Loops (2001-11)

Loops is an abstract digital portrait of Merce Cunningham that runs in real time and never repeats. Originally commissioned by the M.I.T. Media Lab for the “ID/Entity” show, its sound score was re-made for Ars Electronica in 2005, and in 2007 it was re-created in tryptich form and its underlying code released as open source.

Loops is a portrait of Cunningham, but it attends not to his appearance, but to his motion. It is derived from a motion-captured recording of his solo dance for hands and fingers. The motion-captured joints become nodes in a network that sets them into fluctuating relationships with one another, at times suggesting the hands underlying them, but more often depicting complex cat’s-cradle variations. These nodes render themselves in a series of related styles, reminiscent of hand-drawing, but with a different sort of life. Many viewers liken their experience of seeing Loops to that of gazing into nature: its flickering motions put them in mind of fire or of primitive biology, perhaps seen under a microscope.

Just as Cunningham’s motions generate the imagery in Loops, we use his voice to generate the music. The initial source is Cunningham reading diary entries from his first visit to New York City in 1937, when he was 17 years old–an old man’s voice evoking an earlier city and an earlier self. Since we had the idea that if Cunningham was speaking, then we would have John Cage listening to him, at least virtually. And so we propel the intonation and rhythm of Cunningham’s sentences into a virtual instantiation of Cage’s prepared piano.

The pattern of the notes they strike is picked out and then evolved by autonomous musical intelligences, not only “listening” to the sound of this speech, but also “reading” the content of its sentences: the compositional structure derives from the spatial/metaphorical structure of that text. The musical “score” for this work does not specify the exact notes to be played, but instead establishes a series of potential relationships between intonation, metaphor, and a range of equivalent piano tones. These relationships are selected and played out slightly differently each time.

Loops has existed in four versions. In 2001, It was commissioned by the M.I.T. Media Lab for the “ID/Entity” show; in 2005 its sound score was re-made for Ars Electronica, in 2007 it was re-created in tryptich form and its underlying code released as open source; and in 2011 it was recreated in cinema-resolution 3D for the New York Film Festival.

In the first three versions, Loops was computed in real-time and was , in effect, a live performance (the program is the only other “performer” of this choreography than Cunningham, who has never set the work on any other dancer.) The 2011 3D film version is has a fixed duration of 13’40”.