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Duo's music and poetry performance inspired by roboticist

BY AUDREY DWYER | JANUARY 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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A writer, pianist, and composer reach beyond the boundaries of technique to find repetitive harmony unlike any other executed in a performance of poetry and music.

A poet with a knack for testing the boundaries of structured verse will join with his wife, an accomplished pianist, to perform Uncanny Valley at the Riverside Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27. The event is sponsored by the University of Iowa for Center for New Music.

Poets Jon Woodward and Oni Buchanan will also bring their talents to in Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 7 p.m. Saturday for a reading. The poetic couple will present the audience with “Must a Violence,” by Buchanan, and “Uncanny Valley,” by Woodward.

At their Jan. 27 performance, Buchanan will play concert-length work by composer John Gibson on piano as Woodward accompanies the piano by reading his nationally acclaimed poem “Uncanny Valley.”

The performance will merge the two media, and Woodward will create flowing electro beats to complement the rhythm and variation of the poem.

“You can’t anticipate what is going to happen; you must be willing to let it unfold,” said award-winning poet Buchanan, who is a 2000 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “The extremes of the emotional reaction range from fury to ecstasy and everything in between. The audience feels a strong emotional response; [the members] surprise themselves.”

The performance is derived from Woodward’s poem “Uncanny Valley.”

“[The musical environment] really opened up the poem,” he said. “Now, it is a performance piece, truer to the poem, not just a book.”

The uncanny idea was inspired by a Japanese roboticist popular in the 1970s named Masahiro Mori, he said. “Uncanny Valley” was the term Mori used to describe the compassionate and emotional divide between humans and robots. The divide between the two — imperfection — is the essence of Woodward’s poem.

The poem is a quest to find what is most uncanny, and most human, through repetitive language and meticulously cultivated piano accompaniment.

“Some people in the audience had an experience that they didn’t necessarily expect to have after hearing language repeated over and over,” Woodward said. “People go through stages with the repetition feeling frustrated and maybe uneasy. Then they get lost in a sort of trance-like state.”

Buchanan said the performance includes the triggering of robotic samples in the form of distorted sounds with gargled consonants and manipulations of voice to create an electronic sound palette balancing the poem as the story unfolds.

The driving force behind the sounds enriching the performance as a whole is the electro-acoustic composer John Gibson.

It was hard for him to identify one particular aspect as his  inspiration for the mysteriously moving piece.

“A lot of it was the sound and meaning of the poem but also the tone of it,” he said. “It is a lot about robots and people’s reaction to them. There is some deformed language and words you can barely [understand]. The electronics do a lot of scattered sounds, like a machine messing up to match the poem’s rhythm.”

Gibson’s echo of music and flowing electronic components taken from varying fluctuations of staccato in the poem unveils an experience quite far from the mainstream of pop culture.

“This performance is unusual because it is composed to create an environment different from reading a poem itself,” he said. “I think it’s good to see things that are unusual and not the normal things we encounter in our lives.

“You may like it or not like it, but it is really good to experience work that people are doing outside the confines of Hollywood or mainstream radio. Not everything in our culture is about mass popular media.”

Readings
“Must A Violence,” by Oni Buchanan, and “Uncanny Valley,” by Jon Woodward
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque
Performance

“Uncanny Valley,” read by Jon Woodward, concert-length work by John Gibson, featuring pianist Oni Buchanan
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27
Where: Riverside Recital Hall


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