first act surprisingly plays with the conventions of traditional opera. There’s a waltz. There’s tonality, modality, dodecaphonic writing.

We had to make a lot of guesses about what to do in the second act. But the drama is so clear that these pieces fell into place without us feeling too self-conscious about their selection. And Ione supported all of the research we did to figure out which existing pieces become the bed of instrumental work and electronic sounds for the piece.

CADY: Had Pauline said anything about her plans for the second act?

KARRE: She didn’t give too many hints to me, but she did speak with Ione a lot about that. Ione is a co-composer in many ways. She helped structure a lot of these pieces. So, it’s with that experience that we made these selections.

When we were building the video design we showed [Pauline] the options of this overhead camera, and said this has a lot of parity with older analog video technologies, with a live camera into a CRT monitor. And she said, “Yeah, that feels right, because I’m an analog gal.”

We took that to heart, thinking about it like, “Which of our video decisions pay homage to an analog sensibility?” And we’re doing that with the sound design: the analog oscillators, the way the effects are coupled together, and the way the EIS is built.

CADY: In our conversations with Pauline and Ione, I wasn’t sure if the staging was going to be super high tech.

KARRE: Where it’s technically current is in projection mapping software which is the ability to map images onto precise surfaces. Also the intermixing of a live camera with HD video and stills is used a lot. But the way we’ve used these postcards as a consistent theme brings it a timelessness.

Ione can play many roles, but it’s consistent that she’s a judge or an attorney doing research or an investigator or a journalist doing research with these different artifacts. When she’s organizing these artifacts on the table, that organization is scaled up to these large projection screens, which are also scenically the triangular white sails of the Nubian boatman. The Nubian boatman is played by Zizo from Egypt. He’s stationed upstage right on a felucca ship. He serves as an interstitial singer/songwriter role that helps to contextualize the Nubian culture.

CADY: Was there anything about Pauline’s music that people misunderstand, or would be surprised to learn?

KARRE: Pauline’s not afraid of a pretty melody, and you’ll see that in the first act of this opera. When I’ve seen her improvise she’ll put warm, beautiful, melodic gestures into her playing.

People who know Pauline really well won’t be surprised to hear these tonal melodies in the first act of this piece. People who sort of know Pauline might be surprised by that.

For me, the biggest surprise is that there aren’t more of these operas. She wasn’t typecast as an opera composer. But looking at how intricate all of the details of this came together, I wish she had the opportunity to do more of them, because it’s a super interesting narrative and intriguing way of approaching it that’ll create surprises for everybody in the audience.