The ninth edition of the Prototype Festival, co-produced by New York City’s Beth Morrison Projects and HERE Arts Center (and this year, of course, almost entirely online) opened with a bold imagining of producing and presenting for an online audience. Modulation – the opening show, available for ticketed stream – is a 'digital user-led experience' featuring the work of 13 composers in prerecorded and highly produced short videos (the entire program can be seen in about an hour) accessed through a sort of ‘open world’ video game. Think Myst or Elder Scrolls as a hypokinetic open studios graphic adventure. 

Ayene [Mirror]
© Prototype Festival

The production has everything going for it: strong material and smooth web design make for a seamless and enjoyable presentation. But unfortunately, the sum of the parts don’t quite make a whole. The atmosphere and the material seemed something of a mismatch, and without an overarching concept the moments between pieces felt contrived. The navigating-through-works approach would serve exploring the threads and continuities of a single composer – say, Scelsi, or Stockhausen, or Anthony Braxton. But with disparate works organized under the ambiguous groupings of ‘Isolation’, ‘Identity’ and ‘Fear’, nothing quite held the programme together. It was more a digital salon than a collaborative opera.

© Prototype Festival

Part of the problem was that the choices don’t have repercussions. It would be more interesting to make choices knowing that going through one door means missing other experiences or having to find your way back. That wouldn’t be fair to the composers, perhaps not the audience either, but the low-level web anxiety, the virtual FOMO, proved distracting. It became the opposite of an evening at the theatre. Sitting at the computer ticking off options becomes more like work than an escape from it.  

Maybe due to impatience, my favorite pieces were for the most part by composers I already knew and liked: Bora Yoon proved a good place to start, with an invocation, a blessing and an ecology lesson in her The Life of the World to Come; Raven Chacon’s indigenous American musical docudrama La Indita Cautiva put a face on the living planet Yoon sang about; Ostra Cosa, a charming and thoughtful piece about English as default language from Angélica Negron, gave it language; Paul Pinto’s Whiteness: Blanc, a fast-paced deconstruction on seeing people not purely of European descent as non-American, gave context;  and Molly Joyce’s meditation on the physical impairment which guides much of her music (well publicized now through a recent Washington Post profile) made for a poignant coda – Out of a Thought was the strongest piece I’ve heard from Joyce yet.

La Indita Cautiva
© Prototype Festival

Known quantities weren’t the only pleasures, however. The Afrocentric ritual and sorcery of JoJo Abbot’s The Divine I am was frightening, reassuring and engaging within the space of several minutes. Otherwise, there was outré cabaret and contemporary art songs that, truth be told, don’t feel terribly far from Adele. The individual segments may well show up on artist pages or streaming sites where they would be easier to take in. Beth Morrison Projects and HERE have a good start on what could be a great online presentation model. Hopefully Level Two will turn out to be a more interesting challenge. 


This performance was reviewed from the Prototype Festival video stream