Michael McNabb - Invisible Cities

Wergo 2015-50, WERGO Schallplatten GmbH
B. Schott's Sohne International, Mainz, Germany

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In 1985, the ballet "Invisible Cities" was realized as a collaboration between myself, choreographer Brenda Way and the ODC/San Francisco Dance Company, and designer/engineer Gayle Curtis. Although most of the music is computer synthesis, there are also two live instrumental/ electronic performers including myself. This was a personal challenge, since I had been away from performing for a while. It was also an opportunity to try to raise the technical standards of music in dance performance, which I saw as too often neglected. The music was funded by a grant from the NEA, and produced at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, at Stanford University.

Italo Calvino's novel "Invisible Cities" inspired us with its beauty, original and concise structure, and dream-like imagery. It is an allegorical account of a meeting between the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the Tatarian Emperor Kublai Khan. Sensing the decline of his empire, the aged Kublai Khan summons the young foreigner Marco Polo to his garden to reassure him of the greatness of his realm. Marco Polo diverts the great Khan with tales of cities he has seen within the empire. As the barrier of their different languages is overcome, the images of the cities become increasingly vivid. Kublai Khan searches for a pattern among them, concluding finally that each description is of the same place and all are within him.

The music contains both subtle and explicit stylistic elements of various popular and classical world musics, sections of pure musical fantasy, and various musical and digitally-processed environmental sounds. In this way it conveys feelings and moods similar to those created by Calvino's weaving of hyper-realistic description and veiled, dream-like fantasy. Conversely, the literary symbolism, characters and narrative of the book provided much of the inspiration for the choreographer and designers. However, rather than follow the book explicitly, we chose to adopt something of its form, but invent our own "invisible cities" for each of the five major movements.

At the time, Gayle Curtis was participating in work being done in machine choreography at the Veterans Administration Robotic Aid project, and wanted to see the concept carried further. For "Invisible Cities", he directed the addition of a large robot arm as a visiting member of the ODC dance company. The powerful robot, transformed by the choreography of Way, Margo Apostolos, and Curtis, performed the role of Kublai Khan. I further enhanced its persona by amplifying the sounds of its motors and digitally processing them into musical material during the performance. We deliberately treated the robotics as a proven rather than experimental medium, in order to avoid making any cliched statements on "art vs technology". Interestingly, though, the presence of the robot garnered us world-wide publicity, often at the expense of the artistic message.

See a photograph and program from the premier