On Saturday and Sunday at Studio Z in Lowertown, audience members will get comfortable on pillows, strap on virtual reality headsets and find themselves in Quarry Park in St. Cloud. Minnesota. Accompanied by electroacoustic and live music, vocalese and a poem by state poet laureate Joyce Sutphen, they’ll travel through the seasons and the colors of the year in real and imagined landscapes.
The film and music are the work of American composer and three-time McKnight Composer Fellow Scott L. Miller, a music professor at St. Cloud State University known for his avant-garde and multimedia works. The performers will be the new music ensemble Zeitgeist, Miller’s longtime collaborators, and soprano Tracey Engleman.
The experience will be absolute. As you gaze around – the film is in 360 degrees – don’t look down at your feet. They won’t be there.
“The Blue in the Distance,” Miller’s latest VR work, had its start in a bog in Estonia. “Bogs are very important to Estonian culture and history,” Miller explained on Tuesday after a preview at Studio Z. Miller was in Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, visiting the esteemed Estonian contemporary music group Ensemble U and talking about potential projects. “I mentioned we have a new visualization center at St. Cloud State, and maybe they’d like to do something with VR.” Miller’s “RABA” (the word means bog in Estonian) came out of these conversations. Paired with 360-degree video, it premiered in Estonia in 2017.
Miller wanted to do a companion piece in Minnesota. As it happens, the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states is in Minnesota’s Big Bog State Recreation Area in Waskish. But “it seemed silly to do the same piece again. I knew Quarry Park and thought it was beautiful. I snowshoed in and started filming there immediately after the blizzard in 2018.”
Zeitgeist’s Pat O’Keefe suggested that Miller might want his new piece to have a narrative arc. So Miller headed for the poetry section at the SCSU library and discovered Sutphen. Diving into her poetry, “I ultimately found ‘The Blue in the Distance.’” It’s a poem about color and light, past and future, the power of nature and the pull of the horizon.
Sutphen, who grew up near Quarry Park, agreed to let Miller set her poem. “I was really pleased,” she said at Studio Z. “Then it sunk in. Virtual reality? Whoa! We didn’t really communicate for about a year.” Meanwhile, “to put a Dylanesque spin on that, [Miller] was transducin’ it, translucin’ it, transformin’ and informin’.”
Asked how she feels about the final work, Sutphen said, “I love it. It just seems perfect. And it’s so nice to be of use. I’ve always said that poems are perfectly useless and beautiful.”
To Miller, the poem was “essential … Once I figured out from the poem what to do, it was just a matter of doing it.”
Miller is embracing VR technology. “I’m convinced this is going to be an important delivery system for music in general, but especially the kind of music I make. Eventually, it will simply be accepted, and nobody will question how that experience happens. Right now we’re figuring out what that’s going to be like. … Periodically, there are artists who use technology when it’s first available, and they end up defining our expectations.”
Zeitgeist’s Heather Barringer sees VR as a way to make new music more appealing to audiences. “In the experimental music world, film composers and people setting music to imagery can get away with all sorts of very elevated and very adventurous ideas and people don’t blink,” she said. “They don’t think twice about what it is. If you put them in a concert hall, all of this becomes too modern.”
“The Blue in the Distance” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Zeitgeist will also perform two more works: “Nattsanger” by local composer Abbie Betinis and “The Yellow Moon of Andalusia” by George Crumb. FMI and tickets ($15, $10 students and seniors.)
Opens tonight (Friday, Jan. 10) at the Lagoon: “1917.” It’s the height of World War I. Two young English soldiers are charged with delivering a message that will save 1,600 lives. They have about eight hours to get from one part of the Western front to another, crossing through enemy territory. Inspired by stories his grandfather told, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes created an immersive nail-biter of a movie that last week won Best Motion Picture, Drama at the Golden Globes – before opening in wide release. The cast includes big names, but the two main characters are actors you won’t have seen before, which makes the whole thing more real. And the story looks like it was shot in a single continuous take. Every step of the way, always moving forward, you’re in the trenches with Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake. Here’s a fascinating extended featurette on the film, to watch before or after you see it, depending on how much you want to know going in. FMI including trailer, times and tickets.
Saturday at the Parkway: Hamiltunes: An American Singalong. Get your Lyn-Manuel Miranda on with other Hamilfans on Alexander Hamilton’s birthday. How perfect is that? Members of Hamiltunes MSP, the Twin Cities’ original “Hamilton” singalong fan club, will be there to lead songs. You can sign up to lead songs, too. Note that while this event is all ages, the lyrics will not be censored, and some are explicit. Doors at 6 p.m., show at 7. $15 suggested donation; all money will benefit Northern Voices, a local nonprofit that helps children with cochlear implants and hearing aids. Register here.
Sunday at the Fitzgerald: National Geographic Live: Kara Cooney. A professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA explores a time when women ran things. Cooney’s latest book, “When Women Ruled the World,” profiles six female pharaohs, from Hatshepsut to Cleopatra. Cooney also produced the “Out of Egypt” TV series that aired in 2009 on the Discovery Channel. Doors at 1, show at 2. FMI and tickets ($25-45).
Tuesday at Mixed Blood: “End of Life, Live and Unscripted.” Like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the Theater of Public Policy sweetens serious topics with improv comedy. They’re very good at this, and they’ll bring all their skills to the fore after Brenda Hartman, MSW, and Anne McIntosh, MD, share insights and answer questions about end-of-life planning, something we should all get serious about no matter our age. T2P2’s Tane Danger will host. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($12 advance, $15 door).
Starts Tuesday at Como Park Lutheran Church: Six weeks of learning about the instrumental music of Johann Sebastian Bach. If you’ve always wanted to know more about Bach’s instrumental music, this is the chance (and the bargain) of a lifetime. For six consecutive Tuesday evenings (Jan. 14 through Feb. 18), experienced co-presenters professor Paul Westermeyer and chaplain John Setterlund will lead a two-hour session of studying, listening to and discussing Bach’s compositions for organ, harpsichord and clavichord, solo and ensemble instruments, and orchestra. Sessions start at 6:30 p.m. Your cost for the whole series: $20. For details and registration, contact Hannah Giersdorf by email or phone: 651-646-7127.
All month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum: Free admission. Gather your family and friends, dress warm and head for one of the most beautiful places in the metro. Hike the Three-Mile Drive and see the Harrison Sculpture Garden in winter. Bring your skis or snowshoes and trek the groomed trails. There are plenty of things to do indoors as well – in the gallery, conservatory, library, learning center and bee & pollinator center. Here’s the Arb’s list of suggestions. The grounds are open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. All buildings open by 9 a.m. Through Jan. 31. P.S. Admission to the Arb is usually $15 for ages 16 and up.