World Making Through Dance, Plants and Sci-Fi: Rhiannon Newton and Megan Clune In Conversation

How do different worlds emerge, enmesh and unfurl? Composer Megan Alice Clune speaks with choreographer and dancer Rhiannon Newton about the evolution of their recent collaborative work, We Make Each Other Upwhere species and soundscapes collide onstage to transcend the linearity of  fact and fiction.

We Make Each Other Up, 2018. Image by Gregory Lorenzutti

Performed by a unique entanglement of human and non-human collaborators, Rhiannon Newtown’s We Make Each Other Up grows and evolves like a living organism. As plants, bodies and choreography interact on stage, an inhabited, multidimensional imaginary emerges. The piece is accompanied and interwoven with an original score by artist and musician Megan Alice Clune, who performs live alongside the dancers. Tiny electrical signals generated in real-time by plants on the stage unfurl into a unique and experimental soundscape in which the boundaries of environment, technology and organism dissolve.

In this conversation, Megan and Rhiannon reflect on their creative and collaborative process and ask how new modes of being and knowing can arise in unlikely spaces.

Megan Alice Clune: What was the genesis of We Make Each Other Up?

Rhiannon Newton: I was thinking about trying to set in motion something that reflected how I wanted to be in the world. The art world has a lot of steep highs and lows, and I was craving something more sustainable. I was also reading a lot about how the fast movement of goods and capital around the world means we often aren’t able to feel the consequences of our actions. I wanted to slow down, embed myself in something and work at speed at which I could sense the impacts of actions on the scale of the body. I was looking at a beautiful old Morton Bay fig in Randwick one day, around the time they were being torn up for the light rail, and I remember longing to be in the world the way it was, with a sense of time, patience, and ongoing labour of making the world a slightly more live-able place.

A plant somehow provided a useful metaphor for the ideas behind the work and structure for giving overall shape to the work. I had an idea for a work that had three parts. The first part was research that involved finding out historical and scientific information about the places I was working on, the invisible root system underneath the work. The second was a solo process that involved beginning to create a thread of dance, while memorising all the environmental, imaginative and energetic factors feeding into the dance that I was beginning to form, and I describe this section as a kind of central stem or trunk of a plant. And the third part was a series of duets, in which I continued this process with a series of collaborators one-on-one, which you might think of as a series of branches.

I remember describing this concept to you, and you mentioned that you’d been wanting to work with this device that connected to plants and transmitted sound from them, at which point I got very excited! Do you want to talk about your thoughts behind the sound design and your thinking around working with the plant?

MAC: I think this is a very beautiful premise from which to begin making something, and speaks a lot to my experience as an artist in a big city like Sydney. Your idea also resonated with me because I was becoming more and more passionate about sustainability and climate change. I began cutting out plastic, composting and doing a lot of research into living a more sustainable life in the lead up to talking to you about this work.

Megan (left) performing We Make Each Other Up live with the MIDI sprout. Image by Gregory Lorenzutti

Then at some point in 2017 I came across this device called a MIDI Sprout. The MIDI Sprout is a small device that takes electro-magnetic signals from the leaf of a plant and turns it into MIDI signals, which can be played through an instrument or a digital music workstation like Ableton to make sounds. Despite my increasing interest in living a sustainable lifestyle, this was the start of incorporating more technical aspects into my music making and moving away from acoustic instruments, so the MIDI Sprout in a strange way brought these ideas together. I was curious about how it worked on a technical level, and if this could be an interesting starting point for the music. And it taught me a lot! There were several challenges working with a plant; sometimes they would make high pitched, screeching noises in the middle of a quiet, ambient section, and sometimes nothing at all. So the plant isn’t used for the entire show but is a really important starting point for my sound design/composition for this work. I think there is a nice sense of sense of awe and fear of nature in this work, which is echoed in a lot of science fiction. Could you elaborate on some of the sci-fi books/movies/tropes that emerge in the work?

RN: I think the main interest in science fiction comes from a desire to think in different times spans; to allow the imagination, as well as our sense of reason, to begin to consider the impacts of an action within hundreds, even thousands, of years. As an independent artist I often find it difficult to envision what my life will be like in six months time. I was recently reading work by science fiction author Cixin Liu, and I was struck by his proposition of light speed suddenly speeding up. The only trace of an Earth-like civilisation became a messaged carved into stone. No other material traces survived the millions of years that elapsed. With the increasing precariousness of labour in many work forces, I think this capacity to think in long durations is a struggle for many. Ursula K Le Guin has become a huge influence on me in recent years. The worlds she conjures, and the work she does to imagine alternative futures, provides pathways for beginning to think about how the world could be different. This is something I love about what art can do: support us to make imaginative leaps toward better worlds we could one day live in.

In terms of nature, yes, in We Make Each Other Up there is definitely fear and awe, but this is mainly an attempt to re-situate humanity’s view of itself in relation to nature, to dissolve our perception of being outside of nature. Shifting attitudes about how we value and see ourselves in relation to the environment is deeply tangled up in tendencies to treat nature as a resource on-tap whose purpose is to support us. I have attempted to thicken the relationships between bodies present in the work, both human and non-human, so that the webs of interaction become saturated with reciprocity, sensations and inter-dependence, so that it becomes clear that one body’s existence is reliant on many others.

One of the things that has come up a lot in relation to this is the sentience of plant life forms. I know this is something you’re somewhat read-up on and I wondered if you wanted to talk about it, even going so far as thinking about the importance of live-ness within music composition and sound design? Having you perform live feels like an integral aspect of the work and I wondered about this in relation to your larger body of work?

MAC: There is a beautiful New Yorker piece from 2013 by Michael Pollan titled The Intelligent Plant which talks about various studies into plant sentience and intelligence. Finding this piece a while ago certainly got me thinking, and following on from this, a lot of my research for my Masters of Music centres around non-cochlear/non-cognitive ways of listening, so the idea of a plant playing music fitted into this quite nicely too. Although it’s easy to anthropomorphise, there is a large section of the work that involves multiple layers of my voice with the plant ‘performing’ over the top, and there were some really wonderful moments in our run in Melbourne where the plant made some beautiful sounds at the perfect moment each time. It was quite an interesting dynamic performing and improvising in this manner for We Make Each Other Up. And this has become a large part of the album as well – the plant will make an appearance at the launch too, of course.

Megan Alice Clune’s soundtrack for We Make Each Other Up will be released on Sydney record label World’s Only later this month. The launch will be celebrated with a live one-off performance on March 26 at Verge Gallery, as part of March Dance festival.

Megan Alice Clune shifts between musician, composer and artist. Primarily, her work consists of a dissection of musical elements and contexts through verbal or text-based scores, sound installation and collaboration. Megan has presented work and undertaken residencies across Australia, Europe and North America, including the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, Underbelly Arts, Next Wave Festival, Performa 15 (NYC) and Vivid Live at the Sydney Opera House. She is a Master of Music (composition) candidate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and a tutor at the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

Rhiannon Newton is an Australian dancer and choreographer. She creates performance works that inhabit theatre, public and gallery spaces. Ongoing themes in her work include repetition and the study patterns that give rise to change and stasis within the body and our world. Rhiannon’s works have been presented nationally and internationally, and she has developed her practice in residencies throughout Australia, Europe and the USA and has been a part of international exchange projects in Switzerland and Eastern Europe. Rhiannon co-facilitates First Run Sydney and in 2018 is a Dancehouse Housemate and the Create NSW Emerging Performing Artist Fellow.