NovaTrio Brings Live Visual Technology To Classical Music
While live visuals and interactive light shows are now a mainstay of live music, classical music concerts haven’t really joined the trend, its live performances remaining the somewhat stuffy affairs they have for centuries. It’s about time classical music made friends with technology.
NovaTrio is a new media ensemble attempting to strike a balance between music, art, and technology with a contemporary classical performance. Founded by digital media designer Da Yan and pianists Bing Shen and Sichen Ma, the group puts digital artist on the same level as the musician within a live concert. Not only does NovaTrio expand the audience’s sensory experience, but they also act as a catalyst for a different model for classical music performance.
We caught up with NovaTrio’s founders Da Yan and Bing Shen to talk a little more about their concept:
The Creators Project: How did you come to establish NovaTrio?
Da Yan: I graduated from RISD at the end of 2009 and moved to New York City to work for a motion graphics company. Aside from my day job, I was desperate for something more artistic to satisfy my eager and wondering soul. I started to look for open-minded, skillful musicians brave enough to adopt my new media concept for classical and contemporary music performance. Then I met Bing, who was earning her piano master degree at Manhattan School of Music. Her musical expertise and particular enthusiasm in visual arts, literature, and contemporary culture soon made us decide to move forward with this new venture together.
Then came the generous invitation from Shanghai Grand Theatre in the summer of 2010, where we had our debut performance and lecture. At the time, we didn’t have any existing showcases. The Grand Theatre was purely based on some of my previous visual music works and a sincere trust to give us this opportunity. We were also fortunate enough to find another partner, Sichen Ma, a brilliant young pianist with a similar vision, to collaborate on a piano recital plus reactive visual media. Thus, right before the recital, Bing created the name NovaTrio, while I designed the visual identity. It turned out that the debut was quite a success, which gave us lots of confidence and experience to further our venture later on across the US and China. During the journey, we collaborated with lots of musicians, artists, designers, choreographers, and dancers. Thus NovaTrio became a truly fluid organization, which grows and mutates with each performance. In 2011, we officially registered NovaTrio LLC in Boston, MA.
Bing Shen: I’ve always been passionate about art and thought that music, as a form, has limitations. I wanted performance and its organization to be more creative. When I met Da Yan soon after moving to New York City, I was not only impressed by his talent in new media design and art, but also his deep understanding of classical and contemporary music, which blew me away. We bonded immediately and since then we’ve never performed a concert without trying to explore and innovate.
What exactly is role of the “media performer”? Does he act with the live performance, or is he mostly overseeing the program or software he has created for the performance?
Yan: The term Media Performer is what I use to emphasize that those technicians, programmers, and the computer operators are not outsiders to the performance. They are the co-performers inside the very nerves of the liveness and integrity of the whole experience. The Media Performer acts both as the performer and the director of his program. He/she is also a musician playing a technological instrument within a bigger ensemble or orchestra. He might be the inventor of the instrument as well. He has to play but not operate the technological device or interface just as a pianist. That’s why the Media Performer should not only have a macro understanding of the technical structure of his instrument, but also the whole musical score.
Bing: It’s kind of like we are creating a nontraditional indoor game. Musicians have their sound-based instruments, Media Performers have their image-based instruments. We have a dialogue. Just as the musician, the media performer needs to adapt to variables in a live situation. No two performances are identical, and the musicians are influenced by the imagery as well.
“Mozart” visuals created by Bing Shen
How does integrating technology enhance or effect the performance of classical/contemporary music?
Yan: First of all, for many I must clarify the definition of music here in our practice. Contemporary music is the descendant of classical music in this era—they both express artistic and not commercial outputs. Classcial/Contemporary is simply a name that defines a territory for NovaTrio.
Both categories ignite feelings, emotions, and imagination in various sensorium. They never stopped their ties to the latest technology as well. However, this musical genre is often treated and experienced narrowly as a certain kind of art from which has less to do with advanced technology. The involvement of tech here is both to remind people of these ties and to raise the performance of music into an immersive total-sensory experience to the audience. So that, besides hearing, the audience can see, smell, taste, and touch the music in more depth and in a more vivid and profound space that talks to the music.
Bing Smashing on “Mozart”, 2010 + Sessions: Five Pieces for Piano(I-III), 1974
Bing: Technology is a participator and a medium at once. It allows us to finally combine every category of art—that’s a dream come true for us! Our goal is to present a richer artistic experience to the audience. Through technology, we let Debussy draw Pollock’s paintings; Chopin to write Virginia Woof’s poetry; to choreograph a dance from another time and space to Schumann’s music. The line that separates the role of the music, performer, and medium is blurred. The audience no longer just watches the performer in the spotlight, but they can choose which channel to resonate with. As a result, the audience is actively engaging. The performer should never be the star of the show, but only a channeller for the sake of art.
Pollock Improvising on Debussy, 2010 + Debussy:Preludes, 1910-1913
Lastly, I just want to say that as artists we are all servants. This is not trying to be pretentious, but also a fact. Communication happens in multiple directions during the course of a concert; the audience with themselves, with the music, with the performer and the imagery. It is probably the most stereoscopic experience to date. As an artist we not only try to push ourselves to present something original, but also hope to do a humble gesture to create music that is educational and help sharpen the audience’s critical ability.
Image courtesy of Da Yan