Past, Present, Future


By Chris Wild, Cellist and Lead Artistic Coordinator

The following video preview of Stefan Prins' Generation Kill uses material from our pre-recorded video sessions as its musical content. The sounds and sights in this video will be barely recognizable at our April 30 performance, but are an important part of the whole puzzle. And while this video takes a humorous approach to political ineptitude (thanks to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove), the live experience of Generation Kill at Dal Niente's 10th Anniversary Party on April 30 promises to be a sensory and emotional wallop.

I will abstain from mentioning all the music I'm looking forward to at Dal Niente's 10th Anniversary Party simply because it's difficult to isolate one particular piece without relating it to another. Speaking as someone who coordinates programming for our ensemble, I'd like to acknowledge that when I started doing this work a couple years ago, I felt a responsibility to continue Dal Niente's musical tendencies, as our programming has played a large role in earning a loyal following in Chicago. In addition to embracing our unique traditions, we've been conscious of including American composers, and as an extension of that, composers that reflect the diversities of contemporary American society. This consideration is another reason why it's difficult to isolate repertoire for us - each composer we collaborate with has been influenced by others we've worked with, and so it becomes the totality of our programming that best reflects the society we live in, and also our mission. This is certainly the case with our upcoming Party, which in typical Party fashion will present a diversity of styles.

In addition to keeping an eye on our internal traditions, and on our regional present, being a contemporary ensemble also demands that we keep an eye towards the future. That brings us to Stefan Prins' Generation Kill, which is a piece that we'd been thinking of performing for a couple years and needed appropriate circumstances to attempt. To carry it out with our traditional level of musical preparedness, some of us Nientes are being hard pressed to acquire new technical skills so that our performance on April 30 may live up to the composer's ambitions.

The impetus for Stefan's piece is one that I find myself reminded of in the wake of each successive act of global terrorism. Stefan describes it thus:

Last year, while I was working on "Piano Hero #1 and #2", the Arab Revolutions had ignited the Middle-East. Protesters in several Middle-Eastern countries made the whole world witness the revolutionary events by making video's with their smartphones or webcams and uploading them to the internet. With the use of the social media -such as Facebook and Twitter- the whole process was accelerated, and before anyone realised, the people of Tunisia and Egypt had overthrown their dictatorial regimes, while full-blown civil wars started to split Libya and to paralyse Syria.

In the same year, 2011, a large-scale investigation was released, which calculated that there is one CCTV surveillance camera for every 32 persons in the UK.

October 2011: the Americans started to withdraw their troops in Iraq, while they were still fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. More and more images were released of successful (at least according to the official bulletins) bombings by so-called "drones" -"unmanned aerial vehicles" who are remotely controlled by military personal in secret control centers in the US. Parallel to these images, an increasing stream of eye-witnesses started to appear on the internet, telling of innocent people who were killed by these bombings.

Strolling through the internet, I found at around the same time a 7-year old video-clip on Youtube which was a teaser for the TV-series "Generation Kill", based on the homonymous book in which Evan Wright chronicled his experiences as an embedded reporter with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the US Marine Corps during the 2003 Iraq invasion. One of the statements which shocked me the most was made by one of the soldiers: "It's the ultimate rush -- you're going into the fight with a good song playing in the background". Evan Wright explained further: "This is a war fought by the first playstation generation. One thing about them is they kill very well in Iraq."

At that point, I realised that my next piece had to musically reflect on all of these connected facts, on a society which is more and more monitored, on the increasing importance of internet, networks and social media, which are fueled by video's taken with webcams and smartphones, on video-games and on wars fought like video-games, on the line between reality and virtuality which gets thinner by the day.

Stefan is able to make such associations perceptible by employing multiple perspectives in the piece, facilitating access to and shifts between the multiple agents he describes. The participants facilitating this experience are 4 live musicians (playing violin, cello, electric guitar, and percussion), pre-recorded videos of these musicians that are triggered by 4 assistants using Playstation game controllers (fulfilled by the members of Parlour Tapes+ and Dal Niente's conductor, Michael Lewanski), images of drone warfare, and webcams that can flip our attention from the warfare to those purportedly responsible for the attacks.

Stefan has designed an elaborate network of devices to make all of these factors integrate into a cohesive aural and visual experience. The setup includes 4 semi-transparent projector screens that can both display the pre-recorded videos in front of the live musicians, and also allow the audience to see through the screens to the musicians performing behind them who are at times illuminated by independent LED lighting systems. Other technical requirements include video projectors, laptop computers, external webcams, interfaces, microphones, various cables, multiple speakers and subwoofers, and a culminating sound board controlled by a sound engineer.

Making all of this work without a budget dedicated to the piece has been quite a challenge, one that requires generosity and flexibility from many. We are indebted to Stefan for his mentorship throughout the process (and who will be flying to Chicago to attend our performance thanks to the Flemish Government), to Dan Nichols, Brian Wach, and Northern Illinois University for their technical support, to Eric Fernandez for guiding me through the early recording sessions, and to Parlour Tapes+, Michael Lewanski, and my colleagues in Dal Niente for taking on this challenge with enthusiasm, and apparently with some lost sleep as well.