When Dave Rivello takes the Kilbourn Hall stage to conduct a new multimedia piece in celebration of the International Year of Light, audience members will not suspect that the work was written in the dark of night.
"My best hours have always been from 11 p.m. to 4 or 5 a.m.," says Rivello, professor of Contemporary Media Composition at the Eastman School of Music. In fact, when the late Fred Sturm hired him at Eastman, he called Rivello "Nosferatu."
But there will be plenty of light in the Fringe Festival debut of the piece thanks to Rivello's collaborator, W. Michelle Harris, associate professor of Interactive Games & Media at Rochester Institute of Technology. Harris will project images of Rochester on both sides of the hall and behind the orchestra.
"I wanted to use those scenic elements to root this show in our place, experience the light in and of our home," Harris says. "Sometimes it's very pretty, sometimes it's not so pretty, but it is our Rochester."
The hour-long piece, titled "...and Light," has six movements: "Time," "Water," "Motion," "Balance," "Power," and "Gravity."
Rivello, who directed ensembles part-time at Eastman for 13 years, is in his second year of working full time at the school. His position was created to develop a brand new master's degree program in film and video game scoring and more. "Part of it is writing for digital media," Rivello says. "The other part is writing for acoustic media — collaborating with choreographers, photographers, video artists, poets, librettists, writing for live musicians, and writing for electronic gear."
His new collaborative piece is an example of this way of thinking about music. His ensemble of Eastman students will include a 13-member jazz component, strings, a harp, percussion, five woodwinds, and two French Horns — 37 players altogether.
Rivello had been dreaming about this sort of ensemble for years, especially when he thought about the walls that have been built between different kinds of music. "I started thinking about one music, one ensemble that could back a jazz singer, swing like a jazz ensemble, play 20th-century classical music, and back up a pop artist," Rivello says. "Eventually it would be a new concert experience with lighting and other things that would make it more than just coming to the concert, more of an experience."
Even though he has undertaken many ambitious projects before — most recently co-producing the highly regarded album, "Lines of Color: Gil Evans Project Live at Jazz Standard" — this was a new challenge.
"I've never tried to imagine a canvas this large before," says Rivello, who often speaks in visual art terms.
The piece, heard in advance only by way of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) files, is somewhat experimental and highly contemporary. As for its relationship to light, "the way that I've been thinking about it is relating light and color to orchestral color and instrumental color, imagining a prism."
Funding for the project came from the Kenlou Jazz Education Fund at Eastman. The world premiere at the Fringe is a partnership with the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster and Rochester Institute of Technology's MAGIC Center.
Last May, before Rivello had begun to compose, Harris met with him at a cafe.
"We brainstormed about different potential aspects of the light theme and a rough arc of what the 'story' could be over the course of the hour," says Harris, who has done light-based works at Fringe Festivals and other venues. "Later, we visited the concert hall. We discussed where the musicians would be, where we might want visuals that frame the musicians well, and how to work with the unique surfaces of Kilbourn Hall. Wood paneling is not a typical video projection target."
After receiving Rivello's electronic version of the piece's first section, Harris listened to it "about 40 times."
"I started collecting background imagery from around the city and writing software code to manipulate that imagery," Harris says. "We've since met to discuss the story structure he's refined and the moods he's creating musically with each section. I've been sending him snapshots from the background scenery as I collect it."
She plans to use manipulated video with some simple abstract animation. Some of this will be happening in real time. "I will be using software to manipulate the video during the performance and animate this foreground imagery," Harris says. "I'll need two computers to run everything. The scale and speed and contrast need to complement what is happening in the music."
Harris is no stranger to collaborations of this kind. She's worked extensively with improvising musicians and dancers.
"When everyone, including me, is ready and rehearsed in that framework, but ready to respond in the moment to where the performance takes us, when we're flowing together and the audience is along for the ride with us, it is truly exhilarating," Harris says.
While Harris is gathering and manipulating images with the latest high-tech equipment, Rivello is writing out the parts for 37 musicians. But he's not using a digital program on this cutting-edge piece. "I'm still a by-hand guy."
In fact, Rivello bought one of the last batches of the Blackwing 602 pencil, the pencils Igor Stravinsky swore by. The Blackwing hasn't been manufactured since the late-1990's and the lead formula is gone. But if he runs out, he acquired some Magic Writer pencils from his mentor, the late, revered arranger Bob Brookmeyer, and if all else fails, he's got a mechanical pencil from 1948.
And although he's got a Nord Electro 2 keyboard in his home studio, he does his composing on a Steinway upright piano built in 1921.
"It's the Cadillac of the uprights," Rivello says. "Ray Wright, who I came to Eastman to study with, had a Steinway upright in his office at Eastman and a Steinway upright at home. Arrangers and composers love them. If you could take something with you when you go, this thing would be in the box with me."