Annie Dorsen by Nick Hallett

“I always nuance the algorithm.”

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Natalie Raybould, Hai-Ting Chinn, and Jeffrey Gavett in Yesterday Tomorrow by Annie Dorsen. Photo by Alexandre Schlub.

Theater creator and director Annie Dorsen recently completed a trilogy of stage works in which customized, algorithm-driven computer software controls the transformation of dramatic content in real-time. The results—different each night—are surprisingly human. This past autumn, I joined the cast of her latest, Yesterday Tomorrow, for a run of shows in France (picking up the role originated by the excellent Jeff Gavett). The piece is a one-liner par excellence—or perhaps the most experimental jukebox musical ever conceived. Three vocalists are surrounded by a projected score of the Lennon-McCartney classic, “Yesterday.” As they sight-read their way through each new iteration of the song, more and more of the melodic and lyrical material from Charles Strouse’s tween anthem, “Tomorrow,” enters the picture. By the end of the night, “Yesterday” is gone and we are left with the finale from Annie. I wanted to work with Annie (Dorsen, not the orphan) and experience what it would feel like to exist as an artist inside the machinery of her imagination. Would it be cold and mimetic, or might it indulge the performative mind and a sense of embodied expression? I ended up feeling like both were true—but productively so at each extreme. Furthermore, I became increasingly intrigued by the idea of a theater that engages so directly with the tools and structures of what is generally thought of as rigorous or difficult music—and what it means when its results are put in front of an audience—and, more to the point, which audience? I came away with a sense of the Dorsen universe—wonderfully rational yet magical at the same time. I wanted to unpack the experience with her and to learn more about what generates her impulse to render theater in this way.  

Nick Hallett Was Yesterday Tomorrow always conceived of as a theater piece?

Annie Dorsen Yes. But maybe only because I conceive of myself as a theater maker. To me, the question of what discipline a particular work falls into is one of the least interesting questions imaginable. How something gets categorized is largely a matter of funding and marketing, and not so much anything that’s inherent in the work itself. The first notion ofYesterday Tomorrow was as a music piece. Whether that means it belongs in a concert hall or a theater, or whatever—I don’t know. I was learning about evolutionary computation, and I had a thought: You could use an algorithmic tool to slowly and unpredictably turn one thing into another. And then the very next thought was to turn the song “Yesterday” into the song “Tomorrow.” It was that automatic. It was a musical idea—or an algorithmic musical idea. But it did seem to me that it wasn’t the kind of idea that a composer would have. It was more of an idea a theater director would have—or a performance person.

NH Why?

AD It treats the pop songs metaphorically. There’s a layer of metaphor that feels to me more germane to the way theater people think than the way composers think.

NH So it’s metaphor as a theatrical device—a narrative device?

AD Yes. There’s a metaphor within the concept. And then it’s a question of what kind of music is produced by the concept. I very quickly came to the idea that it would be three singers. And then, from there, we started building the computer system. Questions of staging came later.

NH There are beneficial problems posed by what you suggest. I’m interested in knowing more about how this work emerged. You have created two other pieces that also utilize algorithms. How does the research that you’ve conducted with Yesterday Tomorrow tie in to what you’ve done with your Hamlet piece [A Piece of Work] and Hello Hi There?

AD Each piece seems to emerge from some aspect of the previous one. In Hello Hi There, there was a section in the database that had some lines from Shakespeare, and whenever the performance would use that part of the database, it always gave me pleasure when the chat bots—the computer voices—started speaking scrambled Shakespeare. And so, from there, I had the thought: It would be nice to devote a whole project to exploring the notion of an algorithmically scrambled Shakespeare. The language is so beautiful, but treating it as just strings of words, as opposed to their meanings, could be an exciting approach. I feel that A Piece of Work was already contained within Hello Hi There, somewhere. In Piece of Work, we’d done so much work dealing with affect and algorithmic emotion production. And there was a section in that piece in which Ophelia sang, and the singing really moved me, and I thought it would be super nice to leave the language problems alone for a while and work with music and the human voice.

NH So each piece germinated from the piece that preceded it. But isn’t there some kind of logical process and progress with your research?

