HPM's Houston Music Highlight Series features performances that have local connections – whether spotlighting music by Houston composers, commercial recordings by Houston musicians, or performances by local or visiting artists recorded at Houston Public Media.
Threshold is a multi-media project by Houston soprano, composer, writer, and artist Misha Penton. It involves original music, site-specific performance, collaboration, video, and poetry to re-imagine an ancient Greek myth in a contemporary setting.
Based on an April 2017 live performance at the abandoned rice factory-turned-arts space known as The Silos at Sawyer Yards, an experimental film version of Threshold was recently released on February 20, 2018.
Watch Threshold above. Then read on below for an interview with Misha Penton, who created the concept and audio score, as well as directed and performed in the project.
You are a self-described "experimental vocal composer." What draws you to experiment, and how did you find your unique artistic voice?
I'm a classically trained singer, but I also have an extensive background in voice for theater. A turning point for me, artistically, was studying with Richard Armstrong at the Banff Centre. He worked with the late Roy Hart, who was a groundbreaking experimental voice performer. Richard helped me open my voice in many ways. I now use my classical technique skills but I'm not bound by them, and my work has become far more creative and fearless. I'm also a writer, librettist, and poet, so it’s natural to experiment with my poetics, and to compose with and through my voice using structured and free improvisation, along with experimentation. This way of working is conducive to collaboration, and I'm quite adventurous when it comes to creative pursuits.
Was there any one thing that sparked the idea for your Threshold project?
I wanted to sing inside the cavernous and labyrinthine Silos. The space is very reverberative, having a many-second delay, so I knew it would be fun to make sound in there – that's the seed of the idea for Threshold. The site-specific live performance took place last spring and now the music video version is released, and the project is complete.
What else is unique about that location, and why did you chose it as a backdrop?
The interior of the Silos was the site for the live performance and for the filming of the video. Outside the Silos is the Sawyer Yards arts complex with a number of very cool locations like the big field with the Houston skyline in the background and trains going by frequently. The “look" of the film is very Houston, to me.
What does the title refer to? What is it meant to evoke?
Threshold is an evocative word: a doorway, passageway, a passthrough – beyond which is something unknown. I think we’re all feeling the anxiety of "what's next?" in our world right now. The word also carries the idea of liminality: a “between place”— between breath and sound, voice and body, the ephemeral and the permanent, the past and the future. The Silos space itself has many passageways, so in a literal sense, the architecture is full of thresholds, which we passed through in performance with the audience: to pass through, together. That idea feels powerful.
How were you inspired by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter? What is that myth about?
Loosely, the inspiration for Threshold is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (circa 7th century B.C.E.), which tells the story of the abduction of Persephone to the Underworld by its ruler Hades. Persephone's mother bargains for her return: she spends half the year (Spring) in our world with her mother, Demeter, and the other half (Winter) in the Underworld with Hades. This story repeats with the turn of the seasons. It's a mother-daughter passion play of abduction, loss, and renewal. Ceremonial rites enacting the myth were held at Eleusis in Greece for a thousand years before the rise of Christianity, and artists, then and now, freely interpreted the story. In a sense, Threshold is an abstract and contemporary interpretation of these ancient Mystery rites— a mythopoetic underworld journey and an offering which speaks to the chaotic upheaval we are all feeling: what kind of world will we choose to create together?
Are you typically drawn to myth, and why?
Much of my work explores the feminine in Western mythology. The original tales are enigmatic but quite powerful, and I'm drawn to re-imagining and re-defining these women in the 21st century. Persephone and Demeter are goddesses of the field, grain, and sustenance: so the old rice factory (from which the Silos were converted) is another layer in the contemporary re-imagining. The interior of the Silos may be seen as an Underworld: it's a dark and imposing space that you enter, encounter, and leave – transformed. The myth also addresses themes of personal agency, gender power dynamics, and sexual assault.
As a multi-media project, there are many parts (music, visuals, story, etc.). Which came to you first? And how did it evolve from there?
