ART on the edge UMBC artist's high-tech work points the way to 21st century


Listening to William-John Tudor describe his high-tech, multi-media stage productions is like switching back and forth between channels of inspiration and future shock. The composer uses computers, music, photographs, pieces of film and philosophical quotations to explain art which points the way to the 21st century. It's a compelling monologue, even if you can't quite understand what he's saying. Tudor has the power of the insistent child who pulls you along to see something which, it turns out, is truly remarkable.

His productions are largely about how computers are changing the faces and forms of art. They begin in dimly lighted laboratories where machines are creating musical scales which don't fit regular octaves and traditional-sounding music which can't be played on traditional instruments. There are machines which make three-dimensional images quiver like Jello, cause mountains to ridge and send jet planes soaring right at you. It is a place where technology is blurring the distinctions between media.

"What to call what we do is an ongoing problem. Is it theater? Is it a musical piece? I don't know. I don't have a word for it," Tudor says, throwing up his hands.

Next week, Tudor's ensemble, Associated Artists, will perform his new hourlong fantasy "Trolan, Voxel and Plith: An Adventure with Holographic Realities" in the theater at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It's an evening that combines live and taped music, sonic and visual text, live performances and computer-generated and computer-controlled images from the university's Image Research Laboratory.

"This is not like a play with good guys and bad guys," Tudor says. "It's not like a film or a painting. It has ever-changing elements, like a piece of music. It will go from an allegro to an adagio. It will take you from here" -- he arcs his hand as if it were a bridge -- "to there. And we have a bad language to describe that sort of thing."

The New York Times critic Jack Anderson called one of Tudor's recent works "strange, but strangely beautiful. And beautiful is a word that one does not always use in connection with thought provoking performances."

"Trolan, Voxel and Plith" examines ideas about history, language, childhood, faith, philosophy and about what it means to be alive in the last blink of the 20th century. Tudor describes a work which ranges from the humorous -- there are sections about computer virgins and about students' misconceptions -- to such notions that thoughts form the most potent reality of being human.

Performers Amy Rosenthal and John Dierker will join the 38-year-old composer on stage to explore these themes along with the help of constantly changing computer-generated images. A score composed on computer will team with live music. Tudor considers these production elements as part of a high-tech orchestra which defies categories.

So does Tudor. As a composer and performer, he is known throughout the United States and Europe for his multi-media productions and collaborations; he has received 11 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ironically, much of his avant-garde work -- including this production -- is supported with income from Memory Lane, the Fells Point antiques shop of which he is part owner.

And he is program specialist for UMBC's Image Research Laboratory, one of two centers in the nation which research the developing technologies of computer imaging. (The other center the Electronic Visualization Lab at the Chicago Art Institute.)

The university may have the nation's only undergraduate degree in electronic and digital arts. This major can prepare students for a variety of careers, including new jobs in the growing field of computer graphics and animation. A masters degree program is also being planned.

"The computer is the central tool around which the disciplines of film, video, photography and performance art are going to revolve," Tudor says. "In the undergraduate program, we're trying to move away from the idea that you're a major in a particular area, that you're a film major or a photo major. Fifty percent of film and video, for instance, is the soundtrack. We're heavily involved in electronic sound and in students composing pieces."

When it comes to creating visual art, the lab's computers can manipulate and transform an image's color, shape, texture, reflection, point-of-view and movement. The results can be stored and generated as 35 mm slides or film, standard sized prints, and 3/4 -inch to 1/2 -inch video.

Tudor says computer technology has led him to fresh artistic expression and new approaches to notions many people may never have considered. "Trolan, Voxel and Plith," for instance, springs from Tudor's interest in the scientific hypothesis that the universe may actually be a fantasy in the form of a hologram.

A hologram is a three-dimensional photograph manufactured with a laser. If the hologram is cut in half and illuminated with a laser, each half will still contain a complete version of the original image . . . and so on down to the most infinitesimal piece. The idea which captivates Tudor is that the universe, like a hologram, is just a projection of a deeper reality. According to this idea, everything is interconnected and the past, present, and future exist simultaneously.

Trolan, Voxel and Plith are characters which sometimes develop separately and sometimes blend together. They are both live and computer-generated.

"To me, this idea of holograms connects a lot with mystic thought," says performer Amy Rosenthal. "Mystics have always expressed a feeling of oneness and cosmic unity. This theory approaches that feeling with inquiry that is more scientific. It's a kind of thinking which allows not only for the normal but for the paranormal to be real."

Trained as a musician, Tudor speaks of taking germs of ideas, expanding them and contracting them, placing them in duets and trios. The live actors are mere elements in what he calls "equal orchestration."

"Every instrument -- be it people, score, props, projections, whatever -- is part of this orchestration. In a sense the live performer is like a jazz player. There are certain chord progressions that are going to happen every night, but what he plays tonight during his solo may not be the same solo tomorrow night. But it's going to fit in with this progression of chords, this progression of images that isn't going to change."

The musical score of the work contains sections with an orchestra, a Western-sounding choir, an interpretation of Bulgarian vocalization, a live piano part, and live singing. Tudor describes it as five layers deep. Some of the music sounds as if it could have been written 100 years ago, other parts lean toward the experimental.

Will "Trolan, Voxel and Plith" overwhelm novices?

"I don't believe there's too much stuff going on," the composer says. "When you're walking down the street, you're looking at all sorts of things and checking out shop windows, but you're still aware that the bus is making a lot of noise when it passes you and that it's emitting fumes. Or think about when you're driving your car, and flipping the radio stations, and checking your hair in the mirror at the same time. We're used to doing a lot of things at once, yet somehow or another we go into a performance and say, 'That's too much.'"

"My father always comes looking for a plot," says performer John Dierker. "I tell him he should treat these performances as if he were hiking. When you go into the woods, you just observe and let your senses be open. That's the way you have to treat a piece like this. You're exploring. You must be open to what happens rather than trying to watch it like a television program."

Rosenthal nods.

"When you walk into the woods, you're not looking for something to come running at you with a message in its teeth."

"Trolan, Voxel and Plith: An Adventure of Holographic Realities" will run at 8 p.m. Sept. 20-22 at the UMBC Theatre. Admission is $6 general and $4 for students. For information call 455-2476.

*"Trolan, Voxel and Plith: An Adventure of Holographic Realities" will ru at 8 p.m. Sept. 20-22 at the UMBC Theatre. Admission is $6 general and $4 for students. For information call 455-2476.

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