Fragility: Artistic process
Essay by artist Susie Ibarra
Describe your project, the research that informed the work, and how the concept evolved throughout the project’s development.
Fragility: An Exploration of Polyrhythms is an immersive, participatory performance constructed as a musical game where the audience is invited to conduct and cue some of the pieces.
This project came about from my attention to the meaning of fragility and its multiple relations to our environment. Fragility, the quality of being delicate or vulnerable, is not often seen as strength. Fragility is instead used to describe the economics of a country, or the condition of communities or the quality of people who are very open and at risk. I find fragility to be a state wherein potentials can be imagined and emerge, however.
Fragility is also an equation in glass physics and while playing a new glass harp instrument that was built for me, I became fascinated with the equation for fragility and how it captures the state of changing from liquid to solid or vice versa. As a percussionist, I saw the fragility equation as a way to measure time; the equation reminding me of rhythm itself and a way to measure polyrhythms.
This fascination to understand rhythm with concepts of time measurement led me to exploring polyrhythms in a game format, drawing on the energy and playfulness of a game and the openness to be able to learn and try something new in moments of play. There are rituals of practice in a game and it requires that anyone involved in playing must listen, hear, and participate in the moment. A game can activate a space instantly to move energy, like rhythm, around a room.
Describe the artistic process to create the work, including how you worked with your collaborators.
In the process of transforming a conceptual interest in fragility into a performance piece, I researched and developed collaborations of music, dance, physics, math, and interactive design—this involved working with collaborators from a variety of disciplines.
The first performative iteration of the Fragility project was Fragility: An Exploration of Polyrhythms which premiered at Asia Society in June 2018. The performance transformed one of Asia Society Museum’s galleries into an immersive musical environment. The work started with a musical solo I played on my glass harp instrument. Then, dancer Souleymane Badolo danced a solo which triggered percussive sounds and phrases through Xbox motion-capture technology. This technology was developed with interactive systems designer Tommy Martinez. The performance ended with a concert in the round with the DreamTime Ensemble, a group of six musicians featuring percussion, electronics, strings, vocals, and more. Some of the pieces in the concert incorporated recorded layers of percussion compositions that were parsed through various speakers in an 8.1 surround-sound installation with subwoofers. Sometimes I had the live ensemble crossfade sound with the speakers. I love this effect of moving sound through different dimensions in space. For some of the pieces of the concert, dancer Badolo joined the ensemble to physicalize polyrhythms, adding another creative expression of polyrhythms to the work.
How has creating the work commissioned by Asia Society impacted you as an artist? Will the experience have an effect on your work in the future?
Having had the wonderful opportunity to work on this project as a commission for Asia Society has allowed me to develop music and concepts both on and off the stage. This has brought me to my current stage where I am writing for a book with scores on rhythm, and inventing an interactive board game of polyrhythms.
Investigating polyrhythms through a lens of fragility has allowed me to understand more about performance and its process. It can be very vulnerable to put yourself on stage with an audience, yet the interdependence of the performer and the audience is essential to creating a great performance. This interplay between the performer and the audience, this attention and awareness between them, is itself a polyrhythm that occurs throughout a performance. It is indeterminate and relies on emergence—and emergence is powerful because one never knows how it will take shape. Amidst chaos, clarity can emerge. In the midst of polyrhythms, a unison can emerge.
Part of my exploration in each performance relied on the magic of emergence and a trust and willing of this emergence into being. There was an emergence born of the relationship between performer and audience, heightened by the interplay that happened within the game. There was an emergence born musically from my compositions and nuanced sonic play of the DreamTime Ensemble. Another level of sonic play, the surround-sound installation, allowed me to explore sonic architecture and allowed for emergence through a specific manipulation of sound in space.