We are on the verge of a veritable renaissance of music, for which we can thank the rapid advance of technology . With so many wonderful tools at our disposal, why is it that they often fall into the background, hidden away like a shameful necessity no one wishes to discuss.
But for some artists, bringing tech to forefront of a performance and grasping the opportunity to bring something innovative into the world is more than just a passing fancy. Shama Rahman is one such artist, who prides herself on integrating exciting new methods of expression into her art.
We got the chance to chat to her hot off a recent show during Southbank’s Alchemy Festival to discuss the future of musical storytelling, her new album and Tom Cruise.
The Metropolist: You have been seeking new ways to innovate on traditional musical media by integrating advanced technology, but for the uninitiated, what exactly makes your recent performances so wildly different?
Shama Rahman: For the immersive storytelling performance at the Alchemy Festival, Southbank on May 24th, I brought together music, interactive visuals and movement all controlled with the mi.mu gloves – pushing the boundaries of their use so far, into integrated performance art.
With my live band, we played the songs I have recorded in the album with the mi.mu gloves, where there were two things I did with them. I improvised live synths/sounds with a 6-piece live jazz band using the gloves as what feels to me like an instrument in their own right. I play the gloves in real-time improvisation with 6 other people which includes a live tempo-changing drummer and sometimes even a glove solo!
This is rather than pre-programmed, or click track metronomic Ableton samples or a pre-composed orchestral piece. To me, the fluidity, expression and satisfaction i get from the mi.mu gloves during a solo, really feels like playing an instrument beyond the gestural control device they are intended as (that controls another instrument/voice). Again, this is my subjective experience!
I also used them for live FX on voice and the Sitar (which was new at this scale for a full-length 1 hour show at the Southbank and a first with the traditional instrument of the Sitar).
My movements with the mi.mus triggered and affected continuous generative real-time visuals (rather than pre-composed) – again something new. What is different is the ‘generative’ and not necessarily the ‘real-time’ component i.e. apart from some pre-agreed themes and textures,everything was generated on the spot by the mi.mu movement rather than visuals that have been pre-created/drawn prior to the performance and are then reacting to the mi.mu movement. It was absolutely stunning.
We had a projection behind the band and another screen in front which created an immersive holographic effect. As I was in the performance, and the visuals were generated for the first time during it, I was only able to see the whole show as video footage afterwards and what I saw left me speechless – the guys Matteo Zamagni and Claudio Giambusso, had done such a good job, it really felt that every note, syllable and movement was totally dependent on and integrated with each other. A complete story.
My movements with the mi.mu gloves were not only generated by my telling of the stories within the songs/poems but were also a direct result of my interaction with dancers who were planted within the audience. This in turn changed the music I played as the mi.mu gloves sensed the different movements which are individually programmed to different sounds.
The dancers expanded the context for the music and we worked together with choreographer Jorge Crecis, to create a mixture of set and improvised choreography. Both mine and the dancers movements were choreographed into a dance leading and led by music. Again something hopefully new.
Generally, we are pushing the use of advanced technology within the fields of more humanised and ‘analogue’ improvisation and reactivity. I know that my live interpretations of this album could open many doors and make people think about the future of music. That’s where I want to be.
TM: What do the mi.mu gloves allow you to do?
SR: They allow me to make and change sound by making theatrical gestural movements in space. So there’s no need to twiddle with physical knobs and gizmos on synths and pedals.
Mi.mu gloves explore the interaction with music using the movement of the hands as an expressive weapon. Mi.mu gloves allow me to freehand draw sounds in multiple dimensions, spontaneously creating and manipulating the sound in an intuitive and expressive way.
TM: We assume you are familiar with the film Minority Report (2002)?
SR: Yes and I did start my first performance with the mi.mu gloves by saying, ’You may think you’ve just entered into the Minority Report, but don’t worry there will be no persecution going on here…I will however invite you into a different world with these gloves…”.
It was at the SOAS World Music Concert Series and the audience were used to traditional or folk music from around the world. Certainly none of them had seen something so futuristic!
TM: Your forthcoming album ’Truth BeTold’ was recorded live and you use the mi.mu gloves throughout. What did they bring to the album itself, from a musical and a creative perspective?
SR: As one of the first mi.mu glove artist-in-residents, I’ve been inspired to bring new impulses to the way I approach composition and improvisation. It has created a new unprecedented relationship between my music, the way I play it and the improvising musicians I play with.
