I interviewed Amy Bryce, composer, curator and performer, about how she co-creates immersive effects in music. Amy has worked as composer in residence for the Stiftung Kunst und Musik für Dresden. Her opera, A Kinder Society, was adapted for film and premiered in the 2021 TONLAGEN Festival in Hellerau. Amy’s work has also been programmed by the BBC Singers on Radio 3, Tête-à-Tête Opera and at the Lilian Baylis Theatre in association with Sadlers Wells.
Leslie: Could you describe what it means when you call yourself on your website a ‘composer, curator and performer’, please?
Amy: I would consider myself primarily a composer but this is a rather big umbrella of ‘things’ these days. You can get carried away with finding the right labels for all of it. I use the term performer alongside that because so many aspects of my work involve me getting involved with the performance execution as well as the writing process, especially with co-authored work. I am a flautist, pianist, vocalist and I also use live electronics. I use the term curator on my website but these days, perhaps ‘designer’ or ‘director’ are more appropriate because I try to find terminology to encompass the idea that ‘Composer’ to me means more than just ‘sit in a room alone and create a score.’ I like to build works in the practical sense, working with people in order to make them. Improvisation and interdisciplinary collaboration of many kinds is very important to me.
Leslie: What have been the key learning experiences from childhood onward that have developed you as a musician/artist? How have you learned your skills?
Amy: I started off first as a performer. I’m very classically trained and was from a young age. Even then, I think I was always searching for new ways that I could express myself through music and that’s probably why my practice has become so Interdisciplinary. I first worked with dancers in my teenage years and was always encouraged to be physical with my composing; improvisation being at the heart of everything and to never confine myself to just one specialism. I have been blessed with the mentors that I have had to lead me down this direction and fortunately, my own curiosity has taught me to ask questions, be explorative, apply for that thing, see that concert and talk to everyone I can. I am built of the relationships I’ve made with fantastic musicians along the way.
Leslie: Can you tell us about the performance aspects of Pseudo Spiritum and how they related to the concerns of the piece?
Amy: Pseudo Spiritus was the first installation that I created during my residency with the Stiftung Kunst und Musik für Dresden in 2019. It was an interdisciplinary work with an environmental concern. It considers a world where the air is so polluted that inhabitants are born masked, requiring breathing assistance immediately. The dancer and I built it around an improvisatory exploration of breath. We developed a storyline where these characters discover their bodies and lungs, each other and finally, how to express themselves creatively in this strange world.
Leslie: Can you describe the process of co-authoring the opera A Kinder Society? What might I expect to hear and see if I came to a performance? What areas of human experience does it deal with?
Amy: A Kinder Society invites its audience to reconnect with their inner child. Originally designed to be a piece of immersive theatre, we at the Kinder Society believe that from the moment we are born, many aspects of modern living damage children by actively discouraging free connection with our imagination and feelings. Eventually, we will stop being the pure-natured souls we were intended to be and we become unhappy adults, preoccupied with the stresses of the modern world. Kinder Society presents its audience with a retraining programme, inviting the audience to participate in different activities in order to awaken their imagination and revert them back to their natural state of childlike mentality.
Leslie: Can you explain how you graphically notate music? What did graphically notating all of A Kinder Society involve? Why did you do it that way?
Amy: I hand-wrote each graphic score for Kinder Society. I consider my performers to be my first audience and when inviting them to perform KS, I was inviting them into a world that needed to appear to them to spread beyond the margins of the work itself. I had created a culture and a way of life with rules, attitudes and moral grounding. Therefore, looking at the scores, they needed to always feel like there could be a deeper level they could attain. This is why they are handwritten and detailed. It means that the performer treats them like artwork and receives them as visual audience. Moving through these scores that are so dense and populated with ideas, it’s important that the performer only feels like they are scratching the surface. All of the scores are physical and interactive in some shape or form. Whether this includes clear acetate, unfolding sections or parts that require turning/ moving to perform, each score was encouraging a childlike relationship between performer and score that was important to the character development.
Leslie: Can you describe the process of turning A Kinder Society into a film, please.
Amy: Turning Kinder Society into a film focussed on the role of the audience in order to make the adaptation work. Each scene of the original theatre was designed to involve audience participation in some way, so we had to consider how we were asking the audience to engage in the first instance: what we were making them think about, how we were making them consider their behaviour, how were we asking them to interact with the performers? Then we went about trying to retain these features for an audience who would just be viewing through a screen. We never wanted the audience to be passive. Even in the filmed version, we hope you will feel as if you are being internally interactive with what is going on.
Leslie: What makes your work ‘immersive’ in terms of music, performance, staging, filming and editing? Why do you work that way?
Amy: I think I’ve clarified that Kinder Society is immersive insofar as the original piece of theatre that it was designed to be, required audience participation and was therefore immersive in the most literal sense. Why I work that way, however, is an interesting question. Another close collaborator of mine uses the phrase ‘the audience is the only performer left to write for’ and I consider this to be at the heart of my thinking regarding these sorts of works. I like to have an intimate, provocative and manipulative relationship with my audience mainly because I find it very fun. I like to create fluid worlds as opposed to works that start when someone presses play and ends with the closing credits. In order to consider how that world would function beyond the parameters of the piece as it happens in realtime, that interactivity continues in the mind of each audience member. I like to create work you can continue in your imagination. That is why I make immersive work.
Next week, in ‘What’s So Great About Crime Fiction?’, author Kate Vane guest blogs about the power of crime fiction to question the controlling nature of institutions and explore people’s motivations.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.