I work very intuitively, and Threshold evolved from the poetics I wrote, loosely inspired by the myth, and from my experience bringing those poetics to sound through my voice. I began rehearsing alone in the Silos, and my body and voice came into relationship with the architecture of the space, then the voice ensemble came into the rehearsal process. When the instrumentalists joined us in the Silos (we couldn’t see them nor they us, because we were moving through the space and they were set up in one spot), we touched each other through sound, as musicians do. The whole of the work became a play of voices, bodies, and sound in space. That was the foundation. The ensemble movement, staging patterns, and working with the bowl evolved through rehearsal, as we sang and voiced— becoming a kind of ritual, which repeated as we journeyed through the whole of the Silos. This group work became the basis for the live performance, recording for the film, and for the interior scenes in the music video.
During the recording process, you had each performer record his/her parts individually and without hearing each other. Why did you chose to do it that way?
I’m drawn to intuitive creative practices, chance, and indeterminacy. I was confident the sound score would come together beautifully, particularly after we had the experience of a live performance, and I’d created several other pieces similarly. Recording individually allowed me to play with the sound material in very specific and meticulous ways when creating the sound score for the film.
After that, you took the all of the audio to your home studio to edit and mix. What were you listening for, and what did you want to bring out, when creating the sound score?
When I set to creating the sound score for the film, I already had the live music in my head from performing the work with the ensemble. I wanted the voices and poetics to be central. I chose all my favorite voice parts first: the bits and pieces that came out of the studio most beautifully – and I worked intuitively, and sometimes randomly, with the sound material. I added the guitar and percussion last, weaving their sound files in and out of the voices.
After directing the filming with cameramen Raul Casares and Dave Nickerson, I edited the film similarly to the way I did the sound score: I chose all the most stunning video clips and created a solid draft of the video before adding the new audio score. There were lots of happy accidents, which is one of my favorite things about the creative process: why work so hard when The Universe will do it for you?
I'm curious about the significance of some of the recurring imagery in the video, such as the bowl and the train tracks. Could you talk a little bit about that?
The bowl is a rice bowl from South Korea, which has been in my family for years. We lived there when I was a child, and it came back with us. It's particularly apt for Threshold because of the rice factory setting and the goddesses of the grain and harvest in the myth. Bowls are suggestive. They can mean many things: sustenance, nurturance, abundance – as well as the opposite: want, lack, hunger. In the original configuration of the old rice factory, trains loaded the grain for transport to market at the site. So, the train system that comes by the Silos is part of its industrial complex. There is a reference to a train and to commerce in the text I wrote for the piece: "Train and gate / load and wait / to the market / sell her to the market" – I see this idea of commerce, trade, and market economics as a reflection of what we value, or rather, what we devalue; and the feminine, "sell her to the market," is a personification of this idea.
Whom did you cast in the video, and what role did each play – whether literally (on camera) and/or creatively?
I wanted the performers (including me) to be ourselves yet not ourselves, borrowing from performance art and what I think of as ceremonial action. Threshold (as well as a number of my projects) deconstructs, breaks down, and abandons traditional narrative— and voices, words, sounds, setting, space, media, and images form a collage from which meaning emerges on its own. The process of creating Threshold live, in the studio, and in post-production, required a lot of trust on the part of my collaborators whom I appreciate immensely for coming on this journey with me: Sherry Cheng (a classical pianist and music educator), Michael Walsh (a classical singer and music educator), Neil Ellis Orts (an actor, writer, and performance artist), George Heathco (a guitarist and composer whose work spans contemporary classical music to rock and jazz), and Luke Hubley (a sought-after percussionist and music educator). I've collaborated a number of times with each of these artists, so we have wonderful professional and personal relationships.
The Bechdel Film Festival at 14 Pews was a great way to premiere the video, and I had the opportunity to connect with the audience in a lively talk-back after the screening. I expect there will be other opportunities to see the video at film festivals and at conferences over the next year, and it's also online now for everyone to enjoy.
How do you hope this video/project will resonate with others?
I hope people connect with this work in their own way, and that they resonate with a sense of beauty and a kind of longing for something that never-was. There's a Stéphane Mallarmé poem from the late 19th century, which is quite prescient, and its last line captures the spirit and challenge of my work: "we exist in an age that has outlived Beauty.”