The Exuberant “Epiphany: the Cycle of Life” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Nélida Nassar   01.16.2016

In “Epiphany: the Cycle of Life” video artist Ali Hossaini, composer Paola Prestini, librettist Niloufar Talebi and choral master Francisco Nunez re-imagine the concert-going experience by employing interactive methods to explore the relationship between performers and observers, the limits of the human voice, and the possibilities of music and image. The production breaks the fourth wall, immersing audience members fully and completely in the world of the performance — there are no limits. It also invites them to become a part of the music and experience the work in an entirely new context. This long concentrated work reflects upon luminosity, music, time, space, life and death, with members of the audience becoming a part of the work and, in the process, connecting with themselves and with the present — the elusive moment of the here and now. Considering the many people who collaborated on the creation of “Epiphany: The Cycle of Life,” in this interview we follow a similar pattern of interaction: more than one member of the creative team will be asked the same question, encouraging the expression of different perspectives on the same issue.

Nelida Nassar: How long did it take each individual group to work on the piece, and when did it coalesce among all the groups?
ALI HOSSAINI (Video Artist): I began working on “Epiphany” in 2006. Like most of my work, it was conceived as an evolving cycle, and since premiering as a film at the Anthology Film Archives in 2007, it has appeared in various forms at Mediations Biennial, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and several gallery shows. Paola first saw it in 2010, but it sat on the back burner while we worked on her opera “Oceanic Verses.” The project came together in the present form when she landed the commission at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) in 2013. She envisioned it as an even larger cycle of creativity that encompassed multiple composers, writers, performers and designers. We worked steadily over the past two years to realize the BAM cycle.
NILOUFAR TALEBI (Librettist): I joined the project in 2011. Inspired by Ali’s work on the project and his source spiritual material (the Tibetan Book of the Dead), I embarked upon writing a personal requiem. I started by decoding the Latin Mass in order to understand the canon of Western musical masses. I looked into Day of the Dead rituals, which lead me to a beautiful body of pre-Columbian Aztec poetry, called Flowersongs, about life and death. When I told people I was writing a requiem, they volunteered their experiences about loved ones dying.

I spoke with professional hospice caregivers, and I realized I was collecting a repository of experiences from all sides — the dying, family members, and the community of caregivers. All these sources coalesced into a structure that I could offer to Paola, our composer. We went back and forth during the 4 years leading up to the BAM premiere to fine-tune the libretto to fit with what the work was transforming into, a 25-minutes choral piece sung by young people. Ali, then reshaped his film to reflect that transformation.

NN: Which artists and art movements inform this piece?
AH: My artistic inspiration stems primarily from the Italian Renaissance. The composer Palestrina inspired the overall structure of “Epiphany.” I sang in choirs as a boy, and the structure of a motet, where themes developed across different vocal registers, always impressed me. I adapted that technique to video. In “Epiphany” a visual theme emerges and then develops across room-sized panels. Whatever their medium — music, painting, architecture — Renaissance artists strove to balance form, rhythm, color and mass. Harmony is the common outcome of balance, and it drives the aesthetic of “Epiphany.”
NT: I also drew on the structure of the Latin mass, Persian poetry, and Zoroastrian philosophy.

NN: Why is the piece divided into three sections, and what do they represent?
AH: The three sections deal with different facets of life. The first movement takes a very personal approach to mortality. Niloufar Talebi’s libretto is written from the point of view of a dying person, and the film is very subjective, filtered through the eyes and imagination of an individual. The last section takes a more objective stance. Nathaniel Bellows wrote a cosmic love poem, “Ouroboros,” that responds to my video cycle of the same name. One lover chases another across the backdrop of deep space and time. The central section, “Intermezzo,” is a pivot that ties the evening together. Singer Netsayi responded to the themes through her own experience, and added a life-affirming heartbeat to the night.

NN: What techniques do you believe you pioneered in order to jolt viewers out of their ordinary patterns of thinking?
AH: My visuals can be quite jarring in isolation. I build sequences from blurry, abstract shots and staccato edits. What holds the installations together is a structure that expresses an overarching concept. The structure itself isn’t perceptible, but it gives the experience coherence. It also enables me to communicate through an informal grammar of images that lets me converse with composers. Without music my installations are difficult to bear.

“Epiphany” derives from Renaissance music. As a boy I sang polyphonic motets composed by Palestrina. In a motet themes arise in one vocal register, say soprano, and then migrate to others. Screens in “Epiphany” carry a visual theme, and the music carries it from one to another. Much of the footage uses a technique inspired by my mother’s death. She described colors running together, the walls breathing, and a world that was becoming altogether more animate even as she became inanimate. Years later I was experimenting with cameras, and I found a setting that created long, blurry, saturated trails of form. It matched the perceptual destabilization my mother described, hence “Epiphany” grew from that experimentation.

NN: Breaking the fourth wall has been a recurrent theme in the theatrical pieces that you have adapted for music, voice and video cycles. Why did you choose this paradigm and what have been its most challenging aspects?
AH: Originally I imagined that “Epiphany” would have a fourth wall. The audience would be fully immersed in video, and they would add a vital human element to the experience. But the fourth wall of video was not practical for the venue. We needed an area for the audience, and people needed to be seated. Michael McQuilken and Maruti Evans created a new venue where people would have the option of immersion. It neatly solved a slew of creative and practical issues, and I think it’s the only way to present “Epiphany” live. For a recorded ‘gallery’ version, I think we would use a fourth wall, because it would be treated more as an environmental than 
as a linear experience.
NT: We discovered that with all the elements going on during the performance, the audience should, could, and would not gaze down at their playbill to follow the libretto, so our challenge for the next iteration of the work is making the libretto visually available to the audience. We also realized that audiences were moved by the power of the overall work, but I would like them to have a choice about following the libretto whenever they wanted to. We have considered embedding select words and phrases from it into the film, but that is something we are still exploring.

