'The Transmigration of Morton F.' is an Interactive, Browser-Based Opera

Film, theatre, and the open world play of video games combine in 'The Transmigration Of Morton F.'

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Jun 22 2016, 3:00pm

A new interactive opera film fuses live performances with a custom WebGL environment to tell a postmodern narrative exploring the music of celebrated 20th century composer Morton Feldman. The project, called The Transmigration of Morton F., was commissioned by Amsterdam's Holland Festival and is headed up by artistic director Sjaron Minailo with creative production by Ruben van Leer

The narrative follows the film's protagonist, avant-garde US soprano Joan La Barbara, who plays herself as she pursues a strange and mysterious character, a manifestation of her former colleague Morton Feldman, into a surreal dreamworld. Van Leer has had previous experience of bringing challenging opera projects to fruition with his multimedia piece Symmetry, which was shot inside CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

Fortunately it didn't put him off, so he decided to join forces with the accomplished Minailo for a tale inspired by Philip K. Dick, Feldman's music, film, theater, and the open-world play of video games. 

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Film set still. Image: Fabien Normand

To achieve this union between the cinematic and the interactive, van Leer explains that additional to a film crew, they also filmed with a remote-controlled VR-camera drone at an Amsterdam cemetery. Using a custom WebGL player they turned these scenes into 360-degree interactive levels with the main character of the film, Joan La Barbara, becoming the avatar. These interactive environments are interspersed between five short films based around the music of Morton Feldman, along with a new piece by composer Anat Spiegel.

"The idea of filming both with an Alexa film crew, a VR setup and making this interactive world, is that we can shift with perspectives," van Leer explains to The Creators Project. "The viewer 'becomes' Morton Feldman, becomes the music, becomes part of this universal knowledge. I think this is what makes the project artistically and technically unique. It was quite the challenge to connect film and create a sense of you being able to control the protagonist and become part of the narrative." 

Throughout the interactive parts, viewers have to collect items—bones—to advance to the next film chapter. Collecting seven in total gets you to the final film, which takes inspiration from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and features a solo by Joan La Barbara.


Film set still. Image: Fabien Normand

As well as tying in the interactive elements, another challenge the team faced was how to balance the dynamism of interactivity with the meditative focus of Feldman's music. Finding a happy medium between the two didn't prove too elusive, though.

"Feldman’s music, especially the pieces we chose for Transmigration, are pieces that aim at freezing time—as Feldman himself calls it—composing silence," notes Minailo. "His music wants you to give it all your attention, its meditative, an exercise in being. Interactivity can object to that. But this problem was the challenge, and a dramaturgical departure point: how can we combine this two opposing approaches to 'being in the here and now,' one passive (Feldman), one active (interactivity). The answer lies in the question itself—they both aim at the same. It's just about finding the right delicate balance. Finding how both approaches can strengthen one another."


Film set still. Image: Fabien Normand

As the title suggests (the title is a direct nod to Dick's 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), one of the big themes in the piece is the concept of transmigration, which Minailo points out is about the idea of someone's soul, or being, switching bodily hosts. This idea enters the story not just through the imagery and the narrative, but also via the very medium itself, as viewers experience the story through the eyes and actions of an avatar.

"The concept of an avatar suddenly gets this almost religious meaning—the transmigration of souls," Minailo explains. "As the game continues Joan the avatar disappears and the viewer takes over her point-of-view, hence transmigrates even further. Also the moments of VR during the dance pieces lets the viewer transmigrate into me, the director, as they get full control over what they watch and how they rhythmically relate the movement of the camera for example and the movement of the dance on screen and the movement of the music."


Film set still. Image: Fabien Normand

It's not only the title that references Philip K. Dick, either. The opera also explores similar issues relating to reality, perception, and the human mind that inform Dick's writing and manifest continually throughout his paradoxical, transcendental novels. It just so happened that Minailo was looking into the idea of adapting Dick's semi-autobiographical work VALIS and rereading The Transmigration of Timothy Archer when the commission from the Holland Festival came about. The worlds of Dick’s novels and Feldman’s music seemed to coalesce.

"Two important themes of these books: The idea of the Divine and the concept of Universal Knowledge/Collective Unconsciousness I find extremely interesting and inspiring," says Minalio. "Where does knowledge come from? I like this idea that knowledge, all knowledge, is not only out there, but also already in there, inside of every one of us. There is nothing we can learn, only unveil or discover within ourselves. We are all mediums through which the universal knowledge (or even the Divine) expresses itself through space and time. This is the transmigration of this work—Feldman is not a 'God,' rather a continuation of this universal knowledge that transmigrates through the characters in the project on to the viewer itself."


Film set still. Image: Fabien Normand

You can watch the The Transmigration of Morton F. online here. You can visit Ruben van Leer's website here. Visit Sjaron Minailo's website here.

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