AD I’ve been working with more sophisticated tools. The chat-bot is a very simple and old-fashioned kind of program. With Piece of Work we used more up-to-date tools—and some semantic programming. Slightly higher-level stuff. With Yesterday Tomorrow the impulse started with evolutionary computation. I’ve done two pieces that used basically closed systems. Insofar as what the machines do, there’s no learning aspect. And I thought, with evolutionary computation, it’s a much more open-ended process for an algorithm. There’s a learning process, and that excited me. But we discovered through that process that working with genetic algorithms wasn’t exactly the right way to go—for all kinds of reasons.

NH In Yesterday Tomorrow?

AD In Yesterday Tomorrow the fundamental program is more like a math problem. And then we used a genetic algorithm on top of that math problem.

NH What’s interesting is that you’ve nuanced the algorithm. It’s not a pure migration algorithm. It goes through stages that reference classical composition, and the kinds of emotional expectations we get out of the sonata form.

AD I always nuance the algorithm. There’s a lot of space available for randomness, and there’s a lot of space for unexpected outcomes, and unexpected outputs. But it’s mostly a process of setting parameters, which means endlessly tweaking the underlying rules and imposing some external logic on top.

NH And what inspires the logic?

AD Dramaturgical decisions.

NH So it is theater!

AD Ha! Yes. Or music—or art. The theory behind it is pure. But the actual process is not so pure. There are parameters.

NH And human interaction—and content.

AD Right. One of the things that has preoccupied me recently is the relation between chance operations and algorithmic work. Pierre Godard—who, like me, is a John Cage fanatic—felt we had been a bit corrupted. And I kept thinking: Corrupted by what? It’s a computer program. It wasn’t given to us by God. There’s no corruption here.

NH And were those decisions based on anything emotional or theatrical or musical? Where was the humanity? Or were you trying to keep the dramaturgical process solely research-based?

AD I don’t consider mathematics to be inhuman. And I don’t consider subjective aesthetic decisions to be more human than programming decisions. I think that it’s all human work.

NH Perfect.

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Hello Hi There by Annie Dorsen. Courtesy of W. Silveri / Steirischer Herbst.

AD Humanity is everywhere. There is an emotional content that I believe exists throughout the trilogy. Hello Hi There was very much about a loss of faith in communication.

NH Are you talking about human connections or theatrical writing?

AD Political debate, friends, lovers, whatever—talking. All of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t understand what we were trying to accomplish with all this talking. That was a bit of the basis for Hello Hi There. It was a kind of nihilistic questioning: What’s the point of all this blah blah blah?

NH All the words.

AD I started Piece of Work just before my mother died, then I took a few months off, and when I came back to the project it was all of a sudden very much about her passing, and about absence in general. And it was, in a way, fortuitous, because you could say Hamlet is really a play about a society that has lost it’s most important member. The center of the community has died. And that’s very much how I was feeling when my mother died. So there’s this nihilistic look at language and communication, and then there was grief and a deep feeling of absence and emptiness. And then Yesterday Tomorrow was supposed to be my optimistic piece. It’s supposed to say: Get interested again in the future. Reinvest in whatever that might mean, even if it’s a little naive, a little goofy, or cliché.

NH Cliché because of the musical choices?

AD Yes. When you’re thinking: How do you get or stay interested in the future, sometimes you actually need platitudes. Sometimes those platitudes are true. Or they’re the best you’ve got. So I think in that way “Tomorrow” is such a great song precisely because it’s such a hokey song. You’re used to hearing adolescent girls belting it out. It’s completely tacky. But maybe we can redeem it a little bit? Can we redeem the underlying notion?

NH A serious composer would be flayed alive for quoting the song “Tomorrow.” There’s the tension that your piece delves into. And one thing that I really want to share with you, now that I’ve performed the piece, is another subject altogether—that is: Where do ideas of freedom enter the mix? In a certain way, the process of performing Yesterday Tomorrow was, for me, the ultimate freeing event. I never had to learn any music—every night the music just passed through me. Normally, you learn a text, or you learn a piece of music, and then you work on it until it becomes a part of you, then you perform it in front of an audience, and there’s that Pavlovian response when you hit your marks, and the audience applauds, and then you can really start to engage with your own narcissism, and why we want to sing, and why we want to perform in public. I never got to have any of that.

