High-tech, Hybrid, Hyper-experimental

With Echosis, KC’s multitalented J. Ashley Miller turns his hand to opera.

Opera — that all-encompassing genre of performance — both skews and skewers reality. J. Ashley Miller intends to do both with his first full-length opera, Echosis.

[block pos=”right”]  “Echosis is not a traditional opera in any way, but it’s operatic in that it goes into that deepest possible emotional territory, and that the harmonic content is primary.”
— J. Ashley Miller [/block]

Echosis is the retelling of Ovid’s classic Greek story of Echo and Narcissus through the lens of the cyber gaming world.

Interviewed in mid-summer at his north Kansas City studio, Miller was seeking solutions for some high-tech issues. It’s an understandable predicament given his creation of an  ultra-hybrid, hyper-experimental Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art embracing music, dance, storytelling, live computer processing, improvisation, video projections, acting, cutting-edge technical and lighting production, and scenic and costume design.

Miller is a recipient of the 2016 Charlotte Street Foundation Generative Performing Artist Award. He’s a self-taught musician and composer (he described his training as “tens of thousands of hours on computers and playing in bands”), as well as a conductor, music director, producer, performance artist, filmmaker, and recording engineer (among other interests). His foray into opera is only the latest project in a history of innovative, boundary-challenging performances.

Documents of Miller’s projects can easily be found on-line, reflecting his role as a 21st-century media-savvy artist.

“I got into all of this by shooting live music films and really tailoring compositions to our filming locations,” Miller said, citing site-specific performances at La Esquina, Oppenstein Park, and Turkey Creek. Filmed and recorded onsite, in one take (multi-camera, multi-track), the final product of these shows  was the resulting film or album.

Similarly, the performances of Echosis serve as a film shoot, with the end result not so much the show itself but the final edit, the full-length feature version.

The line between opera and not-opera is certainly a flexible one, a source of debate and controversy throughout the centuries, thwarted by religious mandates, politicized and condemned, and subjected to changing societal tastes.

“I use the term (opera) loosely, which I know is a little bit blasphemous,” Miller said. “It’s definitely in that gray area. (Echosis) is not a traditional opera in any way, but it’s operatic in that it goes into that deepest possible emotional territory, and that the harmonic content is primary,” he explained. He also uses familiar opera concepts: the piece is sung through, with sections of recitative, and based on classical Greek mythology, just like the original works of the genre like Jacopo Peri’s 1600 Euridice or Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo.

“I think everyone has some intuitive sense of what opera is,” Miller said, “and that’s what really excites me, my own reaction to the word, as well as an outsider’s reaction to the genre.  I want to push the content and myself and the performers, to go as deep as we can, without knowing exactly how to get there.”

“I’m really attracted to the monolithic compositional impulse, the idea that every element is aligned to the story. Costumes, lighting design, the smell of the theatre, all of it . . .  It’s really daunting, too, to keep that meta-perspective and still just write. I often think, ‘Wow, how did all those composers even do this?’” he said.

Creative Collaboration

Miller plans to build the set from the ground up in the Heim Building, a newly refurbished former brewery in the East Bottoms. The bottom floor is a massive 60,000-square-foot gray concrete room, perfect for Miller’s vision.

Of course, the space needs to be big to support Miller’s huge cadre of collaborators, both operatically trained performers and “some street cats who are just my friends, from the underground.” Along with creative partner Daniel Goggin and choreographer Cat Mahari, the production requires the standard players — vocalists, musicians, set and lighting designers, stage director — augmented by cinematographers, multiple costume designers, and technical personnel running both video feeds and live computer processing. Miller will conduct the orchestra during the show.

[block pos=”right”] It’s the in-between that Miller has cultivated in his art, questioning what is normal and challenging its blind acceptance. [/block]

“It’s interesting with a really big crew because you’re trying to seduce someone on a dream, trying to get them to commit before you (have anything). Learning how to get each person to say ‘yes,’ you know? But it’s worth it.”

The characters feature a range of gods, goddesses and demi-gods, who transition between a Classical Greek-influenced modern present and battle-scarred VR. Miller, who casts artists with hyper-specific skill sets — for instance, the Bolivian pan-flutist Amado Espinoza — and establishes the basic framework to allow the performers to embody their parts individually and personally.

Working with both new and familiar collaborators has its challenges, for sure. “It’s scary because on one level you have to have a clear sense of what you want from them and that’s maybe the easier part for me, the more belligerent easier part, but the harder part is really listening to them, what do they need to feel this deeply, to actually get into the piece and bring a real emotional reaction on their part to it. It’s different every time.”

There is considerable confidence in Miller and his projects, though. He’s already produced two operettas, RvB at La Esquina and a work for TEDxKC at the Kauffman Center, an operatic summation of the 2015 conference. Many of the performers from those projects are engaged for the September show.

Miller founded the performance group Quadrigarum for these site-specific projects and to showcase the chariot instruments he designed, using wheel-mounted guitar picks and an amplified single-stringed guitar on a wooden frame. Chariots are a core element of the Atemporchestra, an ensemble of eclectic instrumentation (including pan flutes, vibraphone, drums, horns, computers, and keyboards, for starters) that he originally put together from the TEDxKC show.

Also eclectic are his incorporated musical styles, from trance-electronica to free jazz to punk to pop to, now, opera. “I really collapse into the pop format. I like the single so much,” he exclaimed, describing an aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute as a ‘dope track.’  “It’s a perfect pop song, a moment of arrival.”

“I kind of fall toward that spontaneously when I’m writing, so that’s what attracts me on a musical level . . . wanting to see how much I can stretch, if I can span both worlds, can the music exist in-between, can I make it into that other world?”

Even hearing a few demos, just Miller’s voice over synthesized tier-built beats in barren harmonies, the pieces demonstrate a forceful emotional quality amidst the melodic hooks. Electronically manipulated effects distort and layer audio samples pulled from YouTube clips to create an angelic/demonic wail, while in other tracks a basic framework awaits the improvisational skills of the musicians.

It’s the in-between that Miller has cultivated in his art, questioning what is normal and challenging its blind acceptance. He’s driven by the push from one area of competency into the spontaneous reactions of unfamiliarity, guided by experimentation, loose boundaries and improvisational élan.

“Another reason I like opera and theater is that there is not the traditional sense of center. The music is not central, nor are the performers. The song is not even central,” said Miller.

“It’s the night, the night of the show that is this central thing. This is what all the cast and crew have to line up their intentions around . . . that’s really attractive to me, that element of surrender, of mandatory humbling.”

The Echosis performance is scheduled Sept. 24-26 at the Heim Building, 2700 Guinotte Ave., Kansas City, Mo. To purchase tickets, go to Echosis.net

Photo of J. Ashley Miller by Jim Barcus

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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