TM: You have a diverse background as a scientist, neuro-philosopher, actor and musician. How did you end up with this wildly diverse skillset?
SR: I actually gave a TedX talk last year on this and how it led to my artistic and scientific practice of multi-disciplinary creativity.
Crossing interests in learning felt natural to me: I liked drawing at primary school and an incidental drawing of the ‘Waggle dance’ of bees drew me into biology. At secondary school, logic statements within philosophy paved the way for physics, and it was the theatricality of school plays that led to my first musical two-lined compositions.
As humans,I would argue one of our primary drivers is that we are curious. We spend a lot of time trying to improve our existence or better yet, finding meaning in it.
So those early roots certainly sowed the seeds and in my scientific career, I followed my head into a passionate and inquisitive boundary-crossing journey, starting by looking at proteins and genetics as a Molecular Biology graduate.
A Philosophy elective looking at the theory of knowledge and existentialism led me to be fascinated by the bigger picture of our Neuroscience before finally finding my PhD home in Complexity Sciences – the physics of patterns in whole systems.
And one of the other characteristics that help us find meaning, is our other primary driver, our ability to create. I love it.
So at the same time as the PhD, I pursued a full-time career as a musician and actor which has been incredibly rewarding and enriching for my curiosity and creativity. I followed my heart down all manners of colourful paths from pursuing Sitar lessons in a tiny room with a rhythmic ceiling fan tucked away in old-town Dhaka to being the lead of a 24-part BBC drama series, South-East Asia’s first supernatural detective thriller shown to over 50 million viewers world-wide.
Increasingly, it has become apparent that creativity and ideas generation or ‘ideation’, is a ‘syndrome’, a combination of a host of characterisations, that allows us to remain flexible and leads to our mental wellbeing and resilience in an ever-changing world. It’s good for us!
But is creativity something that can be detected or measured objectively? This was the burning question I set out to answer in my PhD that in order to do so had to be multi-disciplinary in essence, by investigating the neural processes, physics and systems of musical creativity and jointly undertaken between the academic and performance denizens of Imperial College, Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Music.
In this PhD, I married my 2 big loves of music and science to address a deeply existential experience. It was essential that for the scientific results to have any meaning, the experimental design needed to have a close tie with the cultural context of the music, be faithful to real-life performance conditions and account for the philosophical nature of ‘What is Creativity?’ between the creators and their observers. Art helped Science helped Philosophy to reveal that creativity can indeed be detected in the neural brain patterns of musicians – objective and set apart from their subjective opinions.
This marriage of subjects piqued both my curiosity and my creativity to extend the academia into practice as performance not only with my own music but through finding my own startup. ‘Jugular: Joining The Head and the Heart’ is my startup with the explicit vision to showcase and develop rich interactions between cutting-edge science, philosophy and newly commissioned creative performance – and most importantly relate it to the existential experiences of everyday life.
Out of this collaborative ethos since 2012, I have created unique events showing clearly in every session that science, art, philosophy and entertainment are equally valid and fundamental parts of culture, each most fruitfully pursued in dialogue with the others. After 8 UK festival commissions and 5 sold-out London shows, I have experimented with many styles and forms including a secret immersive warehouse rave…about physics!
TM: You haven previously spoken about the importance of the advancing influence of technology upon music, but what do you expect to see in the near future?
SR: I would say in about 4 or 5 years, wearable technology will become the norm for making music. The traditional paradigm of learning instruments with their associated motor skills will change, with more people being able to express the music in their heads to the rest of the world with less barriers.
TM: When will the public be able to see you perform?
SR: The Southbank performance was a one-off concert that showcased the full storytelling vision of the album as a theatrical libretto. We have beautiful 360 video footage of it which will be released soon so that you can digitally experience what an audience member experienced physically on the day. ‘Truth BeTold’ is released on Aug 1st, before that we have a Hungary tour in July but hope to have further UK performances after that…its all in the pipeline!
TM: Do you have any other planned ways to introduce new technological platforms to music?
SR: Yes, I’m currently toying with the idea of VR…
TM: Thank you, Shama!
If you are interested in learning more about Shama’s work, check out her new album ‘Truth Be Told’ which will be available on August 1. Have a look at www.shamaverse.com for more information on the release and upcoming performances, you won’t be disappointed!