By Lily Cowper and Ashley Fish-Robertson
The RISE Collective’s fifth experimental mini-opera explored lucid dreams as the last frontier for the unsupervised imagination
(Editors’ Note: This article was originally published without mentioning the original creator of Why Do We Dream?, Valentina Plata, who is a second-year Electroacoustics student at Concordia. Why Do We Dream began as a final project in Plata’s independent study, later coming to fruition after collaborating with RISE, and she is officially credited as having “sparked and driven” the show. See more of Plata’s work here.)
On Thursday, March 17, a performance in collaboration with Concordia’s Music Department and the Concordia Laptop Orchestra (R) sought to explore and recreate a lucid dream state using improvised sound, lights, and movement.
The fifth performance in an ongoing series of mini-operas, Why Do We Dream? was put on by RISE, the newly-developed research cluster tied to Le PARC Milieux (part of Concordia’s Milieux Institute). RISE, which stands for Reflective Iterative Scenario Enactments, is led by Dr. Eldad Tsabary, co-founder of Le PARC as well as associate professor and coordinator of Concordia’s electroacoustics program.
Dr. Tsabary also works at the graduate level with students in Concordia’s Individualised Program (INDI), many of whom participated in the show. The applicant-led degree path allows students to combine interdisciplinary subjects to forge unique research paths, making connections between diverse genres of study. It makes sense then, that their collaborative efforts would result in performances like Why Do We Dream?, described on the Facebook event page as “intersensory” and “massively collaborative.”
All RISE performances are meant to operate in this way. Once an idea sparks interest, a research-creation team made up of Concordia professors and graduate students collaborate to combine many different mediums and techniques into one show. Each RISE performance re-envisions a different fear-based “cataclysmic” disaster through the lens of an opera, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of what it even means to create an opera. The intention is to investigate both human consciousness surrounding various modern disasters, as well as the opera’s collaborative production experience itself.
Every mini-opera in the RISE series has been executed differently. The first two premiered digitally during the pandemic lockdowns. Mixed messages, No Pants was highly experimental, taking form as a live-streamed computer orchestra where COVID-related memos sent out by the university were used as libretto. In contrast, Personal Pandemic was a full-scale planned film production with developed characters, scripts and composers. The third performance, Returning to the Trees was a stageless performance using experimental recordings taken deep in the forest. A fourth opera, Cyber Identity Crisis, premiered privately last month to a small group of Art History students.
Why Do We Dream? was the natural next step for RISE organisers to challenge the traditional opera format.
The recent performance focused on an AI-controlled future and cyber surveillance, exploring the lucid dream as the last frontier of unsupervised imagination. This in-person format integrated many of the previous operas’ elements, complete with music by the CLOrk orchestra, strange costumes and masks by PhD INDI candidate Oonagh Fitzgerald, and live coding by Dr. Tsabary, a type of performing art where images and sounds are dynamically projected by writing computer codes in an improvised manner.
Upon entering, it’s clear that Why Do We Dream? was meant to replicate what it might feel like to walk through someone else’s dream — or nightmare, depending on how you choose to look at it.
“It’s a dream,” Dr. Tsabary explained. “It’s supposed to be unexpected. I want whoever’s coming in to be overwhelmed by it.”
Wandering between the three rooms, actors, some masked and some not, sang and recited lines that sounded as if they’d been plucked directly from someone’s mid-sleep garble. According to Tsabary, the libretto was written using phrases pulled from actual dream journals.
Visitors who paid special attention to each room were afforded the chance to appreciate small, and at times unusual, details. In one room there were several dice, all positioned so that the number five was facing upwards. Several inquisitive visitors could be seen reflecting on these details, with some attempting to make sense of their presence.
The first room, with its profuse darkness, featured an individual sitting inside of a tent, surrounded by string lights. From inside the tent, the performer treated visitors to a simultaneously captivating and perplexing sonic experience consisting of eerie sound effects. These effects included squeaky violins being played, the distant sound of alarms, and clicking noises. A breathtaking view of Montreal’s skyline served as the backdrop, complementing the performance.
The second room was much more spacious, and featured a brilliant mix of artistic practices consisting of dancing, painting, acting, playing music, and more. Walking into this room was disorienting to say the least. There was a lot to take in. Despite the diverse display of mediums all occupying the same space, the performance in this room maintained a remarkable unity.
The final room appeared to pay tribute to the enigmatic and even spiritual nature of our dreams. One person wandered around the room handing out tarot cards, while two actors sat on the floor of the room observing their own choice of cards. It was unclear whether they were satisfied or discontent with their choices. Additionally, another person made the rounds of the room, handing visitors small white pieces of paper. Each of these papers had a message scrawled on them. For example, one of them, in delicate handwriting, read: “dancing is like painting but with your body.”
It’s impossible to not appreciate the amount of work that went into bringing this interdisciplinary event to life. Each space offered a unique opportunity for visitors to lose themselves in the unfamiliar, while perhaps reflecting on and attempting to decipher their own dreams in the process.
RISE is one of several interdisciplinary initiatives at Concordia where researchers with diverse interests can come together using their unique expertise to explore artistic mediums while investigating important issues in society. Why Do We Dream? subtly showcased the in-depth works of both undergraduate and INDI graduate students who seem to not only be interested in the RISE experiment, but in collaborating with each other.
For this reason, the subject matter for this show was particularly fitting. The convergence of so many different talents may have appeared odd or disorganized, like dreams tend to be, but that messy network of connections is likely the key to a more holistic understanding of our modern world.
“I don’t see things as messy, I see them as [..] multiplicitous,” explained Dr. Tsabary, on the collaboration process behind Why Do We Dream? and previous RISE performances. “[It is] something involving a lot of people, each one contributing their own thing, and it comes together to be something very interesting.”
The next mini-opera in the RISE series will take place on April 7, and is an “opera about personal losses due to technological failures,” as described by Dr. Tsabary. The play will explore the immortality of online presence.
Photos by Catherine Reynolds