AD Great! (laughter)

NH And it’s not as if I’m looking for those things, but it’s part of my performance training to expect them. So it was very interesting to me that there were technical challenges associated with not being able to get the music in my body. At the same time I was very free to have the piece really flow through my body. That was a very different experience—it triggered all sorts of new psychological impulses. The state of mind I was in during each performance was so in-the-moment. That state of mind defined, to me, what Yesterday Tomorrow is all about.

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Promotional image for Yesterday Tomorrow. Photo by Roland Rauschmeier.

AD That’s wonderful! The present moment is what it’s all about. You said the music seemed to pass through you—which is the perfect response.

The algorithm—let’s call it “the prompt”—gives you the music, and then you have this kind of job, which is to sing it. And it gives you further cues that tell you to move. To me, that is again a bit of a metaphor: You don’t have any control whatsoever over what you get from the world; you only have a choice of what you can do with it, moment to moment. And you try, as best as you can, to make a good choice in the moment, but you really have no clue whether your choices are going to turn out well, or turn out badly, or even if they’re going to please you. You mentioned a Pavlovian response—and that’s also perfect, because I think we are largely reactive beings. We have a beautiful intelligence and rationalism, and a sophisticated ability to see many sides of an issue and construct all sorts of arguments and theories—pro and con. But in the actual moment of action we tend to be quite instinctive and reactive. For a piece called Yesterday Tomorrow the whole thing is, of course, about the present moment of performance. When I consider what I’m really doing with time in the piece I think it’s like this: You have a metaphoric layer, that is somehow moving from memory, and the past, and nostalgia, through a densely chaotic or non-narrative section, and then into a kind of fantasy or wish for the future. On the other hand, every single second is in the present—which is exactly how it is in the real world. All of our storytelling, and all of our imagination, and our daydreams and fears and anxieties and regrets are being experienced in a present moment. And performance, of course, is an art form based in time. It’s the fundamental material. And, when it’s at its best, it creates a very heightened awareness of the present.

NH And then, of course, we’re also dealing with canonical cultural content. I’m curious about where the ideas of repetition and recognizable culture fit into each other.

AD Everything about the piece is hybrid. Is it a music concert? Is it performance? Is it theater? Is it pop? Is it mathematical and cold, or emotional and spiritual? Is it something in between? I’d say all of that—very purposely.

NH When you’ve purposely set out to create something so hybridized, did you intend it as a provocation? Do you intend it as problematic?

AD No! Not at all. I just wanted to make something I liked. And that might be interesting—and that, in the process, I would learn something from. But, no, I had no intention of freaking people out.  

NH I wanted to address the idea of freedom again—but I’m also interested in the idea of the hybrid. It makes me think of Philip Glass’s definition of opera: it’s what happens in opera houses. I think that’s a very convenient definition for you—theater is what happens in theaters.

AD Absolutely! Yes! I’ll take that. People have been trying for three thousand years to define what theater is and how it’s distinct from other forms. What makes something theater? Consider Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Concert, a play with no words—just movement. Is that a dance piece? No. It’s really a theater piece. But why? Can you make theater with just objects and no people? Absolutely. Many people have. So what is it that makes these distinctions useful?

NH If I were to be cast in a piece of theater, I might make acting choices, but, first of all, I didn’twant to make acting choices. You didn’t tell me to make any acting choices.

AD I told you not to make any acting choices.

NH I didn’t want to, and you told me not to, so I didn’t. But furthermore, I didn’t even have the neurological capacity to do so.

AD It’s not necessary. That’s what I mean when I say I’m not always a huge fan of acting.

NH And maybe that gets us back to the concept of freedom.

AD What I like, and what I’ve enjoyed working on, is trying to put the ideas entirely in the construction. The music, and the stage design, and the movement do everything necessary to create a feeling of being in a semi-narrative place. Or in a situation with the potential for narrative. And then the rest is left up to the audience.


As part of PS122’s COIL Festival, Yesterday Tomorrow will premiere in the US this week, January 13 - 16, 2016, at La MaMa.

Nick Hallett is a composer, vocalist, and cultural producer. He is currently writing a trilogy of musical scores for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Follow him at @nickhallett.

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