NN: Do you consider “Epiphany: The Cycle of Life” to be an experimental work? If so, to what degree is it that?
AH: We weren’t afraid to try new things! But I can’t say “Epiphany” was experimental. From my perspective, the piece was driven by classical concepts of beauty and its link to spirituality and society. Some art is R&D — experimentation for its own sake. In the case of “Epiphany” we were (or at least I was) focused on achieving a particular result. Innovation was secondary to expressing narrative and aesthetic concepts.
NT: On my end, because there exists a canon of requiem masses in Western classical music, setting more or less a specific text (all or sections of the Latin Mass), it was a conceptual leap and creative journey to devise this new text. “Experimental” can be interpreted in so many ways, but I would call my libretto more “new” than “experimental.”

NN: The performance was marked by a clear sense of ease and cohesion. How did you manage to achieve this, given that the collaboration brought together representatives of such disparate art forms: the chorale and its founder and artistic director Francisco Nunez, the video artist Ali Hossaini, the Zimbabwean singer Netsayi, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble?
AH: You’ve given us high praise, and we should thank Paola for making it look easy. She composed “Epiphany,” and also produced it. Coordinating so many art forms and personalities 
is difficult, but she is committed to ambitious multidisciplinary work. Music binds the many elements of “Epiphany” experientially, and the performance reflects her leadership. Paola envisions a creative utopia where individuals collaborate on a greater artistic whole. “Epiphany” is just one example of her skill at weaving talent into a cohesive unit.
NT: It’s magical to watch the seed of your text blossom into a much larger collaboration between a network of artists, designers and crew. And of course none of it happens without the vision and sweat of a great producer and underwriters. I was mostly struck by how the three sections of the evening, each functioning as a movement in a larger piece, cohered around the themes of life and death.

NN: Viewers really are part of the show, and the constant shift in power between artists and spectator-turned-participant is an exciting and unpredictable draw for people. Do you believe that the piece achieved in this respect the right balance?
AH: As I mentioned earlier, immersion grew from the origin of the work in installation. It was natural to incorporate at least some of the audience into the set, especially since you never see a person in the video. It is important to have faces in such a human topic, and for me the live people added an element of metaphysical realism, if there is such a thing. Some traditions hold that souls travel through many lives together. You are part of a group who shares the same destiny. By that token, people in “Epiphany” already have a cosmic connection — they’re not in the same room by coincidence.

NN: You did not slip into tautology; rather, you present the relation between words, images and music through associative connections which generate a new message. Was this a deliberate objective?
AH: For me it is important to have a message but not to communicate it, at least not explicitly. I want to provoke the audience’s imagination and critical faculties. My own meaning generates a structure, and the audience generates new meanings as it tries to comprehend the structure. Our collaboration proceeded in much the same way. We started with common source material, and each of us interpreted that material, and then our own interpretations, in a round robin process. No one wanted to impose a single message on the performance. We wanted the evening to harmonize without losing the individual voices.
NT: Ideologically, it was important to me to remove “god,” as well as a promise of reincarnation from the work, to keep it vague and open to interpretation. The round robin process that Ali mentions was integral to the health and breadth of our piece. Ali, Paola and I never imposed opinions on each other during our process; rather, we kept shifting and building on the other collaborators’ progression. Reactions and feedback were met with openness, which made the creative process immensely generous. There was a lot of love in creating “Epiphany.”

NN: It seems that the performance draws on female power and could be considered as an extreme expression of female agency. Can you elaborate on this?
AH: It never occurred to me that we were expressing female agency, but, now that I think about it, “Epiphany” has a lot of powerful female voices. Figuratively and literally. I hesitate to say it was female, because to me the creative process felt completely natural, meaning I didn’t feel differentiated as a ‘man’ in the midst of a female collective. From my perspective, we were all grappling with big issues as individuals. Still I think it is very cool if we’re seen to express women’s agency, and more power to the many women and especially the 39 girls choristers who made “Epiphany” happen!
NT: It occurred to me once when seeing a photo of Paola and I sitting together at rehearsal that here is the rare female-female composer-librettist team, but that’s all. The themes we were grappling with were so universal, and Ali channels such transcendent spiritual energy, that I never thought we were doing anything “female.” But Paola does have many female team members, and the chorus was very female, yes.

NN: Was it your aim to create an experience that was energizing yet also soothing and meditative, almost poetic?
AH: I’m deeply gratified by your remark! I happily describe myself as a visual poet. Wonky as it sounds, I am always striving to create a critical language of images. I want my work to inspire new ways of thinking. Provocative imagery is one way to achieve a critical mindset, but I don’t think it is very effective to simply disturb people. I meditate, and one thing I’ve learned is that the mind functions best when it’s tranquil. It might seem counter-intuitive, but tranquility is most important when the world is shifting under our feet. Here is where artistic craft enters. I take on big issues, and I employ radical techniques, but I aim to counteract the dizziness with a highly crafted, graceful presentation.
NT: This is music to my ears! As an artist, my desire is to communicate with my audience through poetic experiences.