In social life, rituality is often connected to formality. Formality, we believe, provides rules for interaction between strangers who can take on different official roles and functions instead of being addressed in a more personal and exposing way. Going to the theatre or the opera house includes a well-known social ritual that surrounds the artistic performance. In the case of the immersive opera Chronos’ Bank of Memories, we have turned things “inside out” – a conceptual approach that we have been interested in before1 – by surrounding a ritual with artistic performance. The ritual of sale is distorted by intense opera singing and characters with theatrical features.
We try to make use of opera as a distorting practice. In our reflection upon operatic distortion, we are not making remarks upon any distorting or dismembering approaches particular to the art form per se, but emphasize how we regard opera as a method, not as an object. Through opera, information becomes distorted, which is the whole point of opera, in our view as artists.
Operatic music has mnemonic functions as it guides the opera singer through the performance, but, most importantly, it makes some elements small, hidden, and unnoticeable and others grand, exaggerated, and grotesque. In opera, music works like a magnifying glass, enlarging and diminishing information. It distorts text through song and action through rhythm. Singing might prolong and embellish syllables with melismas, minimize consonants, and disfigure some vowels in extreme registers. And musical pacing synchronizes and frames action such that it doesn’t necessarily appear organic and spontaneous. Without these distortions, opera would not be opera.
Distortion may be the primary quality of operatic art, with its noisiness and multisensory performance. Noisiness is demanding and requires the perceivers to actively extract information with enough meaning in order to put things together in their heads. Hence, we regard opera as more of an exciting challenge instead of pure indulgence and insight. We reckon that any attempt to relieve the audience of its work by adding clarity and simplicity to opera promotes singularity of understanding instead of plurality of imagination.
We can find a similar approach in other disciplines, such as psychedelic art, ballet, and rock music: “Distortion and complexity are the sources of noise. Rock music is built on distortion: on the idea that things are enriched, not degraded, by noise. To allow something to become noisy is to allow it to support multiple readings. It is a way of multiplying resonances.”2
Distortion in the memory bank
Memory “is the ‘place’ where concepts are stored,” says Douglas Hofstadter. He finds that “the property of being a concept is a property of connectivity,” as if concepts are “structural or even topological properties of vast tangly networks of sticky mental spaghetti” and he asks: “How is a given situation filed away in memory so that one has access to it under an enormous variety of future situations – access that is often via analogy or rather abstract pathways, rather than by simplistic superficial traits?”3
The answer to that question is obviously far beyond the scope of our investigation; we are artists, not scientists. We are interested in how to make things memorable. For this, we try to trigger thought experiments through what can be called our “aesthetic understanding,” which is “not primarily a matter of knowing truths about art or truths that art discloses, but of using art effectively as a vehicle for exploration and discovery.”4
So let’s start imagining. What if there was an enterprise that could take care of the filing of memories for us? What if our mental spaghetti just could be put in the same boiling pot as everyone else’s? What we play with in the memory bank opera is the staging of a backward procedure of disorganizational forgetting and confusion. In our fictional pawn shop for memories you can rid yourself of unwanted figments and sell precious moments for a high price. In the end, your character doesn’t even have to have lived a life that it remembers. By this, we ask: What are you, but the organization of your memories? And if remembering is a self-protecting editing process, what is the limit of that editing?
In Chronos’ Bank of Memories, the template ritual of sale become distorted by musically paced interaction and a mood that is somewhat surreal. When offering their goods, singing bird-like characters circle around the visitor, placed in a cage. Liquid memories, soft and undefined enough to be transferred, are tapped from visitors who are paid with dusty sand from the beach where memories go to die.
References on this page:
Elgin, Catherine Z. “Understanding: Art and Science”. Synthese, Probing into “Reconceptions”, 95, nr 1 (1993): 13–28.
Eno, Brian. A Year with Swollen Appendices. Faber and Faber, 1997.
Hofstadter, Douglas. “On the Seeming Paradox of Mechanizing Creativity”. In Metamagical Themas. Basic Books, 1995.
Jalhed, Hedvig, and Mattias Rylander. “Opera Inside-Out: Reversed Staging for Sensory Immersion”. The Music Theatre Symposium, Watershed Music Theatre Community Exchange Sessions. Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 2021.